KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces entered the key Russian military stronghold of Izium on Saturday, continuing their rapid advance across the northeast and igniting a dramatic new phase in the more than six-month war.
“Izium was liberated today,” the city’s mayor, Valeriy Marchenko, said in an interview. While he was not yet in the city himself, he said that he was in contact with the police and that emergency services were working to clear it of possible hazards before residents could return.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense — which a day earlier had said that it was moving to reinforce its defensive positions in the region — confirmed on Saturday that it had pulled its forces out of Izium, six months after its forces laid siege to and then seized the city. In a statement, it presented the retreat as a preplanned move, intended to strengthen its efforts in the east where its army has been bogged down for weeks.
Maintaining control of towns and cities has at times proven tenuous over the course of the war, and it was not immediately clear how secure Ukraine’s control over Izium was and what efforts Russia might take to try to win it back.
But the loss of Izium — a strategically important railway hub that Russian forces seized in the spring after a bloody weekslong battle — could mark a turning point in the war, dwarfed only by Russia’s humiliating defeat around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in the spring.
The first signs that Russian forces would retreat rather than fight emerged late on Friday.
“Yesterday evening, Russians put a white flag nearby the railway station,” Yevhen, a Ukrainian officer who participated in the liberation of Izium, said in a telephone interview. “There was street fighting all over the night.” He asked to be identified by only his first name out of concerns for his security.
Much about the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region, where Izium is, was shrouded in uncertainty amid a lack of official confirmation, and military analysts cautioned that it was a fast-moving situation that could change by the hour.
But the lightning offensive in the country’s northeast has reshaped what had become a grinding war of attrition. In a matter of days, Russian front lines have buckled, Moscow’s troops have fled and one village after another has come once more beneath Ukraine’s yellow and blue banner — like the town of Kupiansk just north of Izium, which sits on key supply routes to the eastern front line.
Ukraine’s Security Service posted a photo on Telegram showing members of the special forces in Kupiansk.
“We move further!” the post read, according to the Ukrinform news agency.
As Ukrainian officials celebrated the turn of events, however cautiously, some prominent pro-Kremlin military bloggers expressed anger and frustration at the rapid developments.
A Russian military blogger, who goes by the name Rusich, has 278,000 followers on Telegram and claimed to be in the city on Friday, wrote that the surrender of Izium was a “small setback” and urged his followers not to “despair.”
With the Russians out of towns and cities they had battered in order to seize, the cost of their monthslong occupation was just starting to come into focus. Ukrainian officials said they had dispatched investigators to newly liberated towns to begin compiling evidence of Russian war crimes.
In his overnight address, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said the military had recaptured more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region.
“Actions to check and secure the territory continue,” he said. “We are gradually taking control of new settlements.”
The eastern offensive, which began earlier this week, has cleared Russian forces from more than 2,500 square kilometers of land in the Kharkiv region as of Friday, according to an estimate by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
“There is still a lot that we don’t know about the offensive, but it is clear this was well planned and executed by Ukrainian forces,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It looks like a very effective combined arms operation with tanks, mechanized infantry, Special Operations forces, air defenses, artillery and other systems.”
Ukrainian and Western officials cautioned that the offensive operations were in their early days, that the situation was fluid and that any gains were far from secure. Some military analysts warned that the Ukrainians’ rapid advance could leave them stretched thin and vulnerable to counterattack.
In addition to the counteroffensive in the northeast, Ukraine has been making a push in the south to recapture territory in the Kherson region.
Mr. Marchenko, the mayor of Izium, said that about 12,000 residents had remained in the city and desperately needed humanitarian supplies.
He said he hoped that residents who had fled could start returning in three or four days but that devastation awaited them.
“There’s no single residential building that wasn’t damaged,” the mayor said.
“Heating is the biggest problem,” he added. “I doubt whether we would be able to restore the heating system before winter.”
Oleksii Reznikoff, Ukraine’s defense minister, did not comment on specific gains but at a conference in Kyiv on Saturday he said the Russian troops were on the run.
“Russian troops will run, and they will, believe me, because today we are destroying their logistics chains, warehouses, and so on,” he said. “And the question will arise: ‘And where should they go?’ It will be like an avalanche.”
One line of defense will shake and it will fall, he said, and then another and another.
Ivan Nechepurenko and Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.
— Marc Santora and Anna Lukinova
Ukraine’s military made significant advances in recent days near the northeastern city of Izium, a key Russian stronghold, according to military analysts and geolocated photos and videos. The breakthrough — possibly some 50 kilometers in just a few days — threatened to encircle Russian forces, which appeared to be caught by surprise.
The progress of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east, paired with slower, more limited gains in the south, represents some of the most significant changes to the front lines of the war in months.
The exact positions of Ukrainian forces around Izium could not be independently confirmed. The Russian military released a video with what it said were reinforcements headed to the Kharkiv area, but it has not made detailed statements about the status of the fighting.
