KYIV, Oct 2 – Ukraine claimed full control of the eastern Lyman logistics hub on Sunday, Kiev’s most significant battlefield gain in weeks, providing a potential staging ground for further attacks to the east while increasing pressure on the Kremlin.
The sharp setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin came after he announced on Friday the annexation of four regions covering nearly a fifth of Ukraine, the area that includes Lyman. Kyiv and the West condemned the proclamation as an illegitimate farce.
“As of 12:30 (09:30 GMT), Lyman is fully cleared,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a short video clip on his Telegram channel. “Thank you to our soldiers… Glory to Ukraine!”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday it was withdrawing troops from the area “in connection with the creation of an encirclement threat”.
She did not mention the city in her daily update on the fighting in Ukraine on Sunday, although she said Russian forces had destroyed seven artillery and missile depots in the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv and Donetsk.
Russian forces captured Lyman from Ukraine in May and used it as a logistics and transportation hub for their operations in the north of the Donetsk region. His loss is Russia’s biggest battlefield loss since Ukraine’s blitzkrieg counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk Oblast, which borders Donetsk, said control of Lyman could prove to be a “key factor” in helping Ukraine regain lost territory in his region, which Moscow announced in early July had fully captured after weeks of sweeping advances .
The British Ministry of Defense identified Lyman as operationally important because it commanded a key road crossing the Siverskyi Donets River, behind which Russia is trying to shore up its defenses.
Russia likely suffered heavy casualties during the withdrawal, the ministry said in a statement. Before the Ukrainian attack, Russia had between 5,000 and 5,500 troops in the city, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces said on Saturday.
The areas Putin has declared annexed – the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk plus Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south – make up a strip of territory equal to about 18% of Ukraine’s total area.
“Over the past week, the number of Ukrainian flags in Donbass has increased. In a week there will be even more,” Zelenskiy said in an evening speech on Saturday.
The failures on the battlefield have sparked a new wave of criticism in Russia over the way its military operation is being conducted. The British Ministry of Defense said it was likely to intensify with further setbacks.
Putin’s ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s South Chechnya region, called on Saturday for a change in strategy “only after declaring martial law in the border areas and using low-yield nuclear weapons.”
Other top officials, including former president Dmitry Medvedev, have hinted that Russia may have to resort to nuclear weapons, but Kadyrov’s call has been the most urgent and prominent. Washington says it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons.
The United States, whose military aid is widely seen as key to the success of the counteroffensive, welcomed the latest Ukrainian gain.
“We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing right now,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a press conference on Saturday, saying Lyman’s capture would create new problems for the Russian military.
Austin noted that Lyman was positioned across supply lines that Russia has used to push its troops and materiel down south and west as the Kremlin presses ahead with its more than seven-month invasion of Ukraine.
“Without those roads, it will be more difficult. So it presents a kind of dilemma for the Russians going forward.”
Pope Francis on Sunday made an impassioned appeal to Putin to stop “this spiral of violence and death” in Ukraine, saying the crisis there threatens a nuclear escalation with uncontrollable global consequences.
In a speech to thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, Francis also told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be open to any “serious peace proposal.”
Zelenskyi said on Friday that Ukraine will not hold peace talks with Russia while Putin is still president.
“It is clear that (this) is impossible with this Russian president. He does not know what dignity and honesty are. That is why we are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another Russian president,” Zelenskiy said.