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Russians 'begin quietly fleeing Crimea' as Ukrainian counter-attack gathers pace

Putin’s commanders have quietly fled Crimea as they try to sell their homes and get their families back to Russia, Ukrainian spies say.

Russian FSB agents and those working for the occupation government are also trying to get off the peninsula, which has been occupied by Kremlin forces since 2014.

Officials have been shocked by the rapid advance of Ukrainian troops through the north of the country in recent days, military intelligence added, amid reports that soldiers are withdrawing from Melitopol — just 70 miles away.

Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration, said the Russians are so upset that they have also tried to reopen peace talks.

Ukrainian soldiers use a French CAESAR mobile artillery gun to fire on Russian troops in Kharkov, where they are now launching their attack

Ukrainian soldiers use a French CAESAR mobile artillery gun to fire on Russian troops in Kharkov, where they are now launching their attack

Artillery shells Russian forces in Kharkiv as Ukraine tries to maintain momentum after stunning counter-attack put Putin's men on the run

Artillery shells Russian forces in Kharkiv as Ukraine tries to maintain momentum after stunning counter-attack put Putin's men on the run

Artillery shells Russian forces in Kharkiv as Ukraine tries to maintain momentum after stunning counter-attack put Putin’s men on the run

Ukraine HIMARS

Ukraine HIMARS

Ukraine HIMARS

Ukraine HIMARS

Ukrainian troops open fire with US-made HIMARS missiles on Russian positions as hopes grow to drive Putin’s forces from their territory

Ukraine attacks east from Kharkov and south towards Kherson, amid reports that Russians are quietly starting to flee Crimea for fear it will soon be attacked too

Ukraine attacks east from Kharkov and south towards Kherson, amid reports that Russians are quietly starting to flee Crimea for fear it will soon be attacked too

Ukraine attacks east from Kharkov and south towards Kherson, amid reports that Russians are quietly starting to flee Crimea for fear it will soon be attacked too

“Since the Ukrainian attack, there has been some sort of public and unpublic action by various groups of Russian officials,” she said. France24.

But given the seriousness of the crimes committed by Russia on our territory – which are getting more serious every month – the leverage for negotiations is far from [ones that took place] in February.

“It is absolutely essential that we use this momentum for the massive expropriation of our territory. Then we are ready for negotiations.

“Not the one Putin mentions, but something that would end the war and also prevent the next war on our soil, when Russia can restore its reserves.”

Talks are unlikely for at least several months while Ukraine conducts planned military operations, Ms Stefanishyna added, with the aim of returning the whole of Donbas and Crimea to Ukrainian control.

President Zelensky has also made it clear that retaking Crimea is a priority for his troops, adding to the fear of Russian civilians currently living there.

A spokesman for the military intelligence service said: “The successful actions of the defenders of Ukraine force the so-called authorities of the temporarily occupied Crimea and the south of our country to urgently move their families to the territory of the Russian Federation.

“Representatives of the occupation administration of Crimea, FSB employees and commanders of some military units are secretly trying to sell their houses and urgently evacuate their relatives from the peninsula.”

That’s despite Russia bans the sale of homes, restricts citizens’ movement through border crossings and hides information about Ukraine’s victories, the intelligence agency added.

While the Kremlin tries to downplay the risks to the peninsula, the actions of Kremlin troops tell a different story, the spies added.

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling near Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling near Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine

A field is covered with craters left by the shelling near Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine

A destroyed armored fighting vehicle is seen on a road near the city of Izium recently liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces

A destroyed armored fighting vehicle is seen on a road near the city of Izium recently liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces

A destroyed armored fighting vehicle is seen on a road near the city of Izium recently liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces

Zelensky has said that the recapture of Crimea – which has been occupied since 2014 and considered part of Russia itself by the Kremlin – is one of the main goals of the war against Russia.

The peninsula is of great symbolic and practical value to both nations.

