A Ukrainian counteroffensive that already has reclaimed thousands of miles is breaking through Russian lines in the southern Kherson region recently subject to annexation by Moscow, Kremlin-aligned officials said Monday.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-picked head of the Kherson province, said on state television that multiple settlements about 70 miles northeast of the city of Kherson on the Dnieper River have been overrun.
"It's tense, let's put it that way," Saldo said in a translation by Reuters.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in his daily briefing that "with superior tank units ... the enemy managed to penetrate into the depths of our defense." But Konashenkov said Russian troops had fallen back to a defensive position and "continue to inflict massive fire damage" on Kyiv's forces.
Ukraine also reported making inroads in the Luhansk province days after reclaiming the strategic eastern city of Lyman in the Donetsk province near the border with Luhansk.
The Ukrainian gains are bringing into question Russia's ability to absorb four occupied regions -- Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhizhia -- after claiming overwhelming victory last week in widely discredited elections. Russian officials so far can't even agree on where the borders of those provinces are.
►The European Union nations will have to reduce natural gas use by 13% in the winter and may wind up competing for energy with Asia if they get entirely cut off by Russia, the International Energy Agency said Monday.
►Ihor Murashov, director general of Europe's largest nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian province of Zaporizhzhia, was released from Russian custody after being detained leaving the facility Friday, according to Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
►WNBA star Brittney Griner's appeal of her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession has been set for Oct. 25, a Russian court said Monday.
►Russian shelling of eight Ukrainian regions over the past 24 hours killed two civilians and wounded 14 others, Ukraine's presidential office said Monday.
►The Joint Expeditionary Force group of northern European nations met Monday and discussed coordinated security -- "including increased maritime presence'' -- for the pipelines in the Baltic Sea after blasts created three leaks of natural gas, the British Defense Ministry said.
Ukraine to get four more HIMARS launchers in near term
Four more of the U.S. rocket launchers that have proven pivotal in the war against Russia are coming Ukraine's way soon, not years down the road.
The High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, will be part of a new $624 million package of military aid expected to be announced Tuesday, U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity.
The new delivery will increase to 20 the number of HIMARS sent to Ukraine, which has benefited from their capacity to strike accurately from 40-plus miles to destroy weapon depots and bridges Russia used to supply its troops. That ability has helped turn the war's momentum in Ukraine's favor.
This new supply of HIMARS is separate from a program announced in recent weeks that will fund 18 more such launchers in future years as the U.S. and its allies seek to boost Ukraine's long-term defenses.
Russian media outlets becoming more critical of war, think tank says
Embarrassing battlefield losses in the northern Kharkiv region and more recently in the strategic eastern city of Lyman, along with the troubled mobilization of civilians, "are fundamentally changing the Russian information space,'' the Institute for the Study of War said.
The Washington think tank noted that Russian state media outlets and military bloggers, faced with the facts on the ground, are pointing fingers for Moscow's failures and complaining about war misinformation.
Some guests on pro-Kremlin TV shows have even criticized the planned annexation of four Ukrainian provinces whose control by Russia seems increasingly tenuous, according to the ISW assessment. And a Russian public that had largely remained disengaged from the war has grown wary and distrustful upon the heightened prospect of being more directly impacted by the conflict, in some cases being forced to participate.
"The Kremlin's declaration of partial mobilization exposed the general Russian public to the consequences of the defeat around Kharkiv and then at Lyman,'' the institute wrote, "shattering the Kremlin's efforts to portray the war as limited and generally successful.''
Petraeus: US and NATO allies would 'take out' Russian forces if they used nukes
There's an important fact to keep in mind amid the concern Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised with his nuclear threats: The U.S. and its allies would crush the Russian forces, former CIA Director David Petraeus says.
Petraeus, a retired four star general, said that if Putin used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. would lead a collective response with other NATO nations "that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea."
Petraeus made the comments during a Sunday interview with ABC's "This Week'' in which he said Putin is not only losing the war, but "the battlefield reality he faces is, I think, irreversible.'' He added: "There's nothing he can do at this point. ... and the losses have been staggering."
Petraeus noted that he hasn't spoken with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who last week revealed the Biden administration has made it clear to the Russians that they would face "catastrophic consequences'' if they used nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
Even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Petraeus said a Russian nuclear attack would be so "horrific'' that the U.S. and its allies would have no choice but to respond militarily.
"But it doesn't expand, it doesn't - it's not nuclear for nuclear. You don't want to, again, get into a nuclear escalation here,'' he said. "But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way.''
Russia has stolen $530 million in Ukrainian grain, investigation finds
Russia has stolen at least $530 million worth of Ukrainian grain as part of a sophisticated smuggling operation used to help fund the war, according to an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series "Frontline."
Tracking three dozen ships that made more than 50 trips carrying grain from Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine to ports in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and other countries, the news organizations found Russia used "falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge'' to steal the grain.
Ukraine has made repeated accusations of grain theft during the war, drawing denials from Moscow.
"It's just pure pillaging and looting, and that is also an actionable offense under international military law," said David Crane, a prosecutor who has been involved in numerous international war crime investigations.
Russian parliament house approves annexations
The lower house of the Russian parliament on Monday approved the treaties for four regions of Ukraine to join Russia. The unanimous vote by the State Duma came days after President Vladimir Putin and Russian-installed leaders of the four regions signed the treaties. The upper house is expected to follow suit Tuesday. Ukraine, the U.S. and its western allies have dismissed the annexations as having no legal validity.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas would join Russia. He said the borders of the two other regions - Zaporizhzhia and Kherson - have not been determined.
Kremlin shrugs off criticism of leadership
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said criticism of Russia's military leadership by Chechnya's regional leader was driven by emotions. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, scathingly criticized the Russian military command over the weekend, saying the Russian retreat from the city of Lyman in eastern Ukraine was a result of incompetence and nepotism. Kadyrov wrote on Telegram that Russian military leader Colonel-General Alexander Lapin should be fired.
"If I had my way I would have demoted Lapin to private, would have deprived him of his awards and would have sent him to the front line to wash off his shame with the rifle in his hands," Kadyrov wrote.
Kadyrov also called for the use of low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine to reverse the momentum of the war, which has been decidedly in Ukraine's favor in recent weeks.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine updates: Ukraine troops break through Russian lines in Kherson