Pressure is building on the retreating Russians as Ukrainian troops push deeper into occupied territory, consolidating recent gains.

As the advance continued, Ukraine’s Border Guard Service said the army had taken control of Vovchansk – a town just two miles (three kilometers) from Russia, and possibly crucial for morale , which was seized on the first day of the war.

Moscow admitted that it had recently withdrawn from areas of the northeastern region of Kharkiv – and that troops were also withdrawing from Melitopol, the second largest city in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine.

Mayor concerned about the city’s occupation, Ivan Fedorov, wrote on Telegram that Russian troops were heading towards Crimea annexed by Moscow.

And he added that columns of military equipment had been reported at a checkpoint in Chonhar, a village marking the border between the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.

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Melitopol has been occupied since early March. Capturing it would give Kyiv the opportunity to disrupt Russian supply lines between the southern and eastern Donbass region, the two main areas where Moscow-backed forces hold territory.

In his nightly address to his nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “stabilization measures” had been put in place in the liberated towns and villages.

“Remains of occupiers and sabotage groups are detected, collaborators are detained and security is being restored,” he said, adding that border guards had been sent to protect “the frontier of the State in the liberated territory”.

“It is very important that with our troops, with our flag, ordinary and normal life enters the unoccupied territory,” he said.

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Ukrainian flags were hoisted over battle-scarred buildings. Photo: Telegram via Reuters

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Officials in the country were dynamic, releasing footage showing their forces burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned, charred tanks.

A Ukrainian soldier tears down a Russian banner, in Vovchansk Pic: State Border Service of Ukraine
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A Ukrainian soldier tears down a Russian banner, in Vovchansk Pic: State Border Service of Ukraine

In one video, border guards tore up a poster that read: “We are one people with Russia.”

British intelligence reports said one of the main Russian forces, the 1st Guards Tank Army, had been “severely degraded” during the invasion, along with conventional Russian forces designed to counter the NATO.

“It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild that capability,” officials said.

The setback could renew Russia’s interest in the peace talks, said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter.

But even if Putin were to sit down at the negotiating table, President Zelensky made it clear that Russia must return all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, Gallyamov said.

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Experts also warn that the momentum has already changed and that Ukraine’s allies have been careful not to declare a premature victory, as Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources available.

In Washington, President Biden told reporters it was clear Ukrainians had made “significant progress.”

However, he stopped short of saying that recent successes marked a turning point in the war saying “the question is unanswered, it’s hard to say”.

“I think it’s going to be long,” he added.

Faced with its biggest defeat since its failed attempt to capture Kyiv at the start of the war, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops were responding with “massive strikes” in all sectors.

But there were no immediate reports of a sudden increase in Russian attacks.

Following the apparent retreat, Ukrainian authorities traveled to several areas to investigate alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy greets U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv, Ukraine September 8, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential News Service/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Volodymyr Zelenskyy with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv

The consolidation of territory gains comes as the US State Department revealed that more than £260m has been secretly spent by Russia trying to influence politicians and other officials in more than two dozen countries since 2014.

The department took the unusual step of releasing a diplomatic cable signed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was sent Monday to numerous U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, including many in Europe, Africa and South Asia. , outlining the concerns.

The cable, which was marked “sensitive” and not intended for foreign audiences but was unclassified, contained a series of talking points that US diplomats were instructed to raise with their host governments regarding a alleged Russian interference.

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