But military analysts, satellite detections and photos and videos of Ukrainian forces indicate that they moved rapidly east toward Kupiansk in recent days, possibly getting close to the outskirts of the city.
KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — The pontoon bridge had been in place for barely a day. The Ukrainian Army rushed to move troops and equipment across. Then the soldiers watched on a drone video feed as the Russians blew up their bridge, yet again.
“Yes, they hit the bridge,” the drone pilot said matter-of-factly, peering at images beamed in from a safe distance, a mile or so away.
The soldiers shrugged. It was no great loss.
The Ukrainians would soon build another bridge, across the slender, slow-flowing Inhulets River in southern Ukraine, to replace the one destroyed by the Russians. It’s a cycle that repeats itself daily: the Ukrainian Army builds pontoon bridges across the river as it tries to advance in the Kherson region, only to see them blown up.
“We build them, they blow them up,” said Col. Roman Kostenko, the commander of the troops stationed here. “They build them, we blow them up.”
The Ukrainian troops had reason to be confident on this day. Fighting in the pale, late-summer sunshine across hundreds of miles of front line, the Ukrainian Army has broken through Russian positions, recaptured some villages and taken prisoners in its most significant counteroffensive since Russian forces withdrew from northern Ukraine last winter.
While it is early to gauge the full extent of the army’s gains, videos, witness accounts and some Russian reports have all pointed to Ukrainian momentum, including in this spot. It is one of two bulges Ukraine’s forces have created by pushing into Russian lines in the past week; the other is north of the city of Izium in eastern Ukraine.
Building bridges and destroying the enemy’s, however unglamorous, low-tech and old-school as a military art, has nonetheless become a central tool for both sides in Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused more than $97 billion in damage, and the cost of rebuilding the country has reached an estimated $349 billion, according to a joint assessment issued Friday by the World Bank, the European Commission and Ukraine’s government.
The report estimated that Ukraine had suffered $252 billion in “aggregate losses,” which it said included economic disruptions and other costs of the conflict. Ukraine’s economy contracted sharply, the report said, with its gross domestic product showing a year-over-year decline of 15.1 percent at the end of the first quarter.
The authors of the report said their assessment covered the period from the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24 through June 1. “Given the progress of the war since that date,” they wrote, “the extent of damage, losses and needs is clearly larger as of the date of publication.”
Anna Bjerde, the World Bank’s regional vice president for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement that the invasion continued “to exact a terrible toll, from significant civilian casualties and the displacement of millions of people to the widespread destruction of homes, businesses, social institutions, and economic activity.”
Ukraine’s government, Ms. Bjerde said, “now faces the difficult task of balancing recovery with the country’s immediate needs, including core public services, such as health, education and social protection, which are critical to preventing further deterioration in living conditions and poverty in Ukraine.”
An international conference is scheduled for next month in Berlin to grapple with complicated questions about Ukraine’s reconstruction, including who should pay for what, who should control the process and what kind of external oversight should be required.
The Washington-based German Marshall Fund recommended in a report on Wednesday that the Group of 7 industrialized nations appoint a Ukraine coordinator to oversee reconstruction, ideally an American with global stature; that existing institutions be used for the project to ensure timeliness; and that different multilateral financial institutions be used, to limit the influence of Russian or Chinese board members. The report also says that Ukraine must accept strict oversight of the funds, and must strengthen its legal and judicial systems, to reduce the potential for corruption.
MOSCOW — Russians began voting on Friday in the first nationwide elections since the invasion of Ukraine, as the Kremlin tried to assure the public that it was business as usual despite a climate of wartime censorship and repression.
The vote for local and regional governments across the country includes the first municipal-level elections in Moscow, the capital, since 2017, when the opposition won a sizable minority of seats despite the Kremlin’s dominance of the political system and accusations of fraud. But the ranks of the opposition have since been depleted as anti-government politicians have fled the country and others have been arrested or blocked from running.
Although President Vladimir V. Putin has dominated Russian politics for two decades, he has long relied on elections with a semblance of competition to try to legitimize the rule of his United Russia party. And while those elections were rife with fraud, the vote-counting process in major cities like Moscow retained a modicum of transparency, making them an opportunity for Kremlin critics to express their discontent even if a major opposition victory was virtually impossible.
After the upheaval in Russia’s economy from inflation and international sanctions over the war in Ukraine, the question is whether that logic still holds. Mr. Putin has done everything in his power, critics say, to prevent his opponents from being able to repeat even their modest success of five years ago.
“Finally for the first time, elections are totally senseless,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based in Moscow. Almost no one is allowed to participate, he added, referring to the opposition.
The elections, which are being held over three days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, are also a test of the jailed opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny’s ability to influence Russian politics from prison.
