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Ukrainian forces encircle Russian troops in Lyman, a day after annexation claims

KYIV — Less than 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly proclaimed the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, thousands of his troops now appear to be trapped there.

Ukrainian forces have surrounded Lyman, a key transport hub in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces told The Washington Post on Saturday. With Russian forces encircled, Ukrainian soldiers are now expected to reestablish full control of Lyman in the coming days.

The powerful counterattack and seemingly imminent recapture of Lyman will come as an embarrassment to Moscow, a day after claiming swaths of eastern Ukraine as its own — in the face of widespread international condemnation. 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.

Cherevaty said Ukrainian troops had recaptured four villages near Lyman in addition to encircling the city, which is a key supply hub on the western edge of Ukraine’s Donbas region. 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,” which 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 blue and yellow flag near the outskirts of the city. Another video appeared to show troops stamping on a Russian flag in the city.

Pro-Russian military bloggers also appeared to acknowledge defeat in the city. A prominent anonymous Russian military blogger known as Rybar said Saturday that routes out of the city were limited for Russian fighters, and “at this stage, it is not possible to turn the tide.”

Meanwhile, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel with close ties to the Wagner mercenary group reported that Russian troops in Lyman were “completely surrounded” with “unprecedented” measures were underway to aid their release.” It added that it had been impossible to withdraw troops from the city earlier because of Putin’s annexation ceremony and speech on Friday.

The battle presents a test for Putin, who has vowed to treat attacks in the annexed regions as attacks on Russia. Although the loss of Lyman presents “serious damage to the reputation of the Russian Federation,” Rybar wrote, the fact the accession treaties have yet to be finally rubber-stamped and ratified by Russia’s parliament leaves the situation unclear.

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

The city, home to more than 20,000 people in the Donetsk region before the war, is one of the four territories Russia illegally claimed to absorb this week. A victory would mark Ukraine’s most significant success in the Donbas region since Russia concentrated the bulk of its forces there in the spring. Haidai added the nearby city of Kreminna to the east of Lyman, in the Luhansk region, would be Ukraine’s next military target.

Overnight, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told the nation that troops were making “substantial results” in the east and named Lyman as a key example, thanking fighters there. “These are steps that mean a lot to us,” he added in a nightly address.

Searching for bodies with the Ukrainian captain collecting Russian corpses

Ukrainian military spokesman Cherevaty told The Post earlier this week that “almost all logistical routes” to the Lyman area were under Ukrainian control.

This tactic, known as kettling, involves troops surrounding a city and leaving the occupied forces with few exit strategies other than surrender. Towns and villages in the eastern Donbas region tend to have few roads that lead in and out, leaving invading troops unfamiliar with area particularly vulnerable because they likely do not know any alternative paths out.

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 parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions into Russia, Putin is facing criticism at home for his military mobilization, with thousands of people scrambling to borders and fleeing to avoid being called-up in the war. 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, with only a tenuous military hold over them, as Russian forces do not fully control any of the four regions.

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

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He has previously said that any attack on annexed territories would be viewed as an attack on Russia and threatened to “use all the means at our disposal” to defend them — upping the ante of possible nuclear weapon use. On Friday, he made as an ominous reference to the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, calling it a “precedent” for use of the devastating weapons.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, an adviser to President 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.

Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv contributed to this report. Suliman reported from London. Dixon reported from Riga.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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