KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the full recovery of a strategic town in eastern Ukraine on Sunday as a public brawl intensified in Russia over responsibility for the latest setback to the Kremlin’s goal of conquering wide swaths of Ukraine.
Zelensky said the town of Lyman, which Russian troops used as a key logistics hub in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region since their arrival this spring, was completely “cleared of the Russian occupiers” as of midday local time, the Defense Ministry said on Twitter.
The president’s statement came a day after the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged it had been forced to withdraw troops from Lyman “to more advantageous lines.”
The cementing of Ukrainian control of the town, following other gains those forces have made since launching a major counteroffensive last month, offered a sharp contrast to Russia’s advancing steps to officially incorporate Donetsk and three other eastern regions into Russia following a series of staged referendums there last week, which Kyiv and its Western supporters have denounced as illegal and illegitimate.
Zelensky referred derisively to Putin’s attempt to declare Russian authority by fiat over areas now being taken back by Ukrainian troops.
“This, you know, is the trend,” he said later in his nightly video address. “Recently, someone somewhere held pseudo-referendums, and when the Ukrainian flag is returned, no one remembers the Russian farce with some pieces of paper and some annexations.”
The continued advance into Russian-held areas heightens the stakes of repeated threats that President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have made in recent days, suggesting that Moscow could go so far as using nuclear weapons to defend territory it considers part of Russia, including annexed areas of Ukraine.
Putin made reference to America’s use of atomic bombs against Japan in 1945 during a fiery speech Friday, in which the Russian leader cast the annexation of vast swaths of Ukraine as a fulfillment of Russians’ destiny.
Ukraine’s supporters in the West, like leaders in Kyiv, have insisted they won’t bow to Russian intimidation. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cautioned Russia against following through with any escalatory retaliation linked to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
“Again it’s an illegal claim; it’s an irresponsible statement,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Nuclear sabre-rattling is not the kind of thing that we would expect to hear from leaders of large countries with capability.”
Austin said he expected Ukrainian forces to continue offensive operations aimed at recapturing all Russian-held territory, despite Putin’s recent order to mobilize 300,000 additional troops to bolster the fight in Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are also trying to push deeper into Russian-controlled areas of southern Ukraine, toward the city of Kherson.
“I don’t think that’s going to stop, and we will continue to support them in their efforts,” he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described the recapture of Lyman as an example of the progress Ukrainian forces were making “because of their bravery and skills, but, of course, also because of the advanced weapons that the United States and other allies are providing.”
He noted that countries including Norway and Germany were stepping up their aid to Ukraine. “This is making a difference on the battlefield every day,” he told NBC.
The recent string of battlefield reversals may indicate that Russia’s military is reaching a “breaking point,” said H.R. McMaster, a retired three-star general who served as national security adviser during the Trump administration.
“What we might be at here is really at the precipice of really the collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine. A moral collapse,” he told CBS.
But U.S. officials have cautioned that despite Russia’s failure to achieve the initial goals of Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion, including the capture of Kyiv, the ongoing mobilization may still present a formidable challenge to Ukraine. Even with larger sums of Western aid, Ukraine’s military is dwarfed in size and weaponry by Russia’s.
The leaders of nine Eastern and Central European nations on Sunday condemned Putin’s annexation, which will be formalized by Russia’s parliament Monday and Tuesday, saying they could not “stay silent in the face of the blatant violation of international law.”
“We do not recognize and will never recognize Russian attempts to annex any Ukrainian territory,” the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovakia said in a joint statement.
As Russian forces attempted to set a new line of defense after their retreat from Lyman, a torrent of public recriminations and bickering on who was to blame for Moscow’s recent setbacks poured forth on hard-line pro-Kremlin Telegram channels.
In open conflict that underscored the disarray in Russian ranks, two powerful figures with their own armed forces fighting Ukraine launched scathing attacks on Russian Defense Ministry commanders. It began with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s criticisms on Saturday of Russian military commanders, and his call to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine.
Then in rare public remarks, Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of mercenary group Wagner, added his own blunt attack.
“Kadyrov’s expressive statement, of course, is not entirely in my style,” he said, according to a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel. “But I think that we should send all these bastards barefoot to the front with machine guns,” he said in an apparent reference to top Russian military commanders.
Elena Panina, a former lawmaker and director of Russtrat, a pro-Kremlin think tank, called the public attacks on top Russian military figures “unprecedented” before piling on with her own criticisms, complaining about the lack of any tough military retaliation to punish Ukraine for the forced Russian retreat.
She called Ukraine’s recapture of Lyman “a direct act of aggression against Russia,” in reference to Russia’s illegal move to annex the region. Panina said the criticisms of Russia’s military command came “in the midst of military failures and to the delight of the enemy.”
But sweeping Russia’s failures under the carpet was a path “fraught with real disaster,” she said. In what appeared to be a call to dismiss top military officials, she called for “qualitative changes in personnel, of an organizational and operational nature, up to and including emergency measures.”
“According to numerous estimates, Russia is facing an enemy that is more numerous, better armed, better prepared and better motivated,” Panina said, adding that it would take a “superhuman effort” to win.
Pro-Kremlin Telegram news outlet Readovka described the public airing of recriminations as “worse than betrayal” and called for an end to the public accusations by “hot heads” and “turbo-patriots,” in a commentary on its Telegram channel.
Ukraine continued on Sunday to push for the release of an official overseeing its Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant who authorities said has been detained by Russia. Fighting in the area around the facility, which is under Russian control but operated by Ukrainian engineers, has triggered concerns about a nuclear accident.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he had spoken with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, who had told him the IAEA was working to secure the release of Ihor Murashov, the plant’s director.
“I stressed Russia must withdraw troops and military equipment from the station,” Kuleba said in a tweet.
Morgunov reported from Kyiv. Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia.
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