A Kremlin-installed official in Ukraine’s southern region of Kherson urged residents to remain calm Tuesday as reports surfaced that Kyiv’s forces were making sweeping gains into Russian-controlled territory.
Kherson was one of the first regions where Kyiv’s defences collapsed in February after Russia invaded but Ukrainian forces have recently accelerated a months-long offensive to recapture it.
“Our artillery and fighter jets are hitting enemy forces that enter the sovereign territory of Russia,” said Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-appointed deputy head of the Kherson region.
“There is no reason to panic,” he told residents of the Black Sea region on social media.
Maps published by Russia’s defence ministry showed Tuesday its forces had suffered serious territorial losses in the Kherson region.
The reported gains into Kherson are a threat to the Kremlin’s claim to have last week formally annexed the agriculturally rich region with a pre-war population of around one million.
According to Russian news agencies and unconfirmed social media reports, unidentified forces have attacked occupying Russian units and officials, while Ukrainian forces have destroyed river bridges, leaving Russian units vulnerable to being trapped.
Some 80 percent of the region is estimated to be under Russian control.
“Yes, you can hear explosions at a distance, but they’re infrequent,” Stremousov said in his message.
Fresh US aid
He called on Kherson’s residents to remain calm after his superior, Vladimir Saldo, conceded in an interview that Ukrainian forces had made a “breakthrough” in the region’s northeast, in the village of Dudchany along the Dniepr river.
But he claimed the push was short-lived and that Russian forces had pushed back against the advancing Ukrainian forces.
Yet on Tuesday, Moscow’s defence ministry maps showed its forces were no longer in control of Dudchany.
Ukrainian officials have so far remained silent about any territorial gains, but the head of the presidential administration Andriy Yermak on Tuesday posted emojis of watermelons on social media, hinting at gains in the region famous for the fruit.
The West has backed Kyiv with waves of military aid.
US President Joe Biden on Tuesday told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that another $625 million in military assistance, including four HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, was on the way, the White House said.
Ukraine already has 16 of the HIMARS systems, which are widely seen as one of the most effective tools in its arsenal.
Zelensky in a phone call thanked Biden for the country’s “continued defence and financial support.”
The Ukrainian president said in his Monday evening address that “there are new liberated towns and villages in several regions”.
“Fierce fighting continues in many sectors of the frontline,” he added, claiming “more and more occupiers are trying to escape”.
UN meeting next Monday
Western officials have said as many as 20,000 Russian troops could be at risk of being trapped on the western bank of the Dniepr river, which cuts diagonally through the region and flows into the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s apparent gains in Kherson follow a similar trend in the eastern regions of Kharkiv and Donetsk in recent weeks, with a series of setbacks coinciding with Moscow’s claim to have annexed the regions.
Russian defence ministry maps showed Tuesday that Russian troops had left positions on the west bank of the Oskil river in Kharkiv, in the aftermath of this month’s counter-offensive by Kyiv’s army.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin staged a grand Kremlin ceremony on Friday to celebrate the annexation of four Ukrainian territories — Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south and Donetsk and Lugansk in the east.
They create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Together those five regions make up around 20 percent of Ukraine.
The United Nations General Assembly has called for an urgent meeting next Monday to discuss Russia’s declared annexation.
At the meeting, the 193 UN member states will weigh a resolution now under preparation on the annexation, after Russia vetoed a condemnation of the act in the Security Council last week, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.
Ukrainian economy to shrink
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian men mobilised to back up Moscow’s forces were being trained at “80 training grounds and six training centres”.
“As of today more than 200,000 people have entered the army,” Shoigu said.
The Kremlin’s mobilisation has led to some protests and an exodus of men of military age — with tens of thousands fleeing the draft, mainly to ex-Soviet neighbours.
Kazakhstan said Tuesday more than 200,000 Russians had crossed into it in two weeks.
In Ukraine, tensions have risen in recent weeks over the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear energy facility.
Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of strikes on and near the plant, raising fears of an atomic disaster.
Russia on Monday expelled the power station’s director, Ihor Murashov, after detaining him for two days.
But International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi on Tuesday said there was “no risk at all” after the latest development.
Grossi is due to travel to Moscow and Kyiv this week to discuss setting up a nuclear safety and protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia site, the IAEA said Tuesday.
The World Bank, meanwhile, said Ukraine’s economy was expected to shrink 35 percent this year, as the invasion has displaced millions of people from their homes.
Following Moscow’s invasion, Ukraine’s economy has been “scarred by the destruction of productive capacity, damage to agricultural land, and reduced labour supply,” it said.
Ukraine’s central bank chief, Kyrylo Shevchenko, announced Tuesday he was stepping down for health reasons.