After months on the brink of Russian occupation and two days of heavy bombardment, residents of this besieged town emerged on Saturday (local time) to clean up - and celebrate, as a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive forced Russian forces into a stunning retreat from key strategic areas in the northeast Kharkiv region.
As the advancing Ukrainian troops recaptured lost territory with startling speed, liberating the town of Balakliya and raising their blue-and-yellow flag over the city of Izyum, jubilant Ukrainians and officials in Kyiv and Western capitals indulged in an audacious hope: perhaps the grinding, stalemated war was turning in their favor.
"Everything is going to be Ukrainian again," screamed Natalia Khubezhova, 48, who was among scores of jubilant Chuhuiv residents clearing up glass and mending doors on the hospital that was hit by a missile on Friday. She shed tears as she applauded the advancement of Ukrainian soldiers, especially her husband and son.
"We are all ready to go into battle!" she exclaimed, flourishing her broom.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Saturday that it had withdrawn forces from Balakliya and Izyum to "regroup" and transport them to Donetsk, the regional capital in the south, "in order to achieve the goals of the special military operation."
The surprising defeat of Russian soldiers by Ukraine's sudden counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region does not indicate a dramatic turn in the war's favor for Ukraine.
Russia continues to occupy substantial Ukrainian territory, including the cities of Mariupol, Zaporizhia, Melitopol, and Kherson, and Russian troops continue to control Putin's prized "land bridge" to Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded in 2014. And on Saturday afternoon, Russia launched a ferocious bombardment of high-powered missiles against the regained territories.
However, the Ukrainian war has severed enemy supply lines, exposed disorder in the Russian ranks, energized Ukrainians, caused occupying authorities to evacuate, and outraged Kremlin supporters.
Igor Girkin, a former hardline leader of separatists in Ukraine, mourned in a pro-Russian military Telegram channel, "A major defeat,"
The Ukrainian Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, stated that his nation had not yet achieved victory. "A sign of victory for me will be boarding a plane in Kharkiv and landing in Mariupol," Reznikov said at a conference in Kyiv on Saturday.
Annalena Baerbock, the German minister of foreign affairs, applauded Ukraine's progress at the same conference. Baerbock stated, "Troops are moving forward; they are not only gaining back territory but liberating people," Even if it is a brief moment of hope, I believe it is exactly what we require.
A Pentagon officer in Washington described the progress as "highly encouraging."
At the very least, Ukraine's surprise drive into the northeast region of Kharkiv, after launching a separate counteroffensive that pulled thousands of Russian troops to the southern Kherson area last week, has allowed the country to gain momentum in an artillery standoff that had been stalemated.
Two months ago, Ukraine was obliged to withdraw from the city of Lysychansk, handing sovereignty of the whole Luhansk area to Russia. Since then, however, Russian artillery advancements have been incremental. However, the governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, tweeted on Saturday evening that Ukrainian troops had reached the outskirts of Lysychansk.
Now, Ukrainian troops in the northeast have swept through scores of towns and villages in a matter of days, often moving 50 to 60 kilometers in a single day, a pace not attained by Russia since the invasion's first days.
It can alter the path of the conflict, according to military analysts.
According to Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, this is a big occurrence. It does not mean that Russia will be forced out of Ukraine any time soon, but they continue to fail to learn lessons and perform basic tasks correctly.
"The overall situation now favours Ukraine, especially in the medium term," Lee stated.
According to military analysts, Ukraine has recaptured over 2500 square kilometers of terrain in the Kharkiv region and was close to seizing control of Kupyansk, a vital rail hub.
Officials and "volunteers" working for the Russian-installed occupation government in the Kharkiv region retreated to the Russian border and established temporary camps in response to the Ukrainian advance, while pro-Russian officials urged locals to escape.
The leader of Russia's ruling party, United Russia, which operates quasi-government bodies in occupied Ukrainian territory, said on Telegram that the party had relocated its "volunteer detachment from Balakliya, Kupyansk, Izyum and Volchansk to the border with the Belgorod region."
