KYIV, Ukraine — After being surrounded by Ukrainian forces, Russia on Saturday withdrew troops from a town in eastern Ukraine it was using as a frontline hub. It was the latest victory for the Ukrainian counter-offensive that humiliated and angered the Kremlin.
Russia’s withdrawal from Lyman complicates its internationally reviled statement a day earlier that it had annexed four regions of Ukraine – an area that includes Lyman. Taking the city clears the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into land Moscow now illegally claims as its own.
“The Ukrainian flag is already in Lyman, in the Donetsk region. The fighting is still going on there. But there is no trace of a pseudo-referendum there,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his late night speech on Saturday.
He was referring to the “referendums” that Russia held at gunpoint in the four regions before annexing them – Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
The fighting comes at a pivotal moment in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. In the face of Ukrainian gains on the battlefield — which he describes as a US-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia — Putin this week stepped up threats of nuclear force and used his most aggressive anti-Western rhetoric nowadays.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces struggling to hold Lyman, but said the outnumbered Russian troops had been withdrawn to more favorable positions. Ukrainian forces entered the city, and Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff released photos of a Ukrainian flag raised on the outskirts of the city.
Lyman had been an important link in the Russian front line for ground communications and logistics. Located 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, it is in the Donetsk region near the border with Lugansk, two regions Russia annexed on Friday.
Ukrainian forces recaptured large swaths of territory in a counter-offensive that began in September. They pushed the Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and moved east across the Oskil River.
Lyman’s withdrawal from Moscow drew immediate criticism from some Russian officials. Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, blamed the retreat, without proof, on a Russian general “concealed by senior leaders of the General Staff”. He called for “more drastic measures”.
Meanwhile, in the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia, the governor of the city of Sevastopol announced an emergency at an airfield. Explosions and huge waves of smoke could be seen by beachgoers at the Russian-held resort. Authorities said a plane ran off the runway at Belbek airfield and ammunition on board caught fire.
Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea to Ukraine in 2014 in violation of international law.
Russian bombardment has intensified in recent days as Moscow moved quickly with its latest annexation and ordered a mass mobilization at home to bolster its forces. The Russian appeal proved unpopular in the country, prompting tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country.
Zelenskyy and his army have vowed to continue fighting to liberate the regions Putin claimed he annexed on Friday, as well as other Russian-occupied areas.
Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of targeting two humanitarian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of civilians.
Kharkiv region governor Oleh Syniehubov said 24 civilians were killed in an attack this week on a convoy trying to flee Kupyansk district. He called it “a cruelty that cannot be justified”. He said 13 children and a pregnant woman were among the dead.
“The Russians fired at civilians almost at point-blank range,” Syniehubov wrote on Telegram.
Ukraine’s Security Service, the secret police force known by the acronym SBU, released photographs of the attacked convoy. At least one truck appeared to have exploded, with burned corpses in what remained of its platform. Another vehicle at the front of the convoy was set on fire. Bodies lay on the side of the road or inside vehicles riddled with bullets.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its rockets destroyed Ukrainian military targets in the area, but did not comment on accusations that they targeted fleeing civilians. Russian troops have withdrawn from much of the Kharkiv region but continue to shell the area.
And a Russian strike in the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia killed 31 people and injured 88, Ukrainian officials said. The UK Ministry of Defense said the Russians “almost certainly” hit a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian officials based in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces but offered no evidence.
In other developments, in an apparent attempt to secure Moscow’s grip on the newly annexed territory, Russian forces on Friday seized the general director of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ihor Murashov, according to Ukraine’s state nuclear company. Energyatom.
Energoatom said Russian troops stopped Murashov’s car, blindfolded him and took him to an undisclosed location.
Russia did not comment on the report. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Russia told it that “the general director of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been temporarily detained to answer questions.”
The Vienna-based IAEA said it was “actively seeking clarification and hoped for a speedy and satisfactory resolution of this matter”.
The plant was caught in the crossfire of war. Ukrainian technicians continued to operate it after Russian troops seized the power plant, and its last reactor was shut down in September as a precaution amid ongoing shelling nearby.
In other fighting reported on Saturday, four people were killed by Russian shelling on Friday in the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. The Russian military hit the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv twice overnight, once with drones and the second time with missiles, according to the regional governor.
Russia now claims sovereignty over 15% of Ukraine in what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called “the biggest attempt to annex European territory by force since World War II”. .
Zelenskyy formally applied for NATO membership on Friday, increasing pressure on Western allies to defend Ukraine.
In Washington, President Joe Biden signed a bill that provides another injection – more than $12.3 billion – of military and economic aid related to the war in Ukraine.
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