Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russia on Sunday attacked the Ukrainian president’s hometown and other targets with suicide drones, and Ukraine has regained full control of a strategically important city in the east in a counteroffensive that has reshaped the war.
Russia’s loss of the eastern city of Lyman, which it had used as a transport and logistics hub, is a fresh blow to the Kremlin, which is trying to escalate the war by illegally annexing four regions of Ukraine and increasing threats to use nuclear weapons .
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab threatens to take the conflict to a dangerous new level. It also prompted Ukraine to formally apply for NATO membership, an offer backed on Sunday by nine central and eastern European NATO members who feared Russia’s aggression could eventually target them too.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on Sunday that his armed forces now control Lyman: “As of 12:30 (0930 GMT) Lyman is completely evacuated. Thank you to our military, our warriors,” he said in a video address.
The Russian military did not comment on Lyman on Sunday after announcing on Saturday that it would withdraw its forces there to more favorable positions.
The British military described the recapture of Lyman as a “significant political setback” for Moscow, and Ukraine seemed quick to capitalize on its gains.
Hours after Zelenskyi’s announcement, Ukrainian media shared an image of Ukrainian troops carrying the country’s yellow and blue flag in front of a statue marking the village of Torske, 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Lyman and within sight of the Russian-held troops’ territory Lugansk. Shortly thereafter, video posted online showed a Ukrainian soldier saying Kiev’s forces had begun attacking the city of Kreminna just across the border in Luhansk. Artillery fire could be heard in the background. Russian military correspondents also acknowledged Ukrainian attacks on Kreminna.
In another online photo, a Ukrainian soldier stands in front of a giant watermelon landmark south of the village of Novovorontsovka on the banks of the Dnieper River on the northern edge of the Russian-controlled Kherson province. A Ukrainian flag was flying above the statue, and several apparently deactivated land mines were lying next to it.
While Ukrainian forces did not immediately acknowledge a breakthrough, writers close to the Russian military have described a new offensive by Kiev in the Kherson region.
In southern Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s hometown of Krivyi Rih was attacked by a suicide drone that destroyed two floors of a school early Sunday, the regional governor said. Ukraine’s air force said Sunday it shot down five Iranian-made drones overnight while two others made it through air defenses.
A car carrying four men who were going to hunt for mushrooms in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine crashed into a mine, killing everyone inside, authorities said on Sunday.
Russian attacks also targeted the city of Zaporizhia, Ukrainian authorities said on Sunday. And Ukraine’s military said Sunday it carried out attacks on several Russian command posts, ammunition depots and two S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.
Reports of military activity could not be verified immediately.
Ukrainian forces have retaken swathes of land, particularly in the northeast around Kharkiv, in recent weeks in a counteroffensive that has embarrassed the Kremlin and prompted rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war.
Lyman, which retook Ukraine by encircling Russian troops, is in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk, two of the four regions Russia illegally annexed on Friday after forcing what was left of the population to be at gunpoint in to vote referendums.
In his nightly address, Zelenskyy said: “In the past week there were more Ukrainian flags in Donbass. In a week there will be even more.”
In a daily intelligence briefing on Sunday, Britain’s MoD called Lyman crucial because it has “a key road crossing the River Siversky Donets, behind which Russia has attempted to consolidate its defences.”
Russia’s withdrawal from northeast Ukraine in recent weeks has revealed evidence of widespread, routine torture of both civilians and soldiers, particularly in the strategic city of Izium, an Associated Press investigation has found.
AP journalists located 10 torture sites in the city, including a deep pit in a residential area, a damp underground prison that stank of urine, a medical clinic and a kindergarten.
Recent developments have fueled fears of an all-out conflict between Russia and the West.
Putin has portrayed recent Ukrainian gains as a US-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia, and last week he escalated the threats of nuclear weapons in some of his toughest and most anti-Western rhetoric yet.
The leaders of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and Slovakia issued a joint statement on Sunday endorsing the path to NATO membership for Ukraine and all 30 members of the NATO US-led security blocs to step up military aid to Kyiv.
Germany’s defense minister announced on Sunday that 16 self-propelled howitzers produced in Slovakia would be delivered to Ukraine next year. The weapons are jointly financed with Denmark, Norway and Germany,
Russia on Sunday took steps to make its land grab look like a court case aimed at helping people allegedly being persecuted by Kyiv, with the approval of the constitutional court and bills being pushed through the pro-Kremlin parliament.
Outside Russia, the Kremlin’s actions have been widely denounced as violating international law, and several EU countries have summoned Russian ambassadors since Putin signed annexation deals with Moscow-backed officials in southern and eastern Ukraine on Friday.
Meanwhile, international concern over the fate of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant has grown after Russian forces arrested its director for alleged questioning.
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Sunday that its Director General Rafael Grossi will visit Kyiv and Moscow in the coming days to discuss the situation around the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant. Grossi continues to push for “a nuclear safe zone” around the site.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Zelenskyy, condemning the detention of the plant manager and saying the situation there was “very worrying”.
Located in one of the four regions that Moscow illegally annexed on Friday, the Zaporizhia plant has repeatedly been caught in the crossfire of the war. Ukrainian technicians have continued to operate the power plant after Russian troops seized it, but its last reactor was shut down as a precaution in September.
Pope Francis on Sunday condemned Russia’s nuclear threats and called on Putin to stop “this spiral of violence and death.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine