After being encircled by Ukrainian forces, Russia pulled troops out from the strategic eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman – the latest victory for Kyiv’s counteroffensive that has humiliated and angered Moscow.
The announcement on Saturday came a day after President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions – including Donetsk, where Lyman is located – and placed them under Russia’s nuclear umbrella, at a ceremony condemned by Kyiv and the West as an illegitimate farce.
“In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, allied troops were withdrawn from the settlement of Krasny Liman to more advantageous lines,” Russia’s defence ministry said, using the Russian name of the city.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said in a video address although the Ukrainian flag was flying in the city, “fighting is still going on there”.
He also indicated Ukrainian troops had taken the village of Torske, on the main road out of Lyman to the east.
The Russian statement ended hours of official silence after Ukraine first said it surrounded thousands of Russian troops in the area and then that its forces were inside the city.
Ukraine’s defence ministry wrote on Twitter that “almost all” the Russian troops in Lyman had either been captured or killed.
Located 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Lyman is in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk, two regions that Russia annexed on Friday.
“The Russian grouping in the area of Lyman is surrounded,” said Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern forces.
Russia has used Lyman as a logistics and transport hub for its operations in the north of the Donetsk region. Its capture would be Ukraine’s biggest battlefield gain since a counterattack in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
The recent Ukrainian successes have infuriated Putin allies such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, who said he felt compelled to speak out.
“In my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram.
Other top Putin allies, including former President Dmitry Medvedev, have suggested Russia may need to resort to nuclear weapons, but Kadyrov’s call was the most urgent and explicit.
Putin said last week he was not bluffing when he said he was prepared to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity” with all available means, and on Friday made clear this extended to the new regions claimed by Moscow.
Washington says it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons and has spelled out to Moscow the “catastrophic consequences” it would face.
‘Psychologically very important’
Two Ukrainian soldiers taped the yellow-and-blue national flag to the Lyman welcome sign at an entrance to the city, a video posted by the president’s chief of staff showed.
“October 1. We’re unfurling our state flag and establishing it on our land. Lyman will be Ukraine,” one of the soldiers said.
Ukraine said controlling Lyman would allow Kyiv to advance into the Luhansk region, whose full capture Moscow announced in early July after weeks of grinding advances.
“Lyman is important because it is the next step towards the liberation of the Ukrainian Donbas. It is an opportunity to go further to Kreminna and Severodonetsk, and it is psychologically very important,” Cherevatyi said.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions make up the wider Donbas region that has been a major focus for Russia since soon after the start of Moscow’s invasion on February 24 in what it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise its neighbour.
Putin proclaimed the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia to be Russian land on Friday – a swath of territory equal to about 18 percent of Ukraine’s total surface land area.
Ukraine and its Western allies branded Russia’s move as illegal. Kyiv promised to continue liberating its land from Russian forces and said it would not hold peace talks with Moscow while Putin remained president.
Meanwhile, on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, the governor of the city of Sevastopol announced an emergency situation at an airfield there. Explosions and huge billows of smoke could be seen by beachgoers in the Russian-held resort. Authorities said a plane rolled off the runway at the Belbek airfield, and said ammunition on board had caught fire.
Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of targetting two humanitarian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of civilians.
In other developments, in an apparent attempt to secure Moscow’s hold on the newly annexed territory, Russian forces seized the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ihor Murashov.