Ukrainian forces entered the eastern stronghold of Lyman on Saturday after encircling thousands of Russian troops, in a battlefield rebuttal to the Kremlin a day after it proclaimed a swathe of Ukraine’s territory part of Russia.
The capture of Lyman would be a major setback for Moscow after Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of the Donetsk region, along with three other regions, at a ceremony on Friday that was condemned by Kyiv and the West as a farce.
“We're already in Lyman, but there are battles,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine's eastern forces, said.
A video posted by the president’s chief of staff showed Ukrainian soldiers taping the national flag of Ukraine onto the “Lyman” welcome sign at the town’s entrance.
“October 1. We're unfurling our state flag and establishing it on our land. Lyman will be Ukraine,” one of the soldiers said, standing on the bonnet of a military vehicle.
“The Russian grouping in the area of Lyman is surrounded,” Cherevatyi said on television, reporting that Russia had 5,000 to 5,500 troops at Lyman but the number of encircled troops could be lower because of casualties.
Russia has used Lyman as a logistics and transport hub
for its operations in the north of the Donetsk region. Its fall would be Ukraine's biggest battlefield gain
since a lightning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
Russia’s defence ministry claimed it had withdrawn the troops
on Saturday, saying that they had retreated from the town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine to avoid being surrounded by Ukraine's army.
The Ukrainian military spokesperson said the capture of Lyman would allow Kyiv to advance into the Luhansk region
, whose full capture Moscow announced at the beginning of July after weeks of slow, grinding advances.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions together make up the wider Donbas region that has been a major focus for Russia since soon after the start of Moscow's invasion on February 24 in what it called a “special military operation” to demilitarise its neighbour.
Retired US General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, said a Russian defeat in Lyman after Putin's declaration would be a major political and military embarrassment for the Russian leader
Cherevatyi said the operation around Lyman was still underway and Russian troops were mounting unsuccessful attempts to break out of the encirclement.