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Russian troops withdraw from Lyman, a day after annexation claims

Ukrainian soldiers take cover under a tank in June during intense bombardment near a road that leads to the eastern city of Lyman. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — The day after Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly proclaimed the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, thousands of his troops withdrew from a strategic town there under Ukrainian fire.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that its troops withdrew from the town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, as Ukrainian forces surrounded it. The retreat marks a major embarrassment for Moscow, a day after it claimed swaths of eastern Ukraine as its own — in the face of widespread international condemnation.

It is also a strategic loss for Russia. Lyman is a key supply hub on the western edge of Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russia has concentrated its military campaign for months. Russian forces have used it to supply operations to the east since capturing Lyman in the spring.

Ukrainian forces advanced on the city overnight even as Russia put on a grand ceremony and a pop concert in Moscow’s Red Square celebrating the annexation. The Ukrainian victory poses a test for Putin, who has vowed to treat attacks in the annexed regions as attacks on Russia.

“In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, the allied troops were withdrawn” from Lyman “to more advantageous lines,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Saturday.

Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces, confirmed to The Washington Post that Ukrainian troops had entered Lyman. Despite the Kremlin statement, Cherevaty said fighting in the city was ongoing, suggesting that some Russian troops remain. Pro-Russian Telegram channels claimed Russian troops were under heavy Ukrainian attack as they tried to escape before Ukrainian forces cut off all exit routes.

Cherevaty said earlier Saturday that Ukrainian troops had recaptured four villages near Lyman in addition to encircling the city. The pro-Kremlin separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, acknowledged Friday that the city was “semi-encircled,” describing Kyiv’s advances as “very unpleasant news” that threatened to “overshadow” the annexation celebrations.

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Unverified social media video footage posted by the head of the Ukrainian president’s office on Saturday appeared to show Ukrainian troops carrying out celebrations of their own, raising the country’s blue and yellow flag near the outskirts of the city. A video circulating on social media Saturday evening showed Ukrainian troops throwing Russian flags down from the roof of the Lyman city council building and affixing a Ukrainian flag in their place.

Video released from the Ukrainian government on Oct. 1 shows soldiers raising the flag near Lyman. Kyiv claims it has advanced on the Russian-held city. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Ukrainian army “has and will always have the decisive vote in today’s and any future ‘referendums,’ ” the country’s Defense Ministry posted on Twitter.

Meanwhile, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel with close ties to the Wagner mercenary group reported that it had been impossible to withdraw Russian troops from the city earlier because of Putin’s annexation ceremony and speech on Friday.

Although the loss of Lyman presents “serious damage to the reputation of the Russian Federation,” wrote a prominent Russian military blogger who uses the pseudonym Rybar, the fact that the accession treaties have yet to be rubber-stamped and ratified by Russia’s parliament leaves the situation unclear.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, called for the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon in the wake of Russia’s retreat from Lyman. Kadyrov, a prominent pro-war figure, is one of the many strident right-wing voices who have been pushing for months for a sharp escalation in Russian attacks on Ukraine.

Hinting that the Russian Defense Ministry was misleading Putin about the true state of the war, he said that “more drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”

In a blunt rebuke of Russia’s military leadership, Kadyrov openly criticized the officer leading the defense of Lyman, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin — calling him “mediocre,” out of touch, and guilty of deploying fighters to Lyman without sufficient communications and supplies.

“If I had my way, I would have demoted Lapin to the rank of private, would have deprived him of his awards and, with a machine gun in his hands, would have sent him to the front lines to wash away my shame with blood,” Kadyrov wrote in a blistering Telegram post.

Kadyrov’s call to use a nuclear weapon follows Russia’s illegal seizure of territories in Donbas, with the Russian parliament due to rubber-stamp so-called treaties formalizing annexation on Monday and Tuesday.

Putin has warned that from that point, the territories will be defended with “all military means” at Russia’s disposal, while the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, has suggested Russia could use a nuclear weapon to that end.

Lyman, home to more than 20,000 people in the Donetsk region before the war, lies in one of the four territories Russia illegally claimed to absorb this week. The victory marks Ukraine’s most significant success in the Donbas region since Russia concentrated the bulk of its forces there in the spring.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to recapture all of the country’s sovereign territory from Russia. Referring to the Ukrainian victory in Lyman in his nightly video address Saturday, Zelensky promised more Ukrainian flags would again fly over the Donbas region, which comprises Donetsk and Luhansk in the country’s east.

After Lyman, said Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai, Ukrainian troops will focus on retaking other parts of Luhansk. “We’ve been preparing,” he told Ukrainian media Saturday.

Searching for bodies with the Ukrainian captain collecting Russian corpses

Ukraine’s success in Lyman relied on a tactic known as kettling, in which troops surround a city and leave the occupied forces with few exit strategies other than surrender.

Towns and villages in Donbas tend to have few roads that lead in and out, leaving invading troops unfamiliar with the area particularly vulnerable because they probably do not know any alternative paths out. Ukrainian military spokesman Cherevaty told The Post this past week that “almost all logistical routes” to the Lyman area were under Ukrainian control.

Thousands of Russian troops were in the city earlier Saturday, according to Haidai, who said “almost all the ways of leaving and transporting ammunition to Russians” were blocked. The Post could not independently verify his claims. Haidai added that trapped Russian troops had three options: try to escape, surrender or risk being killed.

By Saturday afternoon, fighting had reached the center of the city, according to Rybar, the pro-Kremlin military blogger. Russian soldiers carved out a corridor through Ukrainian lines and began to withdraw. But Ukraine’s Defense Ministry claimed in a tweet that “almost all” Russian troops deployed in Lyman were either killed or captured.

A member of Ukraine’s military shared a video with The Post that appeared to show a destroyed column of Russian vehicles that might have tried to escape Lyman after Ukrainian forces had already closed in. In the video, bodies of Russian soldiers lie dead on the side of the road.

Despite the patriotic pageantry during Friday’s grand treaty signing ceremony that claimed to annex to Russia parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, Putin is facing criticism at home for his military mobilization, with thousands of people fleeing to borders to avoid being called up to fight. He has also faced criticism for losing ground in northern Ukraine.

Oleg Tsarov, a Ukrainian separatist leader, noted on Twitter that the situation in Lyman is “a bad backdrop” for the annexation celebrations. The loss of Lyman will also likely reinforce the idea that the annexations may not mirror the reality on the ground as Russian forces do not fully control any of the four regions.

Nonetheless, Putin made clear in his scathing speech Friday that he intended for the annexed land and populations to “forever” be part of Russia.

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In Ukraine, an adviser to Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, likened the encirclement of Lyman to the surrounding of the city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk by Russian forces in 2014. Then, “our guys agreed to surrender without weapons. But Russia broke its word. The column was shot,” he wrote on Twitter. The situation today had been reversed, with Russian forces having “to ask for an exit from Lyman,” he added.

Meanwhile, the governor of Kharkiv accused Russia of shelling a civilian evacuation convoy in the northeastern region Saturday, killing at least 20 people. It was the second civilian convoy to come under suspected Russian missile attack in two days.

Also on Saturday, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Russian authorities had “temporarily detained” the director general of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant for questioning. The plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power facility, has been under Russian control since March. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said it was investigating the incident as a kidnapping.

Francis and Suliman reported from London, Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and Parker reported from Washington. Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv and Andrea Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.

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