The Ukrainian army on Monday recognized Russia’s “tactical successes” in the Kharkiv region, where Moscow claimed the capture of four additional localities near the border in its offensive launched on Friday, which led to the evacuation of thousands of civilians.

“Currently, the enemy is experiencing tactical successes,” the Ukrainian General Staff acknowledged early Monday in a statement on Facebook, adding that “fighting continues in the border town of Vovchansk,” which had some 3,000 inhabitants before the offensive in progress and where Moscow has mobilized “up to five battalions”, according to Kyiv.

This Russian advance comes at a time when in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin carried out a surprise reshuffle on Sunday evening and dismissed his emblematic Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, after two years of conflict in Ukraine without a clear outcome.

AFP was able to see people evacuated near Vovchansk on Sunday, most of them elderly and disoriented.

“We weren’t ready to leave,” said Lyouda Zelenskaya, 72, with her cat Zhora in her arms. Like her, Liouba Konovalova, 70, remembered “the terrifying night” which preceded their evacuation.

According to Oleksiï Kharkivsky, a Vovchansk police officer, “several people” died in shelling on Saturday and “the city is constantly under fire.” “Artillery, mortars, the enemies are attacking with everything they have,” said this police officer mobilized to evacuate the residents.

According to him, some 1,500 people have been evacuated since Friday from this city hit by 32 drone attacks in the last 24 hours. As of Sunday, there were still around 500 people there, according to Kharkiv region governor Oleg Synegoubov.

“All areas of the northern border are under enemy fire almost 24 hours a day. The situation is difficult,” Synegubov said on social media.

“Defensive battles and fierce fighting continue on a large part of our border,” summarized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “The idea behind the attacks in the Kharkiv region is to stretch our forces and undermine the morale” of the Ukrainian army.

The Russian Defense Ministry reported on Sunday the capture of four localities very close to the border – Gatishche, Krasnoye, Morokhovets and Oleïnikovo – in the Kharkiv region which is home to Ukraine’s second city.

Volodymyr Tymochko, police chief of the Kharkiv region, said Vovchansk was under attack from three sides and Russian troops were on its outskirts. “Despite active fighting, the police continue to evacuate” the population, he told AFP at the evacuation point.

The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian forces Oleksandr Syrsky assured that “attempts to break through our defenses have been stopped”, but he admitted that the situation in the Kharkiv region had “significantly deteriorated” and remained “complicated”. Ukrainian forces are “doing everything they can to maintain their defense lines and inflict damage on the enemy,” he said.

“Despite all the events taking place in the region, (the city of) Kharkiv is calm, we do not see people leaving,” said its mayor, Igor Terekhov.

Authorities in Kyiv have been warning for weeks that Moscow could try to attack the northeastern border regions, as Ukraine faces delays in Western aid and a shortage of soldiers.

Inside Russia and in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have increased strikes, particularly against energy infrastructure.

In Belgorod, near the border, 15 people died when a building partially collapsed on Sunday, hit by a Ukrainian missile intercepted by anti-aircraft defenses, according to a new report released Monday by the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Around twenty people were injured.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported “two large explosions” there early Monday without providing further details.

A Ukrainian drone also caused a fire on the site of the Volgograd refinery (southern Russia) during the night from Saturday to Sunday, lamented the governor of the region of the same name, Andreï Botcharov, assuring that the fire had been extinguished. and that there were no victims.

Owned by the giant Lukoil, the refinery claims on its website to be “the largest producer of petroleum products in the Southern Federal District”, which brings together eight regions in southwest Russia. The site had already been the target of a Ukrainian drone attack in early February, without casualties there either.

Kyiv says it is acting in response to strikes by the Russian army against civilian sites, starting with its energy infrastructure.

After more than two years of conflict, Sergei Choïgu, in office since 2012, was therefore dismissed. “Today, on the battlefield, the one who wins is the one who is the most open to innovation,” justified Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov.

Andreï Belooussov, Sergue¨Choïgu’s replacement, has training as an economist and no military background.