"Refugees arrive here, massively leaving the Kharkiv region due to increased shelling launched by Ukrainian nationalists," party head Andrei Turchak posted on his Telegram blog. People are departing with their families; there are a large number of youngsters, and there are already over 400 automobiles at the border.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Russia's Belgorod district, acknowledged that border checks were attempting to accommodate the large number of individuals fleeing the vicinity of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
"There are long queues of civilian cars with refugees from Ukraine," Gladkov posted on Telegram. Food and water delivery to the Kharkiv side has been arranged, and mobile feeding stations have already been deployed.
A few days ago, Turchak speculated that the staged referendums Moscow intended to use as a pretext for annexing seized territory could take place on November 4, coinciding with Russia's Unity Day.
Instead, Russian battalions have fled in disarray, allowing Ukrainian soldiers to raise blue-and-yellow flags over newly liberated town squares and take photos with a vast number of munitions crates and military equipment abandoned by the Russians.
According to Ukrainian commanders, the advances have come with a price.
Anatoli Pryhrusha, who commanded a unit in the battle to retake Balakliya, stated in an interview that the fighting had been intense and bloody. Pryhrusha stated, "It's good the Russians ran away, but we paid with a lot of lives,"
Analysts believe that the local successes could result in a larger strategic shift if the Ukrainians maintain their newfound advantage.
Ukrainian troops were advancing southeast along the M03 highway, which would eventually allow them to connect Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, to the neighboring Donbas region, thereby connecting two crucial front-line theatres.
Before the Russian retreat on Saturday, the mayor of Izyum, an occupied city 66 kilometers north of the city of Kramatorsk in the Donbas, stated in an interview that Ukrainian troops had infiltrated his city and were fighting Russian troops street by street with small arms and automatic weapons.
Mayor Valeriy Marchenko was rendered stunned by the Ukrainians' swift and unexpected advancement in the region. No one anticipated this to occur so quickly.
The withdrawal from Izyum, which Russia had utilized as a resupply center for its attack in eastern Donbas, was one of Russia's greatest failures since its troops entered Ukraine in February.
With Russian troops out of Izyum, Russia's ability to seize the entire Donbas region - the only publicly declared objective of Putin's proclaimed "special military operation" - is now in doubt, according to Kirill Mikhailov, a Kyiv-based analyst for the Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian military research organization.
Izyum is a crucial command and supply center for Russia's northern front and Russia's only major bridgehead on the right side of the Donets River, he said, adding that losing it would erase an entire front - the northern front - in Russia's attempts to seize Donetsk.
"The bottom line is that it really improves Ukrainian chances of retaining Donetsk," he said.
Russia's acknowledgment of Ukrainian advances elicited heated rebukes from its supporters on Moscow's annual City Day holiday, a day generally reserved for exuberant festivities.
"Tonight, the capital of our Motherland - the city of Moscow - will salute the surrender of Balakliya, Izyum and half of Kupyansk to the enemy with 25,000 high-altitude fireworks," Girkin said on Telegram. Throughout the afternoon, powerful explosions could be heard as Russia fired rockets at the Kharkiv region.
Girkin complained vehemently about the expensive celebrations for City Day in Moscow, where Putin visited a new martial arts facility and presided over the launches of a new section of highway and a massive, 140-meter-tall Ferris wheel named the Moscow Sun.
Putin, per the Tass news agency, stated, "There is nothing like that in Europe," It is vital that people have the opportunity to relax with their family and friends.
Girkin has long warned that Russia cannot win the war without a large military mobilization, a measure the Kremlin has resisted since it would be incredibly unpopular to compel conscriptions in the metropolitan areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The situation will only worsen for Russia, according to military analyst Lee. There are no strong grounds for Russia to feel it can do more in Ukraine than it already has, thus this will hurt Russia's morale.