Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops continued an offensive Monday that has embarrassed Moscow, with Kiev officials and foreign observers hinting at new advances in the strategic southern region of Kherson, which the Kremlin wants to annex.

Kherson has been one of the toughest battlegrounds for the Ukrainians, with slower progress compared to Ukraine’s breakthrough around the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the northeast, which began last month.

Kherson is one of four oblasts illegally annexed by Moscow last week following a “referendum” organized by the Kremlin. The lower house of the Kremlin-controlled parliament ratified the agreements on Monday, and the upper house will ratify them on Tuesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that two of those regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, are joining Russia with their administrative borders that existed before the conflict that erupted there in 2014 between pro-Ukrainian separatists and Russian forces. He noted that the issue of the borders of the other two regions — Zaporizhia and Kherson — remains open.

“We will continue to discuss this with the residents of these regions,” Piaskov said at the selection meeting with journalists. He did not provide additional details.

Ukrainian media on Monday covered an image of Ukrainian troops hoisting flags at the signpost of the village of Khreshchanavka, which is in the same area of ​​Kherson where troops apparently broke through Russian lines.

Since the summer, Ukraine has continued its counteroffensive in the Kherson region, tirelessly breaking through Russian supply lines and breaking into Russian-held areas west of the Dnieper.

The Ukrainian military successfully used US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers to repeatedly hit the main bridge over the Dnieper in the city of Kherson and the dam that served as the second main crossing. It also knocked out pontoon bridges that Russia used to supply its troops on the west bank of the river after the main crossings were disabled.

Despite successful strikes on supply lines, Ukrainian offensive operations in the south have so far been slower and less successful than in the northeast, as the open terrain easily exposes attacking forces to Russian artillery and aircraft fire.

Russian military bloggers close to Moscow are increasingly admitting that Ukraine has the best manpower in the region, supported by tank units.

The official representative of Russia in the Kherson region, Kirill Stremusov, admitted in a video statement on Monday morning that Ukrainian forces “broke a little deeper.” At the same time, he insisted that “everything is under control” and that the Russian defense system in the region is “working”.

Russia attacked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s hometown and other targets with suicide drones on Sunday, and Ukraine regained full control of the strategic eastern city in a war-changing counteroffensive.

Russia’s recent loss of the city of Liman in eastern Ukraine, which it used as a transport and logistics hub, was another blow to the Kremlin, which is seeking to escalate the war by illegally annexing four regions of Ukraine and increasing threats to use nuclear weapons. strength.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab threatens to take the conflict to a dangerous new level. It also prompted Ukraine to formally apply for early NATO membership

In his Sunday night address, Zelensky discussed the recent liberation of Liman, Russia’s key logistics hub on the front line in the northeast.

“The story of the liberation of Liman in the Donetsk region has now become the most popular in the media – but the successes of our military are not only in Liman,” said Zelensky.

Liman, which Ukraine recaptured by encircling Russian troops, is located in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk.

In his broadcast, Zelensky also thanked the military from his hometown near Kherson.

“To the soldiers of the 129th brigade of my native Kryvyi Rih, who achieved good results and liberated, in particular, Arkhangelsk and Miralyubavka,” he said.

These two villages are located in the same area where Ukrainian troops are advancing. Over the weekend, a photo appeared showing the operation of Ukrainian forces southwest of Novovarantsovka on the banks of the Dnieper.

The administration of the President of Ukraine reported on Monday that two civilians were killed and 14 more were injured as a result of Russian shelling of eight regions of Ukraine over the past 24 hours.

Progress in the Kherson region was also reported, and it was said that the Russian authorities responded by restricting exit from the city of Kherson by introducing special permits for those who want to leave.

Since the start of the Russian offensive in February, Ukrainian forces have recently managed to regain swathes of territory, especially in the northeast around Kharkiv, in a counteroffensive in recent weeks that has embarrassed the Kremlin and sparked rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war.

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