Russia has pulled its troops out of the strategic eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman – the latest victory for Kyiv’s counteroffensive.
The announcement came a day after President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of four Ukrainian regions – including Donetsk, where Lyman is located – and placed them under the nuclear umbrella of Russia, at a ceremony condemned by Kyiv and the West as an “illegitimate farce”.
“In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, allied troops were withdrawn from the settlement of Krasny Liman to more advantageous lines,” Russia’s defence ministry said, using the Russian name of the city.
The Russian statement ended hours of official silence after Ukraine first said it had surrounded thousands of Russian troops in the area and then that its forces were inside the city.
Ukraine’s defence ministry wrote on Twitter that “almost all” the Russian troops in Lyman had either been captured or killed.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said in a video address that although the Ukrainian flag was flying in the city, “fighting is still going on there”.
He also indicated Ukrainian troops had taken the village of Torske on the main road out of Lyman to the east.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meanwhile praised Ukraine’s capture of Lyman, which is 160km (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, saying it was an encouraging battlefield success that would create new “dilemmas” for Russia’s military.
“Absolutely, it’s significant. We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing right now,” Austin told reporters at a news conference in Hawaii.
Russia has used Lyman as a logistics and transport hub for its operations in the north of the Donetsk region. Its capture would be Ukraine’s biggest battlefield gain since a counterattack in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
Austin noted that Lyman was positioned across supply lines that Russia has used to push its troops and materiel down to the south and to the west, as the Kremlin presses its more than seven-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
“And without those routes, it will be more difficult. So it presents a sort of a dilemma for the Russians going forward,” he said.
“And we think the Ukrainians have done great work to get there and to begin to occupy the city.”
Ukraine’s recent successes, however, have infuriated Putin allies such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, who said he felt compelled to speak out.
“In my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram.
Other top Putin allies, including former President Dmitry Medvedev, have suggested Russia may need to resort to nuclear weapons, but Kadyrov’s call was the most urgent and explicit.
Putin said last week he was not bluffing when he said he was prepared to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity” with all available means, and on Friday made clear this extended to the new regions claimed by Moscow.
Washington says it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons and has told Moscow of the “catastrophic consequences” it would face.