Despite the Russian authorities’ crackdown on the opposition, some low-profile critics of the Kremlin and of the Ukraine war remain on the ballot. And while they are unlikely to win, Mr. Navalny’s advisers said they believed the Kremlin would be hard-pressed to paper over a strong showing by some of them that would convey disapproval of the war.
“It is very difficult for Moscow to organize some kind of total falsification system at polling stations,” one exiled adviser to Mr. Navalny, Vladimir Milov, said in a phone interview from Vilnius, Lithuania. “I see great enthusiasm from activists, candidates and many voters, and even in these conditions, they want to do something.”
GENEVA — United Nations human rights monitors said on Friday that Russia was denying them access to detention sites where they have found increasing evidence of torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war that may amount to war crimes.
Prisoners arriving at some detention sites faced a “welcome process” in which they were forced to run the gantlet between two lines of guards who beat them severely as they passed, said Matilda Bogner, the head of the U.N. Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Some prisoners were targeted for further beatings, Ms. Bogner said.
The torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, if proved, “could rise to being war crimes,” she said, speaking by video link from Odesa, Ukraine.
At some Russian detention sites, conditions pose a dire threat to prisoners’ health, Ms. Bogner added, saying that there were reports of inadequate food, water or sanitation. She cited in particular a penal colony at Olenivka, in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, where she said there had been reports of prisoners grappling with infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis A.
Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, declined to comment on the U.N. statement, saying he did not have sufficient information on the interactions between the U.N. team and the Russian authorities on the ground, according to a Reuters report.
At least 416 people have been arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared in territory controlled by Russian forces since the invasion in February, according to the U.N. monitoring mission, which added that 16 of these people had been found dead and 166 had been released.
Ukrainian forces have also tortured prisoners, usually at the time of their capture, during initial interrogations or in the process of transporting them to camps, Ms. Bogner said, adding that these actions may also amount to war crimes. The Ukrainian authorities had allowed U.N. monitors full access to detention centers across the country, where they visited 160 prisoners of war, she said. But except in one camp that appeared to meet international standards, she said most prisoners were detained in cells, violating rules that say prisoners should not be held in close confinement.
Ms. Bogner also expressed concerns over a sharp deterioration of conditions in Crimea, where she reported tighter restrictions on freedom of expression and rising cases of torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.
U.N. monitors had documented the prosecution of more than 80 people in the Russian-held peninsula for “public actions directed at discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation,” Ms. Bogner said. The authorities there, she said, had imposed sanctions on teachers who did not endorse the war, arrested and prosecuted human rights activists and intimidated lawyers.
BOHDANIVKA, Ukraine — By the time the weather warmed after a cold spring, the fields of sunflowers where for decades Petro Fedorovych’s bees would gather nectar to make their amber honey were mostly unplanted and abandoned.
The war had crept across the eastern Ukrainian steppe after Russia’s invasion in February. The city of Sievierodonetsk fell, then Lysychansk. The front lines moved until the incessant thuds and bangs of artillery arrived around the beekeeper’s small village, Bohdanivka, with the heat.
But still his bees left their hives just as they had every summer. Petro Fedorovych, 71, watched them fly beyond their familiar fields. They flew toward the roads and shell craters, closer and closer to the front line, where Russian and Ukrainian troops were killing one another with guns, grenades and rockets.
And then they flew home.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes since the war began more than six months ago. But many have stayed, sheltering in basements and elsewhere, resolute in their decision to brave the onslaught for a litany of reasons: nowhere else to go, no money, disabled family members, pro-Russian sentiments. The list goes on.
But Petro Fedorovych’s decision to remain at his house with his bees and his wife, Ira, and their goat, Flower, was as simple as it gets: It was their home. It was a world unto itself, where even the destruction slowly encroaching felt more favorable than the unknown in the cities and towns beyond Russian artillery range.
“I built this house with my hands,” he said late last month, his gray hair unkempt and sweat from a morning of beekeeping already forming on his brow. “I will never leave.”
Dimitry Yatsenko contributed reporting.
— Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak
Out of the billions of dollars in weapons the White House has shipped to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, perhaps none have attracted as much attention as the M142 HIMARS, an advanced rocket launcher that Ukrainian troops have used to devastating effect.
HIMARS, short for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, is a five-ton truck that can fire long-range guided rockets. The Pentagon announced it was sending the first of four launchers to Kyiv, Ukraine, at the beginning of June, about six weeks after it started providing 155-millimeter howitzers and ammunition.
Since then, the United States has sent Kyiv a total of 126 such howitzers and authorized shipments of up to 807,000 rounds of ammunition for them to fire.
Ukraine now has 26 advanced mobile launchers that can fire rockets even farther than those howitzers can — 16 HIMARS vehicles from the United States and 10 older American-made M270 launchers that Britain and Germany provided.
On Thursday, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that HIMARS strikes had hit more than 400 Russian targets, including command posts and ammunition depots.
The launchers are only one part of that equation. The other equally important part is the munitions they fire, called a Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS.