Ukrainian forces swept deeper into territory seized from fleeing Russian troops on Monday and joyful residents returned to former frontline villages, while Moscow's leaders dodged any discussion of the collapse of their occupation force in northeast Ukraine.
Ukraine's general staff said its soldiers had recaptured more than 20 towns and villages in just the past day.
“People are crying, people are joyful, of course. How could they not be joyful!” said retired English teacher Zoya, 76, north of Kharkiv in the now-quiet village of Zolochiv 18km (10 miles) from the Russian frontier, weeping as she described the months she had spent sheltering in the cellar.
Nastya, 28, had fled the village in April but returned last week after news of Ukrainian advances. “I think everyone’s in a great (mood)! It’s all over now. At least we hope it’s all over,” she said, queuing for groceries with two small children.
Further north, Ukrainian troops had moved into Udi, a hamlet in what had been no-man's-land closer to the frontier. Soldiers returning from there said it was still unsafe, littered with land mines, grenades and weapons left behind by fleeing Russian troops, with abandoned farm animals wandering about.
Vitaly Ganchev, the Russian-installed head of Moscow's occupation administration in what remained of Russian-held territory in Kharkiv region, acknowledged that Ukraine's troops had broken through to the frontier.
Ganchev, who has ordered the complete evacuation of civilians from Russian-held parts of the province, told Russia's state-owned Rossiya-24 television that about 5,000 civilians had escaped to Russia but the frontier was now shut.
"The situation is becoming more difficult by the hour," he said.
'Emergency defensive actions'
President Vladimir Putin and his senior officials have said nothing as Russia's forces face their worst defeat since the war's early weeks. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to answer directly when asked by a reporter if Putin still had confidence in the military leadership.
"The special military operation continues. And it will continue until the goals that were originally set are achieved," Peskov said.
Putin was later shown on state TV chairing a meeting on the economy at which he made no reference to the retreat and said Russia was holding up well in the face of Western sanctions.
"The economic blitzkrieg tactics, the onslaught they were counting on, did not work - this is already obvious to everyone, and to them too," he said.
After days of making no reference at all to the retreat, Russia's ministry of defence acknowledged on Saturday it had abandoned its main stronghold in the northeast, Izium and neighbouring Balakliia, in what it called a pre-planned "regrouping".
As thousands of Russian troops fled their positions, leaving behind huge stocks of ammunition and equipment, Russia fired missiles at power stations on Sunday causing blackouts in the Kharkiv and adjacent Poltava and Sumy regions.
Ukraine denounced what it described as retaliation against civilian targets for Russia's military setbacks. By Monday morning, Reuters journalists in Kharkiv said the power was back on but water was still cut off. The regional governor said power had been restored by 80%, although the Kharkiv mayor said it was knocked out again later on Monday. Moscow, which denies deliberately striking civilian targets, did not comment.
In an overnight speech, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainians would live without gas, water, food or heat if it meant escaping Moscow's orbit.
"Do you still think you can scare us, break us, force us to make concessions?" he said, addressing Russians. "Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst are not as frightening or as deadly for us as your 'brotherhood and friendship'."
Britain's ministry of defence said Russia had probably ordered its forces to withdraw from all of Kharkiv region west of the Oskil River. The means abandoning the sole railway line that had sustained Russia's operations in the northeast.
Kyiv, whose troops reached the Oskil when they seized the railway hub city of Kupiansk on Saturday, suggested the Russians were already falling further back: the Ukrainian general staff said Russian troops had abandoned Svatove in Luhansk province, a town around 20km (12 miles) east of the Oskil. Reuters could not confirm the situation there.
The British ministry said Moscow's forces were also struggling to bring reserves to the front in the south, where Ukraine has launched a big advance to isolate thousands of Russian soldiers on the west bank of the Dnipro River.
A spokesperson for Ukraine's southern command said Ukrainian forces had recaptured 500 sq km of territory in the south. The situation there could not be independently confirmed.
"The majority of the (Russian) force in Ukraine is highly likely being forced to prioritise emergency defensive actions," the British update said. "The rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia's overall operational design."
Ukrainian chief commander General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said his troops had retaken more than 3,000 sq km (1,160 sq miles), roughly the area of the US state of Rhode Island.
Further Russian retreats could soon put Ukrainian forces in position to attack territory Russia and its local proxies have held since 2014. Denis Pushilin, leader of the pro-Russian separatist administration in Donetsk province, acknowledged pressure from multiple directions.
"At the very least, we have stopped the enemy at Lyman," he said in a post on Telegram overnight, referring to a frontline city east of Izium. "We'll have to see how that develops. But our boys have had clear successes." He also described fighting at Bakhmut and Vuhledar further south.
Russian broadcasters have alluded to the setbacks but struggled to explain them, with commentators demanding a redoubled war effort.
"We must win the war in Ukraine! We must liquidate the Nazi regime!" one commentator said on a panel show on NTV television.
"And how many years is that supposed to take?" replied another. "So my 10-year-old children will get a chance to fight?"