Ukraine forces close to encircling Russian troops in key town

Kyiv delivers stark riposte to Putin’s annexation as counter-offensive in the east advances

Kyiv’s forces are close to encircling a large concentration of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine in what would be a fresh blow to Moscow in the wake of its unpopular mobilisation and declared annexation of four Ukrainian provinces.

After a lightning counter-offensive this month that liberated thousands of square kilometres in Kharkiv, Ukrainian units have pushed further east and have nearly surrounded the town of Lyman – to the alarm of Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators in Moscow. Lyman is a key staging ground for Russian forces for their campaign to capture the rest of Donetsk province.

Ukrainian forces are advancing from three directions on the town – west, north and south – and are looking to trap potentially several thousand Russian troops there.

Ukraine’s main objective could be to attack Svatove, a town to the north of Lyman, that has become an important logistics hub for Russian forces after the Kharkiv counter-offensive, said Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network in Kyiv and a former Ukrainian military officer. “If the Russians lost Svatove it would be a disaster for them, especially if [the] Ukrainian offensive continues further east to liberate that part of Luhansk Oblast [province].”

READ MORE

Ukraine’s September counter-offensive has swept from west to east with the aim of cutting the north-south supply lines that sustain Russia’s campaign in the northern Donbas region and more specifically its assault on the Ukrainian-held cites of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

The encirclement of Lyman would hand Kyiv a battlefield victory just as President Vladimir Putin announces the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces. Russia’s annexation is intended to deter Ukraine’s attempts to take back occupied territory on the basis that it is now Russian land. Mr Putin said last week the four provinces would be defended “with all means at our disposal” – a reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, head of the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Reforms, a think-tank, said capturing a large number of Russian forces would in itself be a big prize for Ukraine and a psychological blow to the Kremlin as it imposes a deeply unpopular mobilisation of men for its invasion forces.

“It would undermine mobilisation. It would be a big problem for the personal reputation of Putin and of [Russian defence minister Sergei] Shoigu,” Danylyuk said. “It is important to show the Russian leadership who expect us to be scared of their [nuclear] blackmail.. it would be a very powerful message that we don’t care.”

Vitaly Markiv, an officer in Ukraine’s national guard who is fighting in the area of Lyman, told the Financial Times via a secure messaging app that “the operation is ongoing” to liberate the town. “I cannot for now reveal details. But we are working and putting all efforts in to liberate Ukrainian territory.”

Ukrainian officials declined to comment on the operations around Lyman but did not dispute assessments of territorial gains made by western analysts using observations from Russian military correspondents and bloggers who are in close contact with, or embedded with, Russian forces.

“Russian sources indicated that Ukrainian troops have likely completed the envelopment of the Russian grouping in the Lyman area as of the end of the day on September 29,” the Institute for the Study of War said.

One blogger claimed on Thursday night that Ukrainian forces had cut the Lyman-Svatove road, the main supply line to Russian forces in and around Lyman.

The impending encirclement of Lyman has amplified criticism from Russian nationalists about Moscow’s management of the war. Vladimir Solovyov, one of Russian state TV’s main news anchors, vented his frustration about the fate of Lyman on his show this week. “Is it that we do not have the strength and resources? More than a million-strong army. Stop losing territory. We’ve lost enough settlements already. Let’s get real,” he said.

The capture of Lyman and Russian forces there would underscore Ukraine’s insistence that it will not be deterred from liberating all its territory. Moscow attempted to raise the stakes in the war last week when it orchestrated referendums on joining Russia as a precursor to annexation.

“They held these fake referendums in a rush because they are not confident in their forces and the ability to hold on to this territory,” said Serhiy Kuzan, an adviser at Ukraine’s defence ministry. “They very much wanted this to be their big push forward, a big victory. But our armed forces destroyed their plans. The mobilisation and nuclear attack threats are also a reaction to our military successes.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022