KYIV: Ukraine on Sunday claimed full control of the eastern logistics hub of Lyman, Kyiv's most significant battlefield gain in weeks, providing a potential staging post for further attacks to the east while heaping further pressure on the Kremlin.
The stinging setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin came after he proclaimed the annexation of four regions covering nearly a fifth of Ukraine on Friday, an area that includes Lyman. Kyiv and the West have condemned the proclamation as an illegitimate farce.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the capture of the town, where Ukrainian flags were raised over civic buildings on Saturday, demonstrated that Ukraine is capable of dislodging Russian forces and showed the impact Ukraine's deployment of advanced Western weapons was having on the conflict.
"As of 1230 (0930 GMT), Lyman is fully cleared," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a short video clip on his Telegram channel. "Thank you to our troops ... Glory to Ukraine!"
"Over the past week, the number of Ukrainian flags in Donbas has increased. There will be even more a week's time," Zelenskiy said in an earlier overnight address, using the name for the combined Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Russia's defence ministry said on Saturday that it was pulling troops out of the Lyman area "in connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement".
It did not mention Lyman in its daily update on fighting in Ukraine on Sunday, although it said Russian forces had destroyed seven artillery and missile depots in the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Donetsk.
Russian forces captured Lyman from Ukraine in May and had used it as a logistics and transport hub for its operations in the north of the Donetsk region. Losing it is Russia's largest battlefield loss since Ukraine's lightning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
Control over Lyman could prove a "key factor" in helping Ukraine reclaim lost territory in the neighbouring Luhansk region, whose full capture Moscow announced in early July after weeks of grinding advances, Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
Lyman's operational importance was due to its command over a key road crossing over the Siverskyi Donets River, behind which Russia has been attempting to consolidate its defences, Britain's Ministry of Defence said.
Russia likely experienced heavy casualties during the withdrawal, the ministry added. Russia had 5,000 to 5,500 troops in the city before the Ukrainian attack, a Ukrainian military spokesman said on Saturday.
The areas Putin claimed as annexed - the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk plus Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south - form a swath of territory equal to about 18% of Ukraine's total surface land area.
Russia's parliament is to consider on Monday bills and ratification treaties to absorb the regions, the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin said.
A pomp-filled Kremlin signing ceremony with the regions' Russian-installed leaders on Friday has failed to stem a wave of criticism within Russia of how its military operation is being handled. Britain's defence ministry said that was likely to intensify with further setbacks.
Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia's southern Chechnya region, on Saturday called for a change of strategy "right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons." Washington says it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons.
Other hawkish Russian figures on Saturday criticised Russian generals and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on social media for overseeing the setbacks but stopped short of attacking Putin.
US ‘very encouraged’
The United States was "very encouraged" by Ukrainian gains, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Sunday, while NATO's Stoltenberg said the fall of Lyman demonstrated the effectiveness of Western weapons in the conflict.
"Allies are stepping up their support to Ukraine and that is the best way to ensure that... Ukraine is actually able to liberate and retake occupied territory," Stoltenberg said in an NBC interview.
Pope Francis on Sunday made an impassioned appeal to Putin to stop "this spiral of violence and death" in Ukraine and also to call on Zelenskiy to be open to any "serious peace proposal".
Zelenskiy said on Friday that peace talks with Russia while Putin was still president would be impossible. "We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia," he said.