Ukraine’s army is pushing further on from the strategically important town of Lyman that it retook from Russia over the weekend, raising the pressure on President Vladimir Putin who had claimed the territory for the Russian Federation just days earlier.
The hard-fought victory in Lyman, a transport hub in the north-east of the province of Donetsk, was sealed on Saturday after nearly three weeks of heavy fighting.
It sets the stage for the possible advance of Ukrainian forces towards the town of Svatove, a key logistics centre for the Russian military who were pushed out of the Kharkiv region in a lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive last month.
For Putin, who on Friday announced plans to “forever” annex Donetsk and the neighbouring provinces that make up the eastern Donbas region, the defeat in Lyman has prompted widespread criticism of the military command, and demands from his ardent supporters to prepare a robust response, including the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon.
Low-yield nuclear weapons, sometimes called tactical nuclear weapons, are designed to overcome overwhelming conventional forces on a battlefield, as compared with the larger, strategic nuclear weapons that Nato and Russia have maintained for decades as part of policies of mutually assured destruction.
They typically have a tenth of the explosive potential of a traditional nuclear weapon, and some of Russia’s arsenal of about 2,000 such weapons can be delivered as warheads on conventional missiles such as the Iskander that it has already deployed in Ukraine, but also by ground forces, fighter jets or naval gunships.
“Russia has staged a farce [referendum] in Donbas and now a Ukrainian flag is there,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the country, as he vowed to continue the offensive. “During this week, there were more Ukrainian flags in Donbas. It will be even more in a week.”
There is little reliable information on how many Russian troops were captured after Lyman was encircled, with Ukrainian officials unwilling to give details.
Earlier reports had suggested more than 5,000 Russian soldiers could be surrounded there, although that was before some of Moscow’s forces were evacuated east towards the town of Kreminna, a Ukrainian official said on condition of anonymity. Russia later blew up a bridge to slow the Ukrainian advance, he added.
After Kreminna, Ukrainian forces will have to choose between heading north towards Svatove, or south in the direction of the cities of Rubizhne, Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, where Ukraine was forced to retreat from in July, allowing Putin to declare full control of the Luhansk province.
Further south lies the city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have engaged in gruelling artillery battles for months, with little change in the frontline.
Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian-appointed governor of Luhansk province, predicted on television that the army would head south, but Ukrainian officials have regularly telegraphed feints in order to keep Russian forces on the move.
In Russia, open criticism of the failures of the military command has grown in recent days as the defeat in Lyman became public, referred to by some as the first loss of a “Russian” city to an enemy force since the early days of the second world war.
Andrei Gurulyov, an MP and retired army general, blamed Russia’s military command for giving Putin incorrect information about the situation on the front lines.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t assess the situation all this time and strengthen the deployment,” Gurulyov said on a Russian talk show, as he hit out at the “endemic lying” that led to over-optimistic reports of what was happening on the ground.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, said the army’s top brass were divorced from realities on the ground and misinforming Putin. He called for Russia to introduce martial law along the borders of Russia with Ukraine and use a tactical nuclear weapon.
Within hours, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally who recently admitted to running the Wagner Group, a mercenary fighting force in the Donbas, added his criticism of the military’s top leaders, demanding they be “sent barefoot” to fight alongside Russian conscripts.
The criticism indicated a probable growing rift between Russia’s regular army and irregular forces such as Wagner and Kadyrov’s Chechen troops. The Institute for the Study of War think-tank said the Kremlin could be “amplifying such criticism to set informational conditions for personnel changes within the higher military command in weeks to come”.
However, the ISW also said the decision not to reinforce Lyman front lines “was almost certainly Putin’s, not that of the military command, and suggests that Putin cares far more about holding the strategic terrain of Kherson and nearby regions”.
Ukraine’s advance in the Donbas contrasts with the slow, grinding battle in the south of the country, especially around the major shipbuilding city of Kherson, the only Russian-held territory west of the Dnipro river.
As many as 10,000 newly mobilised Russian troops were being sent up from Crimea in the past week to those regions, the Ukrainian official said.
However, there have been widespread reports of a lack of training and equipment since Putin announced a partial mobilisation on September 21 in an effort to reboot his flagging war.