Russia suffered a humiliating military defeat on Saturday when Ukrainian troops liberated the key eastern city of Lyman, with videos showing them raising a blue and yellow national flag and performing a victory dance.
In a severe embarrassment for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ministry of defence admitted its soldiers had retreated. They had been “withdrawn to more advantageous lines”, the ministry said, following their encirclement by Ukrainian forces.
The debacle comes hours after Putin declared on Friday that the city, which is in the Donetsk region, was Russia’s “for ever”. In a ceremony in the Kremlin he announced the province’s annexation, together with the territories of Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Putin’s high-stakes strategy to boost support at home for his war appeared to be unravelling. Russian nationalist bloggers vented their fury at the military command in Moscow, while Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov published a scathing critique of its multiple failures.
Writing on the Telegram messaging app, Kadyrov called on the Kremlin to consider using a “low-yield nuclear weapon” after its Lyman setback. He asked sarcastically what cities Russia would forfeit next, adding: “Everything would be good if it wasn’t so bad.”
Earlier on Saturday Ukraine’s armed forces said they had entirely surrounded the city, trapping thousands of Russian soldiers inside. The governor of Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, said the besieged troops had begged on Friday to be allowed to leave Lyman. Their commanders refused, he claimed.
The Russians could either surrender, try to escape or die together, Haidai said. Some appear to have made it out. Ukrainian drone footage showed a column of vehicles heading west, together with civilian vehicles.
Others were less fortunate. Video showed the apparent aftermath of an artillery strike, with burned-out vehicles by the side of a forest road, personal belongings strewn in the mud and dead Russian soldiers. Dozens and possibly hundreds of other Russian servicemen appear to have been captured.
Russian military bloggers reported that Ukrainian servicemen had entered the centre of the city, and were handing out food to residents. They conceded Lyman’s fall had done “serious damage” to Moscow’s reputation. They pointed out that the city – in theory at least – was now a part of the Russian Federation.
“Whatever promises there were to send us reinforcements never materialised,” one lamented. Mobile phone footage showed Ukrainian soldiers walking calmly over a destroyed bridge near the village of Torske.
Ukrainian forces liberated several other surrounding settlements including Yampil, south of Lyman, Novoselivka, Shandrigolovo and Drobysheve. Video from Shandrigolovo showed Ukrainian soldiers pulling down the Russian tricolour. They threw it to the ground and stamped on it.
Russia’s disaster in Lyman comes shortly after a series of dramatic Ukrainian advances. Last month Ukrainian troops almost completely liberated the north-eastern Kharkiv region. Its governor, Oleh Synyehubov, said Russia had shelled a civilian evacuation convoy, killing 20 people. They had been fleeing from Kupiansk, a town about 6km from the front line. The attack appears to have happened last week. The victims reportedly included several children. Synyehubov said Moscow was guilty of “cruelty that can’t be justified”.
On Thursday, Russian troops attacked another convoy waiting to enter Russian-controlled territory in Zaporizhzhia, killing 30 civilians, including two children, and wounding dozens.
Read Nore:Humiliation for Vladimir Putin as Ukrainians liberate key city of Lyman