Ukraine has declared it has retaken the key eastern city of Lyman in Donetsk - one of the four provinces formally annexed by Russia during a ceremony overseen by President Vladimir Putin on Friday. With the Kremlin having since confirmed a withdrawal from the city, it marks a huge blow to Russian forces and the strategic objective of asserting full control over the Donbas.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry on Sunday described Lyman as "fully cleared of the Russian occupiers" shortly after noon local time, with social media videos showing Ukrainian soldiers erecting Ukrainian flags over the city. "Ukrainian Air Assault Forces are entering Lyman," it said.
Serhiy Haidai, who is President Zelensky's chief adviser on the Donbas and regional governor of Luhansk, said on Twitter, "Lyman has been completely cleaned," and that "We are waiting for beginning of large-scale process of deoccupation of Luhansk region."
With a pre-war population of over 20,000 people, Lyman has been described since the start of the Russian invasion as a key logistics and transportation hub of the east.
Russia's defense ministry on Saturday issued a statement confirming its forces have withdrawn: "In connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement, the allied troops were withdrawn from the settlement of Krasny Lyman to more favorable lines," it said in a daily briefing.
Last week, the Kremlin said that it's wouldn't contemplate ending its "special operation" until at least all of the Donbas - as well as the totality of the four annexed territories - have been secured. This includes the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporozhye regions - none of which at this point are under 100% Russian control.
The city center of Lyman today.— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) October 1, 2022
Servicemen of the 81st Airborne Brigade and National Guard tore down the enemy's flags. pic.twitter.com/5w2DpSfqId
Yet during his major speech declaring that the territories have now been politically absorbed into the Russian Federation, President Putin said they are "ours forever" and vowed to defend them by all available means.
The Kremlin has emphasized that "Any strikes targeting the new areas after their accession to Russia will be considered aggression against us." The threats have been widely viewed as indicating Russia is about to send significantly more troops to the battlefield, after the mobilization of some 300,000 reservists - though some say this figure could be even higher.
According to the Moscow Times:
The Russian decision to withdraw from Lyman led to immediate criticism from Kremlin allies.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted on messaging app Telegram that, if it was his decision, he would demote the commander in charge of the Lyman operation, "strip him of his medals and send him to the front with a rifle to wash away his humilation in blood."
Stunned reactions keep coming in with respect to Ukraine reclaiming Lyman. Andrey Gurulyov, former deputy commander of Russia's southern military district, said he couldn't explain the defeat. He blamed in on a system of lies, "top to bottom" and was suddenly disconnected. pic.twitter.com/O4aoRqVx96— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) October 2, 2022
And over the weekend some pundits on Russian television expressed their shock and anger, as calls for greater Russian mobilization and intervention grow from some Kremlin circles.