RIVNE, Ukraine – Russian forces retreated from the strategic eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman on Saturday, a striking success for Ukraine just one day after President Vladimir Putin illegally declared the surrounding region to be part of Russia.
The retreat from Lyman, a city in Donetsk province, is a humbling setback for the Kremlin after Putin announced the annexation of four provinces in a menacing speech Friday that positioned Russia as fighting an existential battle with Western elites he deemed “the enemy.”
The fighting on Saturday, in a region Putin now considers to be sovereign Russian territory, raises the stakes in a war in which a nuclear-armed Russia has declared it would use “all available means” to defend land it considers its own.
A rail hub leading into the mineral-rich Donbas region that has long been the focus of Putin’s aims, Lyman offers Ukrainian forces a strategic foothold for further advances east. Its capture also puts additional pressure on the Kremlin, which has been facing blowback at home over Russia’s recent setbacks in Ukraine’s northeast and the conscription of hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine.
Hours after Ukraine’s defense ministry said its forces were entering Lyman, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it was withdrawing its troops from the city.
“In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, the allied troops were withdrawn” from the city to a “more advantageous” location, the Russian ministry said in a statement posted on the messaging app Telegram.
The acknowledgment came after Ukraine’s defense ministry posted a video on Twitter showing two soldiers unfurling the country’s yellow-and-blue flag at a sign marking the city limits. The army “will always have the decisive vote in today’s and any future ‘referendums,’ ” it added, in a pointed reference to Russia’s sham vote for annexation.
A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that Lyman was “already liberated.”
“A mop-up is ongoing,” the official said. “The Russians have nowhere to run.”
For Russia, the new setback came at a particularly sensitive moment: less than 24 hours after Putin on Friday delivered his most harrowing speech of the war, one that decried the United States for “Satanism” and the West as “deceitful and hypocritical through and through.”
The West, he said, had “no moral right” to condemn the annexation of parts of Ukraine, given its own history of brutal colonization, dividing the world “into their vassals – the so-called civilized countries – and everyone else.”
The residents of the four Ukrainian regions – which are still partly controlled by Ukrainian forces – would become Russia’s citizens “forever,” said Putin, adding that Russia would defend them “with all the forces and means at our disposal.”
And he again raised the specter of using nuclear weapons, noting in a cryptic aside that the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in 1945 had “created a precedent.”
Ukrainian officials have consistently said they will disregard Russia’s territorial claims and press ahead with counteroffensives in eastern Ukraine and around the southern port city of Kherson.
But even as Russian forces were losing another battle on the ground, they unleashed a salvo of rocket, drone and missile strikes from the air.
The most lethal strike landed in Zaporizhzhia, one of the four Ukrainian provinces that the Kremlin claimed on Friday in its trumped-up referendums. The attack sprayed shrapnel into a line of about 200 civilian cars and minivans packed with luggage and passengers, waiting at a checkpoint and bus stop to cross into Russian-occupied territory to visit relatives or ferry medicine and other humanitarian supplies across the front line.
Thirty people were killed, including two children, and another 118 people were injured, according to Ivan Fedorov, mayor of the occupied town of Melitopol. That would make it one of the deadliest single attacks against civilians in recent weeks.
Witnesses described a macabre scene, with dead and injured strewn on the road.
“People were lying on the ground, near their cars or a little away, depending on how far they got, and they were dead,” said Natalia, a woman who had stepped out of her car waiting in line to stretch just as the first explosion rang out.
“I lay on the ground to wait it out,” said Natalia, who asked that her last name not be published out of concern for her safety. The second blast shattered the windows of her car, she said, and about a dozen more followed.
Two of her passengers, a man and a woman, died, and two others were wounded, she said.
Maya Muravyova, a volunteer with Help People, a nongovernmental group assisting internally displaced people, said several vans carrying humanitarian aid were in the line.
“It can be called a terrorist act,” she said. “There was just peaceful population, there are absolutely no military bases or soldiers. It’s where humanitarian aid columns and people depart to cross the front line.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the strike on the checkpoint as the work of “terrorists,” while Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, called it “horrific news.”
Also on Friday, rockets and Iranian-made kamikaze drones that Russia’s military recently acquired hit residential neighborhoods in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, killing at least three people and wounding 19, the regional governor said Saturday. A missile strike on a parking lot for buses in the city of Dnipro also killed one person and ignited a fire that burned 52 buses.
Ukraine’s recapture of Lyman put the battle for the important Donbas region into a new phase, leaving Russia’s control of the area uncertain.
The Ukrainian advance was a continuation of the army’s northeastern offensive, which routed Russian forces from dozens of villages and recaptured more than 1,000 square miles of territory in the Kharkiv region last month.
Lyman sits on the northeastern banks of the meandering Siversky Donets River, which has served as a natural division between Russian and Ukrainian front lines for months.
In recent days and weeks, Ukrainian forces closed in from the south and west. With bridges across the Siversky Donets under frequent shelling, Ukraine relied on boats to move troops and casualties to and away from the front. Dense forest near Lyman proved a confusing nightmare for both sides.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Lyman’s recapture means the Ukrainian military have gained a new foothold in the region and are positioned to claw back territory before winter sets in.
The next target, if the Ukrainian military continues its advance, would probably be Svatove, a city northeast of Lyman where Russians have retrenched after their defeat in the northeast, according to analysts.
Russia’s military in the Donbas, depleted and losing ground, will be faced with two options: shuttling resources from other parts of the front to slow Ukraine’s advance or continuing to slowly lose chunks of the region.
Some of the nearest Russian reinforcements are roughly 25 miles to the southeast, around the city of Bakhmut. Wagner Group, an infamous paramilitary unit that reports directly to the Kremlin, has battered the Ukrainians there but failed to seize any significant parts of the city.
Ukraine’s slow-moving offensive in the south, toward the port city of Kherson, has largely been overshadowed by events in the east. But fighting there remains fierce, as better-trained Russian forces have put up staunch resistance against advancing Ukrainian troops.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.