KHARKIV, Ukraine - Ukraine claimed Monday that it took several more villages, pushing Russian forces right back to the northeastern border, part of a lightning counteroffensive that forced Moscow to withdraw troops from some areas in recent days.
After months of little discernible movement on the battlefield, Kyiv’s sudden momentum has lifted Ukrainian morale and provoked outrage in Russia and even some rare public criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s war. As Ukrainian flags began to flutter over one city emerging from Russian occupation, a local leader alleged the Kremlin's troops had committed atrocities against civilians there similar to those in other places seized by Moscow.
"In some areas of the front, our defenders reached the state border with the Russian Federation," said Oleh Syniehubov, the governor of the northeastern Kharkiv region. Over the weekend, the Russian Defense Ministry said troops would be pulled from two areas in that region to regroup in the eastern region of Donetsk.
There were reports of chaos as Russian troops pulled out in haste.
"The Russians were here in the morning. Then at noon, they suddenly started shouting wildly and began to run away, charging off in tanks and armored vehicles," Dmytro Hrushchenko, a resident of recently-liberated Zaliznychne, a small town near the eastern frontline, told Sky News of the quick withdrawal.
It was not yet clear if the Ukrainian blitz could signal a turning point in the war — though some analysts suggested it might be while also cautioning there would likely be fighting for months more. Momentum has switched back and forth before.
Still, the mood was jubilant across the country.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Monday that its troops had liberated more than 20 settlements within the past day. In recent days, Kyiv's forces have captured territory at least the size of Greater London, according to the British Defense Ministry.
In Kharkiv, authorities hailed some return to normalcy, noting that power and water had been restored to about 80% of the region's population following Russian attacks on infrastructure that knocked out electricity in many places across Ukraine.
"You are heroes!!!" wrote Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov early in the morning on Telegram, referring to those restoring utilities in Ukraine's second-biggest city. "Thanks to everyone who did everything possible on this most difficult night for Kharkiv to normalize the life of the city as soon as possible."
The buoyant mood was also captured by a defiant President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on social media late Sunday.
"Do you still think you can intimidate, break us, force us to make concessions?" Zelenskyy asked. "Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst for us are not as scary and deadly as your ‘friendship’ and brotherhood.’"
In the end, he exclaimed: "We will be with gas, lights, water and food … and WITHOUT you!"
Meanwhile, in Russia, there were some signs of disarray as Russian military bloggers and patriotic commentators chastised the Kremlin for failing to mobilize more forces and take stronger action against Ukraine.
Russia has continuously stopped short of calling its invasion of Ukraine a war, instead using the description "special military operation." Instead of a mass mobilization that could spur civil discontent and protest, it has relied on a limited contingent of volunteers.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed leader of the Russian region of Chechnya, publicly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for what he called "mistakes" that made the Ukrainian blitz possible.
Even more notable, such criticism seeped onto state-controlled Russian TV.
"People who convinced President Putin that the operation will be fast and effective ... these people really set up all of us," Boris Nadezhdin, a former parliament member, said on a talk show on NTV television. "We’re now at the point here we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using these resources and colonial war methods."
Yet even amid Ukraine's ebullience, the casualties kept mounting. Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday that at least four civilians were killed and 11 others were wounded in a series of Russian attacks in nine regions of the country. The U.N. Human Rights Office said last week that 5,767 civilians were killed so far.
Strikes in Kharkiv continued during daylight Monday when a police station in the center of the city was hit by a missile, setting part of it on fire and killing one person, regional police chief Volodymyr Tymoahko said. Teams of firefighters battled flames licking the roof from the top floor as smoke billowed above the area.
In a reminder of the war's toll, a council member in Izium — one of the areas that Russia said it has withdrawn troops from — accused those forces of killing civilians and other committing atrocities.
"Russian troops committed crimes and tried to hide them," Maksym Strelnikov said. His claims could not immediately be verified.
Izium was a major base for Russian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region. The first Ukrainian flag was raised over the city on Sept. 10, according to Strelnikov, and more have popped up across the whole city. Residents, some wrapped in the country's blue-and-yellow flag, happily greeted Ukrainian forces, offering them food.
The Russians continued shelling Nikopol across the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhia power plant, damaging several buildings there and leaving Europe's largest nuclear facility in a precarious position. The last operational reactor in that plant has been shut down in a bid to prevent a radiation disaster as fighting raged nearby.
While the war likely will stretch into next year, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Monday that "Ukraine has turned the tide of this war in its favor" by effectively using Western-supplied weapons like the long-range HIMARS missile system and strong battlefield tactics. "Kyiv will likely increasingly dictate the location and nature of the major fighting."
The British Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said it would likely further deteriorate the trust Russian forces have in their commanders and put Moscow's troops on the back foot.
Some analysts praised Ukraine’s initial move on the southern Kherson area for drawing the attention of enemy troops there, before pouncing on more depleted Russian lines in the northeast.
Even around Kherson, Russia is struggling to bring forces across the Dnipro River to stop the Ukrainian offensive there, the British military said.
Arhirova reported from Kyiv.