According to legend, Vladimir the Great – ruler of the ancient Kievan Rus’ kingdom to which both Ukraine and Russia trace their ancestors – was baptized there by Saint Andrew, thus beginning the Russian Orthodox tradition.

The peninsula was later annexed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great, increasing territorial gains by predecessor Peter the Great, whose imperial ambitions Putin seeks to pursue.

Control of the peninsula allows for easy rule of the Sea of ​​Azov and control of parts of the Black Sea.

Crimea is also home to a major naval base at Sevastopol and gives access to and control over numerous lucrative maritime trade routes.

If Ukrainian troops invade Melitopol, Crimea runs the risk of being attacked directly.

Russian forces armed with Kalashnikov rifles attempt to hold off Ukrainian advance, allowing Kiev to regain control of 3,000 square miles within days

Russian forces armed with Kalashnikov rifles attempt to hold off Ukrainian advance, allowing Kiev to regain control of 3,000 square miles within days

Russian forces armed with Kalashnikov rifles attempt to hold off Ukrainian advance, allowing Kiev to regain control of 3,000 square miles within days

A Russian soldier opens fire with a rocket launcher at Ukrainian troops amid a lightning-fast offensive that has driven back Putin's men

A Russian soldier opens fire with a rocket launcher at Ukrainian troops amid a lightning-fast offensive that has driven back Putin's men

A Russian soldier opens fire with a rocket launcher at Ukrainian troops amid a lightning-fast offensive that has driven back Putin’s men

Russian artillery crews open fire as they try to prevent Ukraine from taking advantage of last week's rapid gains amid growing hopes of victory

Russian artillery crews open fire as they try to prevent Ukraine from taking advantage of last week's rapid gains amid growing hopes of victory

Russian artillery crews open fire as they try to prevent Ukraine from taking advantage of last week’s rapid gains amid growing hopes of victory

Kiev’s armed forces have already succeeded in attacking Russian air bases, railway lines and ammunition depots on the peninsula — attacks variously attributed to sabotage operations by special forces and long-range missiles.

But with large numbers of Russian troops concentrated in the city of Kherson – where there is heavy fighting – Crimea is not yet an immediate threat.

By taking Melitopol, Ukrainian troops would stop their advance just 70 miles away along a highway with few major settlements along the route.

It would also cut the so-called ‘land bridge’ between Crimea and occupied Donbas, cutting off easy military supply routes.

Soldiers in Crimea would then be left with only one main supply line – a literal bridge across the Kerch Strait, which would be vulnerable to rocket attacks.

Taking back control of Crimea would likely be a fatal blow to the Russian invasion, which could also prove fatal to the Putin regime.

As Zelensky put it in a speech last month, “It started with Crimea, it will end with Crimea.”

Ukraine’s stunning counter-attacks east of Kharkov and in Kherson – where its forces have recaptured an area five times the size of London since the beginning of the month – have shaken Russia.

Ukrainian soldiers ride on top of an armored vehicle on a road near the liberated areas in the Kharkiv region

Ukrainian soldiers ride on top of an armored vehicle on a road near the liberated areas in the Kharkiv region

Ukrainian soldiers ride on top of an armored vehicle on a road near the liberated areas in the Kharkiv region

Putin’s goal of “liberating” the entire Donbas region – already downgraded after the withdrawal from Kiev at the start of the war – now seems virtually impossible.

The Russian forces are battered, struggling to maintain their front lines and have few, if any, good options to respond.

Zelensky praised the success of the counterattack and called on Western countries to provide more weapons so his troops can get the job done.

Meanwhile, Putin continues as if nothing had happened and insisted a few days ago that Russia “lost nothing” in the war.

However, signs of dissension within the country are mounting – with state media propagandists and allies such as Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov both acknowledging that Russia has suffered a ‘defeat’.

In Monday night’s broadcasts, state media for the first time considered the possibility of total defeat in what they now call a “war.”

While they continued to insist that Russia is capable of winning, they warned that a shift will have to take place as the military is in a “serious situation.”