KYIV, Ukraine – As Ukrainian forces gained full control Sunday of the strategic city of Lyman, commanders turned their attention to the next steps in a punishing offensive that has left Russian troops in the eastern Donbas region in an increasingly perilous position.
Military officials say the task of deciding Ukraine’s next move now rests with the country’s generals, in particular Gen. Oleksandr Syrski, commander of Ukraine’s eastern forces. It was Syrski whose surprise offensive in early September drove Russian forces out of most of the Kharkiv region in the northeast, a stunning success that seems to have changed the course of the war. Before that, Syrski led the defense of the capital, Kyiv, routing Russian forces there in the initial phase of Moscow’s invasion in February and upending President Vladimir Putin’s plans for a speedy victory.
“If I know General Syrski, he will come up with some kind of unconventional plan that the enemy will likely not suspect, where they will be at their weakest,” said Col. Sergei Cherevaty, spokesperson for Ukrainian troops fighting in the east.
The retreat from Lyman is a significant blow to Russian forces that could further undermine the Kremlin’s position in Donbas, a mineral-rich and fertile part of eastern Ukraine that has been at the center of Putin’s war aims. On Friday, the Russian president defied international law by announcing the annexation of the two Ukrainian regions that make up Donbas and of two southern regions. But none of the four regions is fully under Russian control, with Ukrainians making gains in both the east and south, leaving the Kremlin’s forces with increasingly few options for taking additional territory.
In the south, Ukrainian forces are engaged in a fierce counteroffensive in the Kherson region, which Russia seized in the first weeks of the war. Unlike in the northeast, there has been little movement in either direction, although odds increasingly appear to be stacked against Russian forces, the bulk of which have been cut off from their supply lines by successful Ukrainian attacks on key bridges spanning the vast Dnieper River. On the other side of the Dnieper, Russian forces attempting to push north in the Zaporizhzhia region, which Putin also claimed to have annexed, have been held at a standstill for months by strong Ukrainian defensive lines.
But it is in Donbas where Russia’s position appears to be the most tenuous. Having reclaimed Lyman, Ukrainian forces could establish a strong foothold on the northeastern side of the Siversky Donets, a meandering river that has served as a natural dividing line between Russian and Ukrainian positions since Russian forces captured the city in May. If Ukrainian forces are able to push farther east from Lyman, they could expel Russian troops from towns and villages they seized over the summer. But it remains unclear how far Ukrainian forces will be able to push before colder temperatures slow the fighting and Russian lines are reinforced by new troops called up in Putin’s announced mobilization.
Military analysts also warn that Ukrainian forces, if they push too far, could become overstretched and unable to defend newly reclaimed territory from Russian counterattack.
For now, Russian troops fleeing Lyman appear to be moving to reinforce their lines 40 miles to the south around the city of Bakhmut. That appears to be the only area along the extensive eastern front line where Russian forces are on the offensive, led primarily by members of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor, whose fighters have been pummeling Ukrainian forces for months.
“It’s very difficult because they have been hammering for several months with artillery and are constantly attacking with tanks and infantry,” Cherevaty said. “Holding them is difficult, but they’re managing.”
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