The war in Ukraine is likely entering a critical phase as Kyiv’s forces advance in the south and east of the country, forcing invading Russian troops to retreat.
In recent days, Ukrainian troops have broken through Russian lines in the southern region of Kherson, liberating several villages along the Dnieper River. Kyiv’s forces now control settlements about 30 kilometers beyond previous front lines.
Reuters reported that Ukrainian forces are trying to cut off supply lines for 25,000 Russian troops deployed on the west bank of the river.
Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted Monday that “superior tank divisions” near the town of Zolota Balka allowed Ukrainian forces to break through Russia’s defenses.
Ukrainian forces are buoyed after recapturing territory lost during the early days of the Russian invasion. Yaroslav, a Ukrainian soldier manning the front lines outside Kherson, told Agence France-Presse that morale is high.
"The mood of the boys, everything, has changed, compared to what it was before — it has become much better. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, inspired by victories," he said.
Ukrainian forces are also consolidating territorial gains in the east. Moscow’s forces retreated from Lyman in Donetsk Oblast over the weekend after Ukrainian troops almost surrounded the city. The streets were littered with burned-out Russian tanks and dead soldiers.
Ukraine’s military claimed Thursday its troops had advanced as far 55 kilometers into previously Russian-occupied territory, liberating 93 villages and taking control of more than 2,400 square kilometers. The claim could not be verified by VOA.
"The underpinning factors leading to the massive Ukrainian gains you've seen in the last 24 to 48 hours, and even before that, have been a combination of very poor Russian capabilities in these areas," Karolina Hird, a Russia researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said in an interview with VOA. “We've had reports that the units in northern Kherson Oblast are completely understrength, understaffed and stretched along a very, very long front line that the Russian troops just do not have the men to fill.”
The United States announced an additional $625 million of new security assistance for Kyiv this week, including four more precision-guided multiple rocket launchers known as HIMARS. Ukraine said such weapons have played a key role in the recent counteroffensive.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer and chairperson of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, said the West must seize the moment and help Ukraine defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Ukraine needs weapons, an additional amount, because Russian people will tolerate war criminals, but they will not tolerate losing war criminals. This military defeat in Ukraine provides the first signs of bankruptcy of Putin's ratings in Russia," Matviichuk said.
Putin signed annexation papers Wednesday for four areas of eastern Ukraine, an illegal move rejected by most of the international community. The war is entering a critical moment, Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
"It's becoming in some ways make or break for Putin. His ability to survive depends on some level by saying, 'I’ve succeeded in defending the Russian homeland and expanding it.' Where this goes, nobody knows. But it's safe to say that this probably is the most perilous moment for Mr. Putin since he took power about 20 years ago," Kupchan told Reuters.
Putin has said he will use any means necessary to defend Russia, raising fears he could use tactical nuclear weapons. James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VOA that it is difficult to predict Russia’s next move.
"Stuff is trending very badly for Russia," he said. "Now, I don't know how bad it has to be before Russia would consider using nuclear weapons in a very serious way. I'm not even sure Putin knows in his own mind how bad this would have to be for him to use nuclear weapons.
"The goal is to terrify Ukraine, its Western backers — the United States in particular — that the threat of further escalation, the threat of an even worse all-out nuclear war, could terrify them into backing down."
For now, Russia is trying to turn the tide with conventional forces. The Defense Ministry said this week that more than 200,000 men had been drafted into the armed forces since a partial mobilization was announced two weeks ago. The Kremlin’s initial target was to recruit 300,000 men into the military.
Hird, of the Institute for the Study of War, said the mobilization will not have any immediate impact on Russia’s territorial losses.
"These forces are unlikely to provide any sort of additional defensive capabilities or offensive capabilities in the short run. And in the long run, these troops are unlikely to be well-trained or necessarily highly motivated," she said.