The recapture of Lyman city in the east – in territory recently annexed by Moscow – raises questions about how Russia can hold surrounding areas with supply routes severed.
Questions about Russia’s faltering military operation in Ukraine continue to be raised as Kyiv announced it was in full control of the key eastern city of Lyman after Moscow’s troops pulled back.
It is Kyiv’s most significant battlefield gain in weeks, providing a potential staging post for increased attacks to the east while heaping further pressure on the Kremlin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on Sunday that his forces had taken over Lyman after encircling it the day before.
“As of 12:30pm (09:30 GMT) Lyman is cleared fully. Thank you to our militaries, our warriors,” he said in a video address.
Russia’s military did not comment on Lyman on Sunday after announcing the previous day it was withdrawing its forces there to move to “more favourable positions”.
‘Sort of a dilemma’
The loss of Lyman is a significant blow to Russian forces, who have used the city for months as a crucial logistics and rail hub in the Donetsk region to move military equipment, troops, and other necessary supplies.
“Without those routes, it will be more difficult so it presents a sort of a dilemma for the Russians going forward,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
Lyman, which Ukraine recaptured by encircling Russian troops, is in the Donetsk region near the border with the Luhansk region. These are two of the four regions or oblasts that Russia annexed on Friday after people there voted in referendums, which Ukraine and the West called illegitimate.
The Institute for the Study of War, a United States-based think-tank, said the fall of Lyman suggested Russia was “deprioritizing defending Luhansk” to hold occupied territory in southern Ukraine.
“Ukrainian and Russian sources consistently indicate that Russian forces continued to reinforce Russian positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, despite the recent collapse of the Kharkiv-Izyum front and even as the Russian positions around Lyman collapsed,” it said.
‘Courage, bravery, skills’
In a daily intelligence briefing on Sunday, the United Kingdom’s military described the recapture of Lyman as a “significant political setback” for Moscow. Taking the city paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push farther into Russian-occupied territory.
Ukraine’s capture of a city within territory of President Vladimir Putin’s declared annexation demonstrates that Ukrainians are able to push back Russian forces, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Sunday.
“We have seen that they have been able to take a new town, Lyman, and that demonstrates that the Ukrainians are making progress, are able to push back the Russian forces because of the courage, because of their bravery, their skills, but of course also because of the advanced weapons that the United States and other allies are providing,” Stoltenberg said in an interview with American broadcaster NBC.
Ukrainian forces have retaken swaths of territory, notably in the northeast around Kharkiv, in a counteroffensive in recent weeks that has embarrassed the Kremlin and prompted rare domestic criticism of Putin’s war.
A pomp-filled Kremlin annexation ceremony on Friday has failed to stem a wave of criticism within Russia of how its “special military operation” is being handled.
Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, on Saturday called for a change of strategy “right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”.
Other hawkish Russian figures criticised Russian generals and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on social media for overseeing the setbacks, but stopped short of attacking Putin.