Kyiv, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the eastern city of Lyman had been evacuated by Russian forces and Ukrainian flags would fly again, winning a symbolic military and political victory against Moscow on the very territory President Vladimir Putin last occupied Week said Russia would annex it.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was withdrawing troops from the city after Ukrainian forces advanced for days to encircle them, but Moscow kept several thousand soldiers there, most likely encircled until the fighting ended.
“Lyman is completely cleared,” Zelenskyi said in a brief address to Ukrainians on Sunday afternoon local time, shortly after announcing that “the Ukrainian flag is already in Lyman, Donetsk region.”
Kiev’s victories since early September have turned the momentum on the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor for the first time since the Russian invasion began earlier this year and since Moscow-controlled separatists took up arms to establish pro-Moscow states in eastern Ukraine in 2014 postponed.
Ukrainian advances have unsettled Russian defenses in eastern Ukraine. There and in the south of the country, where Ukraine is slowly retaking land, Kiev’s forces have been pounding Russian positions for weeks to drive the Russians out of the strategically important city of Kherson on the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian soldiers filmed a video celebrating their control of the city in front of Lyman City Hall over the weekend, with one of them holding a Ukrainian flag on the building and a Russian occupation flag on the ground.
The roads to Lyman were lined with burnt-out wrecks of Russian tanks and armored vehicles, with the bodies of Russian soldiers lying on their sides. Small remnants of nearby villages with hardly any civilians left. The Ukrainian armed forces have also suffered significant casualties.
A church damaged in fighting in Svyatohirsk, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s military setbacks – and the prospect of more lost territory – have raised fears that the Kremlin may turn to nuclear weapons to accomplish what it has been unable to do with conventional forces. Security analysts say the threat of a nuclear strike is higher now than it has been since the Cold War, but Russia appears reluctant to deploy one immediately.
In Moscow, despite setbacks on the battlefield, the Russian government focused on the formalities surrounding the takeover of Ukrainian territories. On Sunday, the country’s constitutional court approved the integration of the occupied territories. The speaker of Russia’s Duma, the lower house of parliament, said the legislature will consider legislation on Monday to include Ukraine’s territories in the Russian Federation.
Mr Zelenskyy said Putin’s announcement on Friday that he would take over four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, where Russian troops occupy varyingly sized areas – backfired for the Kremlin leader. The Ukrainian leader said mounting battlefield casualties caused Russia’s military and political leaders to turn against themselves in the hunt for culprits.
“They already started biting each other there,” said Zelenskyy. “They are looking for the culprits and accusing some generals of failure.”
Russian officials and military commentators have called on Ukraine to pay for a series of defeats it inflicted on Russian forces over the past month, beginning with a landmark offensive in northeastern Ukraine that left Kyiv handing over parts of Ukrainian territory to Russia within days had spent months trying to win earlier in the summer.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s predominantly Muslim Chechnya region, whose own forces are fighting Kyiv in Ukraine, and who has clashed with Russia’s Defense Ministry, has called for the dismissal of Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District, which controls the Lyman Oblast supervised. He also called for tougher measures to secure victories for the Russian military, including a tactical nuclear strike
The formal process of integrating Ukraine’s regions into Russia’s territory has given Mr Putin a smear of victory in a war in which his troops have repeatedly stumbled. But the Kremlin leader’s pledge to defend Russia, including the new territories, with “all the weapons at our disposal” has raised fears that Moscow may cross the nuclear threshold to protect its assets against increasingly successful Ukrainian advances.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis appealed directly to Mr Putin to end the “spiral of violence and death,” warning that the annexations made nuclear war more likely.
The battlefield movement came as Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, cut off supplies to Italy, saying it was unable to ship gas because of an administrative issue with an Austrian operator.
The UK MoD said Lyman would likely be defended by undermanned elements of Russia’s western and central military districts, as well as contingents of voluntarily mobilized reservists.
Elsewhere in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian soldiers are working on a howitzer near the city of Siversk.
Photo: Inna Varenytsia/Associated Press
“Lyman … commands a key road crossing across the Siversky Donets River, behind which Russia has attempted to consolidate its defenses,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
Russian military correspondents said Ukraine would likely try to keep up the momentum to attack Kreminna to the east, a strategic point that could put Ukrainian forces within range to advance on Russia’s Severodonetsk fortress, which Moscow was capturing after a weeks-long artillery barrage. Advance captured and lost men and ammunition.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to Ukraine’s claims, but on Sunday released videos of soldiers conducting drills with newly mobilized forces. It was said to be continuing attacks on Kupyansk, which Ukrainian forces had captured in their breakthrough offensive in the Kharkiv region.
—Ann M. Simmons and Francis X. Rocca contributed to this article.
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