Ukrainian forces have encircled thousands of Russian troops in the eastern city of Lyman less than 24 hours after Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the area and vowed to defend it with all military means.
Lyman has been a key staging ground for Russian forces in their campaign in the northern Donetsk region, one of the four Ukrainian provinces Russia claimed as its territory on Friday.
Its capture is crucial for Ukraine’s counter-offensive, which has swept from west to east with the aim of cutting the north-south supply lines that sustain Russia’s campaign in the Donbas region, comprised of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk.
The Ukraine military said in a tweet on Saturday that its air assault forces “are entering Lyman”.
“The Ukrainian army has and will always have the decisive vote in today’s and any future ‘referendums’,” it added, referring to the Russian stage-managed secession votes in the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia which Kyiv and its western allies have vowed never to recognise.
It is unclear how many of the Russian troops stationed in Lyman pulled back as the Ukrainian military encircled the city — their only exit route east was within Ukrainian artillery range in the last few days.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of Luhansk province, said that Ukrainian troops had completed the encirclement of Lyman and that 5,000 Russian troops were trapped there. The claims cannot be independently verified.
Soldiers hung up Ukrainian flags at the entrance to the city, according to images shared on social media, and by Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russian forces had three options, Haidai wrote on his Telegram channel: “To escape, to die together, or to surrender. The possibilities of delivering ammunition to the Russians to the surrounded city or a peaceful exit from the settlement are already blocked.”
The potential capture or negotiated surrender of such a large number of Russian soldiers is a major setback for Putin. Such a large number of Russian prisoners of war would also change the calculus in the future for carefully negotiated personnel swaps that have seen hundreds of Ukrainian captives freed in the last months, a Western diplomat said.
The “Russian grouping” in Lyman had been completely surrounded, a Ukrainian army spokesman, Serhii Cherevatyi said on television. “The operation is not over yet — they have a lot of killed and wounded,” he said.
The encirclement of the Russian soldiers and the fall of Lyman, which had a prewar population of about 20,000, prompted dismay among pro-Kremlin bloggers. Semyon Pegov, who goes by the name WarGonzo, said Ukrainian forces were “moving along the central streets of the town” and conducting identity checks on its residents.
“If there is a chance to defend and recapture the city, then they are incredibly small,” Pegov wrote on his Telegram channel.
Zakhar Prilepin, a novelist who leads a political party in Russia’s parliament, wrote: “Ukraine’s armed forces are entering Lyman. Our city. Our Russian city [ . . . ] Every loss is the commander-in-chief’s personal loss.”
North of Lyman, Russian forces struck an evacuation convoy in the Kharkiv district, killing at least 20 civilians, according to the regional governor, Oleh Syniehubov. Russian forces abandoned that region in the face of Ukraine’s rapid counter-offensive last month, but locals have said they still face intermittent artillery attacks.
It was the second strike on civilian convoys that Ukrainian officials have blamed on Russia this week; a missile strike in Zaporizhzhia killed at least 30 people yesterday.
Local officials said Russian missiles had struck a group of vehicles heading into Russian-occupied territory, where they intended to bring out relatives.
Russia has not commented on either of the attacks.
Separately, Italy’s main oil and gas company ENI said on Saturday that Russia’s Gazprom had cut the remaining gas supplies to the country, which have fallen to about 10 per cent of the country’s total from 40 per cent before the invasion.
Eni said Gazprom had blamed shipping problems through Austria but a spokesperson told Reuters there were no signs of problems at the Slovakian-Austrian gas entry point, where Russian supplies arrive through Ukraine.
Italy on Friday said its navy would increase measures to protect gas pipelines from north Africa to Europe through the Sicilian channel, warning that it feared Russia could try and target key energy infrastructure following the alleged sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic this week.
Gazprom said it had stopped shipping gas through Austria because the country’s pipeline operator had not confirmed the amount of gas to be transported. It blamed the issue on regulatory changes in Austria and said it was “working on the problem together with Italian buyers”.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard and Max Seddon