KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — After being encircled by Ukrainian forces, Russia pulled troops out Saturday from an eastern Ukrainian city that it had been using as a front-line hub. It was the latest victory for the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has humiliated and angered the Kremlin.
Russia’s withdrawal from Lyman complicates its internationally vilified move to annex four regions of Ukraine and paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into land that Moscow now illegally claims as its own.
The fighting comes at a pivotal moment in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war. Facing Ukrainian gains on the battlefield — which he frames as a U.S.-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia — Putin this week heightened his threats of nuclear force and used his most aggressive, anti-Western rhetoric to date.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces in battling to hold onto Lyman, but said outnumbered Russian troops were withdrawn to more favorable positions. The Russian announcement came soon after Ukraine’s air force said it had moved into Lyman and the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff posted photos of a Ukrainian flag being hoisted on the town’s outskirts.
Lyman, a key transport hub, had been an important node in the Russian front line for both 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 Luhansk region, both of which Russia annexed Friday after an “referendum vote” was held at gunpoint.
Ukrainian forces have retaken vast swathes of territory in a counteroffensive that started in September which saw them push Russian forces out of the Kharkiv area and move east across the Oskil River toward Lyman and other strategic points.
Meanwhile, Russian bombardments have intensified in recent days as Moscow moved swiftly with the 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, Ukraine’s nuclear power provider said Saturday that Russian forces blindfolded and detained the head of Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
Despite Putin’s land-grab Friday of four regions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his military have vowed to keep on 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.
The governor of the Kharkiv region, 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 “сruelty that can’t 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 messaging app Telegram.
The Security Service of Ukraine, the secret police force known by the acronym SBU, posted photographs of the attacked convoy. At least one truck appeared to have been blown up, with burned corpses in what remained of its truck bed. Another vehicle at the front of the convoy also had been ablaze. Bodies lay on the side of the road or still inside their vehicles, which appeared pockmarked with bullet holes.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its rockets destroyed Ukrainian military targets in the area, but has not commented on accusations that it targeted fleeing civilians. Russian troops have retreated from much of the Kharkiv region amid the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive but have continued to shell the area.
In an apparent attempt to secure Moscow’s hold on 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 the Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom. That 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 did not publicly comment on the report. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Saturday that Russia told it that “the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily detained to answer questions.” The Vienna-based agency did not immediately elaborate.
The power plant repeatedly has been caught in the crossfire of the war. Ukrainian technicians continued running it after Russian troops seized the power station, and its last reactor was shut down in September as a precautionary measure amid ongoing shelling nearby.
In its heaviest barrage in weeks, Russia’s military on Friday pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike in the Zaporizhzhia region’s capital killing 30 people and wounding 88.
In its daily briefing Saturday, the British Defense Ministry said the Russians “almost certainly” struck a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but gave no evidence.
In other fighting reported Saturday, four people were killed and six wounded by Russian shelling Friday in the Donetsk region, governor Pavlo Kyrylenko reported.
The Russian army struck the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv twice overnight, once with drones and the second time with missiles, according to regional Gov. 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 largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War.” He added that the war is at ”a pivotal moment.”
Zelenskyy on Friday formally applied for NATO membership, upping the pressure on Western allies to defend Ukraine.
In Washington, President Joe Biden signed a bill Friday that provides another infusion of military and economic aid to Ukraine.
By JON GAMBRELL and ADAM SCHRECK Associated Press