Lyman, Ukraine CNN —
The eerie emptiness of the streets of Lyman in eastern Ukraine belies the city’s strategic importance.
On Sunday there is no sign of Russian troops at all – few damaged Russian tanks or Russian dead or Russian prisoners. Members of the Ukrainian national guard unit Dnipro-1 hover in small groups on some streets.
The occasional crackle of gunfire or the thunder of artillery pierces the silence. A few locals show up, riding bikes in search of food, confused as to what is happening.
“One day I wear one hat, another day I wear another,” said a tearful woman, pretending to take off a hat.
“How can we live like this,” she said, referring to the changing control over the city.
CNN was among the first media outlets in the recently liberated city, arriving 30 minutes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared the city completely evacuated from Russian troops.
Ukrainian officials and troops had repeatedly spoken of large numbers of Moscow’s better units being trapped there. However, few signs of encirclement could be seen on Sunday.
Some officials said Russian bodies had already been cleared away and prisoners removed. But locals offered a different explanation: Russian forces exited the city in an orderly manner on Friday.
“They got on their tanks and drove off,” Tanya said, and rode her bike back to the bomb shelter, where she still spends the nights with 15 others.
A Ukrainian army spokesman, asked to respond to CNN’s coverage, denied there had been a Russian withdrawal two days ago and said there was fighting in the area as recently as Saturday.
Sergiy Cherevatiy of the Eastern Group of Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian troops formed convoys to break through the de facto encirclement of the city. Some managed to get out, he said, while others were hit.
The possibility that Russian forces may have conducted an orderly withdrawal, even partially, on Friday raises an important timing issue for the Kremlin. On that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed documents falsely claiming to annex Lyman and other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine and held a rally in Moscow’s Red Square claiming the victory was Russia’s .
At the same time, it now looks like its military has pulled out of Lyman in one of the most significant Russian defeats in weeks – a withdrawal that could have a domino effect on Russian control of the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The return to Ukrainian control in Lyman was quick, with a local already painting the Ukrainian gold and blue colors back onto the gate of the local police station. Inside the building, the damage had already been repaired and the rooms cleaned up.
In the local administration building, Roman sat on a table next to a flag of the United Russia party. “Bad,” he said, describing the months of Russian control. “No electricity or water.” He added that the administration building was used to administer and persuade locals to participate in the recent referendum, which must have taken place in Lyman amidst the full barrage of Ukraine’s advance.
Significant Lyman railway infrastructure was damaged, with the roofs of the station building being blown off and the railways’ rolling stock damaged. Several buildings in the city were badly damaged, but by Sunday the streets appeared to have been swept clean in some areas.
Many of the Ukrainian troops had already advanced towards the next target in Russia’s rapidly faltering defense lines – Kremmina, further east.