Ukrainian forces appeared to make sweeping new gains on Monday, piling pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin as the Kremlin faced growing domestic unease over the state of its struggling military and the chaotic efforts to reinforce it.
Kyiv’s troops were pushing forward in the country’s east and south, threatening a major new breakthrough and forcing Putin's soldiers to retreat from territory he claimed to have annexed in a grand ceremony last week.
Moscow has matched its annexation claims with a call-up of reservists and new nuclear threats, a broad intervention that has threatened to escalate its clash with Ukraine’s Western allies but also expose its domestic vulnerabilities.
Russian lawmakers on Monday ratified the illegal annexation of four partially occupied Ukrainian regions: Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south. But while the Kremlin said it had not yet determined where the borders for its newly claimed land would be established, the areas under its control were being rapidly pushed back.
Advances in Kherson
Moscow said its troops abandoned Lyman over the weekend to avoid encirclement, with Western officials and observers hailing Ukraine's recapture of the city in the eastern Donetsk region as a significant development that could pave the way for further advances.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also said his military had retaken two settlements in the southern Kherson region. “The successes of our soldiers are not limited to Lyman,” he said in a statement on Telegram Sunday.
That was the first official sign of significant Ukrainian gains in the south, where Russia concentrated the majority of its forces to repel a long-touted counteroffensive — opening itself up to a surprise push in the northeast that has turned the tide of the war.
After weeks of slow progress and relentless artillery fire in the south, Ukraine seemed to be surging forward there as well.
“Superior enemy tank units succeeded in wedging into the depth of our defense," Russia's defense ministry said in an update on Telegram.
“The information is tense, let’s put it that way, because, yes there were indeed breakthroughs,” Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader in occupied parts of Kherson told Russian state television, according to Reuters.
“There’s a settlement called Dudchany, right along the Dnieper River, and right there, in that region, there was a (Ukrainian) breakthrough,” he said. That would represent a major forward thrust of about 25 miles, threatening thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of the river.
Ukraine’s successes despite Russia’s proclaimed annexation have added to mounting pressure on Putin, with voices usually supportive of the Kremlin criticizing Russia's performance in the war.
“The Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman, combined with the Kremlin’s failure to conduct partial mobilization effectively and fairly are fundamentally changing the Russian information space,” the Institute of the Study War said in its latest update.
The discussion of the conflict “has significantly deviated from the narratives preferred by the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) that things are generally under control,” the U.S.-based military think thank added.
Nationalist Russian military bloggers have turned in recent days to criticizing the direction of the war, with many reporting on the latest battlefield setbacks.
“When this many Russian channels are sounding the alarm, it usually means they’re in trouble," Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think-tank, said on Twitter.
The country's state media also reflected the increasingly pessimistic tone.
Dmitry Sablin, a senior lawmaker, said on state television Sunday that Russian forces needed to “stop and regroup” and were facing all sorts of shortages.
Putin has sought to boost his ailing forces by calling up hundreds of thousands of men, a partial mobilization that has been marked by chaotic conscription efforts and an exodus of many fleeing the draft.
Around half of the soldiers conscripted in one region of Russia's far east were sent home after being deemed unfit to serve in the army, the local governor announced Monday.
The military commissar of the region was also removed from his position, Khabarovsk Governor Mikahil Degtyarev said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
"The Kremlin’s declaration of partial mobilization exposed the general Russian public to the consequences of the defeat around Kharkiv and then at Lyman, shattering the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the war as limited and generally successful," the ISW said.
In a further sign of uncertainty, it remained unclear exactly what land Russia claimed to be annexing in Ukraine's east and south.
"We will continue to consult with the population of these regions on the borders,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday in response to a question on the subject.
Putin has vowed to use “all available means” to defend the territory he was co-opting, an implied threat of nuclear war to defend his fragile grip on the annexed territory. That grip appeared to be loosening further with each new update.