Vladimir Putin continued to insist this weekend that Russia is not retreating from the northeastern oblasts of Ukraine, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Perhaps he would prefer to refer to this as a “strategic withdrawal.” No matter what you call it, however, it’s looking increasingly as if some of Putin’s plans will need to be changed. Since early in the summer, preparations were being made to hold referendums on the official annexation of two regions in Ukraine unofficially known as the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, along with much of the Kharkiv region. The annexations would be proclaimed to be “indefinite.” The tentative date for the votes was planned for November 4th, Russia’s “Unity Day.” But now, sources close to the Kremlin say that those plans have been iced and there is no talk of a vote in November anymore, assuming it will ever happen at all. (Meduza)

According to two sources close to the Kremlin, the Russian authorities have postponed their plans to conduct “referendums” on Russian annexation of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and of Ukraine’s Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions “indefinitely.”

Meduza’s sources reported that Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in and around the Kharkiv region was the sole reason behind the Kremlin’s decision to postpone the referendums. The sources stressed that political strategists with ties to the Kremlin in Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions have already been called back to Russia. “Everyone got the f*** out of there. They received orders to go home,” said the sources. Russian political strategists tasked with preparing for referendums remain in the Kherson region.

As Meduza has previously reported, Russian Federation Council Deputy Speaker and United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak said in early September that holding the referendums on November 4 — Russia’s Unity Day — would be “correct and symbolic.”

To be clear, Russia has not been kicked entirely out of Ukraine. Not even close to it, really. But the Ukrainians have gained a significant amount of territory. This includes the city of Isyum in Kharkiv Oblast. As German-based investigative reporter Tim McMillan revealed yesterday, the Russian retreat was hasty and they left a lot of military equipment behind.

This seems significant because Kharkiv was one of the regions where Russian supporters in Ukraine had been largely in control even before the invasion began, though there was ongoing fighting in the area. Now it appears to be fairly firmly in Ukrainian control.

Politico has been reporting on some heartwarming scenes in the Kharkiv region, including videos of residents tearfully embracing the Ukrainian soldiers as they arrived in the city and thanking them for driving the Russians out. But such scenes come with reminders to remain cautious. Once Russia’s own troops are out of the area entirely, Kharkiv is still easily within range to sustain significant Russian shelling from the north and the east. As in most ground wars, taking territory is one thing. Holding it is another thing entirely.

Still, none of that is stopping Zelensky from taking a victory lap.

President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday confirmed Ukrainian troops had recaptured the strategic city of Izyum in the eastern part of the country from Russian forces as part of a large-scale counter-offensive.

In an address to the nation marking 200 days since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Zelensky thanked Ukrainian forces who had “liberated hundreds of our cities and villages … and most recently Balaklia, Izyum and Kupiansk,” naming three important hubs recently captured by Kyiv’s army.

I’m not looking to dump cold water on anyone’s parade, but this situation is still far from stable. With the coming arrival of cold weather and the ground freezing over again, Russia will likely regain the ability to move a lot more hardware and troop carriers into the region. And it certainly doesn’t sound like Putin is close to considering an official retreat from the country and pulling out all of his troops. The Ukrainian advances are encouraging, but the Russians still have plenty of ticks up their sleeves if they care to pull them out.

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