Horrible memories of russians invaders: “they were a rabble, what they did not destroy, they stole, including forks and spoons, and the shoes from a pensioner’s feet”

Natalia’s face lights up as she recalls the moment of her liberation – when the hated occupiers were forced from her village, Novovoznesenske, in the southern region of Kherson.

She farmed there in peace and quiet until the Russians arrived on 29 March. What they did not destroy, they stole, she says, including forks and spoons, and the shoes from a pensioner’s feet.

“They were a rabble,” she tells me, wringing her hands as she relives her trauma.

Freedom finally came on 2 September.

“When our armed forces arrived, we were in the basement,” says the 50-year-old.

“They asked, in Ukrainian, ‘is anyone alive?’ and I realised they were ours. They were so handsome, so beautiful especially compared to the fascists [her term for Russian forces].

“I didn’t know what to do with them – if I should hug them or hold their hands? I touched them and I was very happy.”

Short presentational grey line

After months of deadlock, Ukrainians – and Russians – are facing a new reality. Suddenly there is momentum in the largest conflict in Europe since World War Two.

Ukrainian forces have advanced, and Russian forces have beaten a hasty retreat – critically from strategic locations in the eastern region of Kharkiv. They have lost the cities of Kupiansk, a crucial logistics hub, and Izyum, a launchpad for attacks.

“The Russian army is rushing to get famous as the fastest army in the world,” wrote Andriy Yermak – chief of staff for President Volodymyr Zelensky – on Twitter. “Keep running”.

Social media here has been flooded with images of abandoned or destroyed Russian positions, and Ukrainian forces raising their flag in newly liberated areas.

The speed – and breadth – of the counter-offensive has surprised the occupiers, and many Ukrainians. One Ukrainian colleague pronounced himself “shocked, pleasantly so”.

“We needed a loud victory to cheer us up,” he says, “and it looks like there is a domino effect in Kharkiv. But they still have weapons and troops and lots of our territory. People still understand who our neighbour is. But there’s less fear and more confidence.”

The advances have given a war-torn nation a shot in the arm, after grinding losses over the summer in the Donbas region.

When we reported from there in June there was no indication that Ukrainian forces might be able to mount such a strong counterattack. “It’s a military miracle,” says Mykhailo, a 38-year-old IT engineer.

The “miracle” has been achieved with plenty of foreign weaponry – including long-range multiple rocket launch systems – and foreign intelligence.

It also looks like the Ukrainians outsmarted the Russians, not for the first time, by talking up plans to counter-attack in the southern Kherson region.

The Kremlin appears to have taken the bait, redeploying some forces there, leaving their positions in Kharkiv dangerously exposed.

But the offensive has also shown that the Ukrainians can beat the Russians on the battlefield, according to Western military experts.

“We are now seeing the Russians being defeated, not just outmanoeuvred,” says Professor Michael Clarke, former Director of the Royal United Services Institute. He views this as “an early turning point”.

On Saturday, President Zelensky said his country’s armed forces had recovered around 2,000 sq km (770 square miles) since the beginning of September. On Sunday morning, the army put it even higher, at 3,000 sq km.

For now, journalists – including those from the BBC – are being kept away from the frontlines. We cannot verify all of Ukraine’s claims – but Russia admits its troops have withdrawn from parts of Kharkiv, claiming they were “regrouped” rather than driven out.

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