KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — After being surrounded by Ukrainian forces, Russia on Saturday withdrew troops from an eastern Ukrainian town it was using as a frontline hub. It was the last victory of the Ukrainian counter-offensive which humiliated and angered the Kremlin.
Russia’s withdrawal from Lyman complicates his internationally reviled decision to annex four regions of Ukraine and clears the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into land Moscow now illegally claims as its own.
The fights occur at a pivotal moment in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. In the face of Ukrainian gains on the battlefield — which he describes as a US-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia — Putin this week stepped up his threats of nuclear force and used his most aggressive anti-Western rhetoric to this day.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces fighting to retain Lyman, but said the outnumbered Russian troops had been withdrawn to more favorable positions. The Russian announcement came shortly after the Ukrainian Air Force said it had moved to Lyman and the Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff posted photos of a flag Ukrainian hoisted to the outskirts of the city.
Lyman, a key transportation hub, had been an important node on the Russian front line for ground communications and logistics. Located 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Lyman is in the Donetsk region, near the border with the Luhansk region, both of which were annexed by Russia on Friday after a “referendum vote” held at gunpoint.
Ukrainian forces recaptured large swaths of territory in a counter-offensive that began in September, which saw them push Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and move east across the Oskil River towards Lyman and other strategic points.
Meanwhile, Russian bombardment has intensified in recent days as Moscow moved quickly with annexation and ordered a mass mobilization at home to bolster its forces.
In the northeast, Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of attacking a civilian evacuation convoy, killing 20 people, including children. In the south, the Ukrainian nuclear energy supplier said on Saturday that Russian forces had blindfolded and detained the head of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
Despite Putin’s land grab in four regions on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his army have vowed to continue fighting to liberate the annexed regions and other Russian-occupied areas.
Ukrainian authorities on Saturday accused Russian forces of targeting two humanitarian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of civilians.
Kharkiv region governor Oleh Syniehubov said 24 civilians were killed in an attack earlier this week on a convoy of people trying to flee the Kupiansk district, calling it “a cruelty that cannot be justified”. He said 13 children and a pregnant woman were among the dead.
“The Russians fired at civilians almost at point-blank range,” Syniehubov wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Ukraine’s Security Service, the secret police force known by the acronym SBU, released photographs of the attacked convoy. At least one truck appeared to have exploded, with burned corpses in what remained of its platform. Another vehicle at the front of the convoy had also caught fire. Bodies lay on the side of the road or inside their vehicles, which seemed to be riddled with bullets.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its rockets destroyed Ukrainian military targets in the area, but did not comment on accusations that they targeted fleeing civilians. Russian troops withdrew from much of the Kharkiv region amid the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, but continued to bombard the area.
In an apparent attempt to secure Moscow’s hold over the newly annexed territory, Russian forces seized the Director General of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ihor Murashov, around 4 p.m. Friday, according to Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom. This was just hours after Putin signed treaties to absorb Moscow-controlled Ukrainian territory into Russia, including the area around the nuclear plant.
Energoatom said Russian troops stopped Murashov’s car, blindfolded him and then took him to an undisclosed location.
Russia has not publicly commented on the report. The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Saturday that Russia told it that “the general director of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been temporarily detained to answer questions.” The Vienna-based agency did not immediately give details.
The power plant has repeatedly been caught in the crossfire of war. Ukrainian technicians continued to operate it after Russian troops seized the power station and its last reactor was closed in September as a precaution amid ongoing shelling nearby.
In its heaviest barrage in weeks, the Russian military pounded Ukrainian towns on Friday with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with a strike in the capital of the Zaporizhzhia region killing 30 people and injuring 88 .
In its daily briefing on Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the Russians “almost certainly” hit a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian officials based in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but offered no evidence.
In other fighting reported on Saturday, four people were killed and six injured by Russian shelling on Friday in the Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko reported.
The Russian military struck the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv twice overnight, once with drones and the second time with missiles, according to regional governor Vitaliy Kim. Five people were injured, including a 3-month-old baby, he said.
After Friday’s land grab, Russia now claims sovereignty over 15% of Ukraine, in what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called “the biggest attempt to annex territory”. European by force since the Second World War”. He added that the war is at “a pivotal moment”.
Zelenskyy formally applied for NATO membership on Friday, increasing pressure on Western allies to defend Ukraine.
In Washington, President Joe Biden on Friday signed a bill that provides for a new injection of military and economic aid to Ukraine.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Jon Gambrell and Adam Schreck, Associated Press