Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops made more progress Monday in their broad front counteroffensive, advancing into the very areas Russia is trying to annex and defying its efforts to bring in fresh troops and its threat to defend integrated territories by all means, in including with nuclear weapons.

In the latest breakthrough, Ukrainian troops breached Moscow’s defenses in the strategic southern Kherson region, one of four territories in Ukraine that Russia is absorbing and desperately trying to protect. They also secured successes on other major battlefields.

Ukraine’s successes became so obvious that even the official representative of the Ministry of Defense of Russia, Igor Kanashenkov, who usually focuses on the successes of his own army and the losses of the enemy, had to admit it.

“With the numerical advantage of tank units in the direction of Zlata Balka and Aleksandravka, the enemy managed to break through our defenses,” Kanashenkov said on Monday, referring to the two cities of the Kherson region. He combined this with claims that Russian forces had inflicted significant losses on Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian troops have barely retaken Kherson Oblast, in contrast to the successful breakthrough offensive in the northeast around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which began last month.

Since the summer, Ukraine has continued its counteroffensive in the Kherson region, mercilessly smashing Russian supply lines and breaking into Russian-controlled areas west of the Dnieper. The Ukrainian military used US-supplied HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems to repeatedly hit the main bridge over the Dnieper and the dam, which served as the second main crossing. He also destroyed the pontoon bridges that Russia used to supply its troops.

As the front line moved, the political theater in Moscow continued, the lower house of the Russian parliament signed agreements on the accession of Kherson, Zaporozhye, Donetsk and Luhansk to Russia. The upper house will follow suit on Tuesday in the culmination of last week’s Kremlin-organized “referendums” on annexation — moves the UN chief and Western nations have called illegal.

Russia’s moves to annex Ukrainian regions, as well as President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to mobilize additional troops, were made so hastily that government officials struggled to explain and implement them. Last week, Putin admitted that some conscripts had been selected by mistake and ordered them to be sent home. On Monday, the question was even more elementary: which territories of Ukraine is Russia trying to include?

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Donetsk and Luhansk are joining Russia with the administrative borders that existed before the conflict that erupted there in 2014 between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. But he added that the borders of the other two regions – Zaporozhye and Kherson – have not yet been determined.

“We will continue to discuss this with the residents of these regions,” Piaskov said, without elaborating.

A high-ranking Russian deputy expressed a different opinion. Pavel Krasheninnikov said Zaporozhye would be absorbed into its “administrative borders,” meaning Moscow would include parts of the region still under Kiev’s control. According to him, a similar logic will apply to Kherson, but Russia will include two districts of the neighboring Mykolaiv Oblast, which are held by Moscow.

Putin’s land grab threatens to push the conflict to a dangerous new level, with him and his top officials warning of the possible use of nuclear weapons and ordering a partial mobilization of troops. It also prompted Ukraine to apply for early NATO membership.

In addition to the areas of the Kherson region, which the Russian Ministry of Defense calls, various sources show Ukrainian flags, deployed troops or other signs that the Kiev forces recaptured the villages of Arkhangelskoye, Miralyubavka, Khreshchanavka, Mikhalavka and Novavarantsovka. Ukrainian officials often do not confirm territorial gains until they are sure they are sustainable.

The situation in the regional capital, which is also called Kherson, was so dangerous that the Russian authorities forbid people to leave, the office of the President of Ukraine said.

However, Russia has claimed some success in pushing back. Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-appointed head of the Kherson region, said that Ukrainian troops tried to advance towards Dudchan along the west bank of the Dnieper, trying to reach a key dam in Novaya Kakhovka, but Russian warplanes destroyed two Ukrainian battalions and halted the advance. Saldo added that Russian troops repelled attempts to invade Ukraine into the Kherson region from Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih.

The official representative of Russia in the Kherson region, Kirill Stremusov, admitted in the video that the Ukrainian troops “broke a little deeper”, but insisted that “everything is under control” and that the Russian “defense system is working”.

Neither Saldo nor Stremusov’s claims could be independently verified.

Despite successful strikes on supply lines, Ukraine’s offensive in the south has been less successful than in the northeast, as the open terrain exposes attacking forces to Russian artillery and airstrikes. Nevertheless, Russian military bloggers close to Moscow have admitted that Ukraine has more manpower in this region with the support of tanks.

Ukraine has reported progress in other areas that Russia is annexing. The Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, Siarhei Gaidai, said that Kiev forces recaptured the village of Torskoe, 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the city of Kremen. Ukrainian military analyst Oleg Zhdanov said the area is “key to controlling the entire Luhansk region, because the Russians no longer have defense lines further (outside the city).”

“The retreat of this city opens up operational space for the Ukrainians to quickly advance to the very state border with Russia,” Zhdanov told the Associated Press.

According to him, Russian troops retreated from the Kharkiv region. The Ukrainian army has reportedly liberated most of Borovoy in Kharkiv Oblast across the Oskil River, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Liman. The officials published a video of themselves driving through the recaptured streets and waving the Ukrainian flag.

“Finally you’re home. Finally, this is Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!” – shouted the viewer.

Elsewhere in the Kharkiv region, a doctor was killed and a nurse was injured as a result of a Russian missile attack on a hospital in Kupyansk, which also caused serious damage, governor Oleg Sinegubov said. Last week, at least 24 civilians were killed in an attack on a convoy trying to leave Kupyansk.

Ukraine also regained the strategic eastern city of Liman, which the Russians used as a key logistics and transportation hub. Liman is located in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk.

Ukraine’s push to reclaim territory has embarrassed the Kremlin and sparked rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war. Tens of thousands of Russian men left Russia after the draft on September 21. Many flew to Turkey, one of the few countries that maintain air traffic with Russia. Others left in cars, creating long traffic jams on Russia’s borders with Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland.

Criticism of Russia prompted high-ranking Russian officials to defend Putin’s actions more vigorously.

Addressing lawmakers on Monday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of rallying allies to fight Russia in Ukraine, just as Nazi Germany relied on European resources when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

“The US mobilized almost the entire collective West to turn Ukraine into an instrument of war against Russia, just as Hitler mobilized the military resources of most European countries to attack the Soviet Union,” Lavrov said.

Russia’s actions regarding seized land and facilities have caused an international outcry, especially regarding Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. On Friday, the Russian military blindfolded and detained the general director of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Igor Murashov. On Monday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear service, announced that Murashov had been released.


Yuras Karmanov contributed from Tallinn, Estonia

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