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Munition on a road in Drobysheve, Ukraine, on Oct. 5.Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

After weeks of Ukrainian troops making significant gains in the country’s east and south, forcing Russians to retreat on both fronts, the Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Kherson region has called for residents there to take their children and leave.

The request suggests Moscow is losing its grip on Kherson, one of four Ukrainian provinces Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed two weeks ago. He said at the time that Russia would defend the territories as its own, with all the powers and means at its disposal.

Moscow has begun to intensify its rhetoric. Alexander Venediktov, the deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, was quoted in Russian state media on Thursday as saying that the war could escalate into a global conflict if Ukraine is allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukraine has submitted an application for membership in the alliance.

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“Kyiv is well aware that such a step would mean a guaranteed escalation to World War Three,” Mr. Venediktov said. He added that he believes Ukraine’s application to NATO is propaganda, because the West would not risk the consequences of acquiescing.

Kherson’s Kremlin-backed governor, Vladimir Saldo, made his plea to residents in a video message on Thursday, in which he also asked Moscow for help transporting people to Russia.

“Every day, the cities of Kherson region are subjected to missile attacks,” he said. “As such, the leadership of Kherson administration has decided to provide Kherson families with the option to travel to other regions of the Russian Federation to rest and study.”

Mr. Putin illegally annexed the provinces of Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia last month, following sham referendums in which, Moscow claims, residents voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. Kherson is strategically important because it controls the only land route to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. It also includes the mouth of the Dnipro river, which divides Ukraine.

Ukraine’s army has been forcing Russian soldiers to retreat in the south in recent weeks, marking the biggest advance there since the war began. The Ukrainians are now advancing on the three-kilometre-long Nova Kakhovka dam, one of the southernmost crossings on the Dnipro.

As Ukrainian forces continue to make gains on the ground, Mr. Putin has moved to escalate the war, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists, attacking civilians and making veiled threats to use nuclear weapons.

Russian forces continued to carry out attacks across Ukraine on Thursday. Mykolaiv, which is the closest Ukrainian-held city to Kherson, came under massive bombardment, according to local officials.

Ukrainian regional governor Vitaliy Kim said the top two floors of a five-storey residential building were destroyed. Video footage showed rescuers pulling an 11-year-old boy out of the wreckage. Mr. Kim said the child had spent six hours trapped under debris.

And in the east, Russian missiles struck near the central market in Kupiansk, a city Ukrainian forces liberated during their advance last month. The missiles destroyed shops. Streets were blanketed in shards of glass, debris and twisted sheets of metal.

Russia used three drones to attack the small town of Makariv, west of Kyiv, early Thursday morning. Officials said critical infrastructure facilities were struck.

The wave of deadly missile and drone strikes also hit the heart of the capital, Kyiv, where earlier in the week missiles hit a park and a site near a university. Mr. Putin has said the attacks are retaliation for the partial destruction of a key bridge that links Russia to Crimea.

Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Andriy Kostin, said Thursday that his office had opened criminal proceedings related to the Russian missile strikes. At a press conference with International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan in The Hague, Mr. Kostin called the strikes “a classic act of terror.” He said more than 112 Russian missiles had killed 17 people and injured 93, marking Russia’s largest aerial offensive since the start of the war.

“The goal of Russia’s deliberate attacks is to cause civilian deaths and to destroy civilian infrastructure, [and] by shortage of electricity and heating, provoke a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mr. Kostin said. “Coupled with the intimidation tactics against civilians, it’s a classical act of terror prohibited under international law.”

He said every death, injury and damaged building will be documented.

Russia has denied deliberately attacking civilians or violating international law, and has dismissed allegations from Kyiv that Russian soldiers have carried out war crimes.

NATO allies met in Brussels on Thursday and announced plans to bolster Europe’s air defenses. Germany and more than a dozen other European NATO members committed to procuring weapons for a “European sky shield.”

“We are living in threatening, dangerous times,” German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said at a signing ceremony for the deal.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday that Ukraine still only has about 10 per cent of what it needs to protect itself against Russian air attacks. Earlier in the week, after an emergency meeting of the Group of Seven countries, the U.S. pledged to supply Ukraine with new air defence systems.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that NATO will monitor an expected coming Russian nuclear exercise very closely.

“We have monitored Russian nuclear forces for decades and of course we will continue to monitor them very closely and we will stay vigilant,” he told reporters.

“What I can say is that this exercise, the Russian exercise, is an annual exercise. It’s an exercise where they test and exercise their nuclear forces,” he added, apparently referring to Russia’s annual Grom exercise, which normally takes place in late October. Russia typically tests its nuclear-capable bombers, submarines and missiles.

With a report from Reuters