Russian forces appear to be buckling under growing pressure as Ukraine continues to regain territory in the south, where Russian soldiers have been forced to retreat from previously-held settlements as Kyiv progresses with its counteroffensive towards the Russian-occupied city of Kherson.
A map used by the Russian Defense Ministry in its daily briefing on Tuesday confirmed significant Russian losses in Kherson – one of four Ukrainian regions Moscow is attempting to annex – compared to a map of the same area used in a ministry briefing a day before.
The map confirms reports from Ukrainian and pro-Russian officials, as well as pro-Russian military analysts, of significant Ukrainian gains towards Kherson, down the western bank of the Dnieper River.
Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, who spoke while the map was shown full-screen, did not mention the losses. However, he said that Russian military destroyed Ukrainian armor and killed Ukrainian forces in the area of several towns that are now understood to be under Ukrainian control – a tacit acknowledgment of Kyiv’s push.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the military for their “fast and powerful advances” in his Tuesday evening address, before celebrating that “dozens of settlements have already been liberated” this week.
In Kherson region, he said that Liubymivka, Khreshchenivka, Zolota Balka, Biliaiivka, Ukraiinka, Velyka, Mala Oleksandrivka, and Davydiv Brid had all been reclaimed, “and this is not a complete list.”
“Our warriors do not stop. And it is only a matter of time when we will expel the occupier from all our land,” the president added.
Zelensky on Wednesday assembled his top military and security staff to consider plans for “further liberation of Ukrainian territories,” according to the readout of the meeting from the President’s office.
Despite losing territory in the south to Ukrainian military at rapid pace, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday signed several laws ratifying the Russian Federation’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Donetsk and Luhansk are both in eastern Ukraine, and fighting against Moscow-backed breakaway republics in each region has been raging since 2014. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are in southern Ukraine and have been occupied by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began in late February.
The annexations are illegal under international law. World leaders have said they are the result of “sham” referendums that will never be recognized.
Russia does not have full control of the regions it claims to have seized. In addition to Ukraine’s successes in the south, Kyiv’s forces made gains in Luhansk on Monday and liberated the strategic city of Lyman on Sunday, a key operational hub in Donetsk which the Russian army had used to funnel troops and supplies to the west and south.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it was forced to cede Lyman or risk encirclement of its troops there, allowing Ukrainian forces to potentially use the city as a staging post to push troops further east.
Asked by CNN how to interpret the language of the laws signed by Putin – which refers to the borders of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as “the territory which existed on the day of its adoption in the Russian Federation” – Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, “I will leave this question unanswered.”
When pressed to clarify by CNN, Peskov added: “You should read the decree; there is a legal wording there. On the whole, of course, we are talking about the territory in which the military-civilian administration operated at the time of its adoption [as part of the Russian Federation].”
The Russian-appointed deputy leader in the occupied Kherson region explained Ukraine’s rapid advance in recent days by saying that the Russian military was “regrouping.”
“The Russian army is conducting maneuvers,” Kirill Stremousov told Russian state news RIA Novosti. “The regrouping of the front in the current conditions allows us to gather strength and strike.”
The phrase “regrouping” was also used by the Russian Defense Ministry in September to describe the retreat of the Russian military in response to Ukraine’s offensive that recaptured the key city of Izium, in the Kharkiv region.
Stremousov on Wednesday claimed that Ukraine’s advance had been stopped, and that it was “impossible” for them to enter the occupied city of Kherson.
However, pro-Russian media has been uncommonly critical of the war effort in recent days, delivering gloomy reports that Russia’s campaign is suffering an operational crisis while Ukraine takes advantage on the battlefield.
“In the Kherson region, we have lost 17 settlements,” Alexander Sladkov, a leading Russian war correspondent, conceded on state TV Tuesday, before placing the blame on “fat” US weapons deliveries and “intelligence gathered via satellite reconnaissance.”
Sladkov is just one of several Russian correspondents in recent days to convey the losses Russia is suffering.
Alexander Kots, a correspondent for pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, who is embedded with Russian forces in the occupied eastern city of Svatove, told his Telegram followers Wednesday that the military lacks the manpower necessary to hold off a further Ukrainian advance into the Luhansk region.
“The Russian troops do not have enough manpower to stop the enemy attacks,” Kots said in a video. “The recent Russian losses are directly connected to that. It’s a very difficult period of time on the front line at the moment.”
He said that “we expect a serious fighting here very soon,” and that “it remains to be seen if it could stop the enemy advances.”
Kots confirmed that Russian forces were trying to fortify their defense at the line connecting the occupied cities of Kreminna and Svatova. Yuriy Podolyaka, a pro-Russian military blogger said on Monday that Russian troops had withdrawn to the Zherebets River, which runs just west of Kreminna and Svatova.
“The enemy is concentrating its forces to attack Svatove from two directions,” Kots said on Tuesday. “The enemy artillery is reaching and working over the Kreminna-Svatove road and its sabotage and reconnaissance groups can operate there. This area is being fortified by the Russian troops who dig trenches and place land mines.”
He said that Ukrainian forces are “on the high and enjoying a numeric advantage.”
“They don’t have problems with the intelligence data or high-precision weapons which they are constantly using. We are just waiting for our reserves to become fighting fit and join the battle.”
Meanwhile, state media reporter Evgeniy Poddubnyy, a correspondent for Russia 24, said Tuesday that “we’re going through the hardest time on the frontline” and that “for the time being it will become even harder.”
Sladkov, for his part, tried to put a positive spin on things.
“This doesn’t mean that we’ve collapsed like a house of cards. These mistakes aren’t gigantic strategic failures. We are still learning. I know this is hard to hear in our eighth month of the special operation. But we are reporters. We are waiting for reinforcements.
Sladkov’s admission on State TV was his second in less than a month, after he previously admitted that Russian forces had endured heavy losses on September 13, a Tuesday. At the beginning of this Tuesday’s interview, Sladkov quipped: “I only tell the truth on Tuesdays, and for other days I just make everything up.”