By Tom Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces entered the eastern stronghold of Lyman on Saturday after besieging thousands of Russian troops, Kyiv said, in a battlefield that rejected the Kremlin a day after it declared The father divided his territory as part of Russia.
The capture of Lyman would be a major setback for Moscow after President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the Donetsk region, along with three other regions, at a ceremony on Friday that was condemned by Kyiv and the West as a game clown.
“We are already in Lyman, but there are still battles,” said Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the eastern Ukrainian forces.
Two grinning Ukrainian soldiers stick the yellow and blue national flags to the “Lyman” welcome sign at the entrance of the town in the northern Donetsk region, a video posted by the president’s chief of staff shows .
“October 1. We are planting our state flag and setting it up on our land. Lyman will be Ukraine,” said one of the soldiers standing on the bonnet of a military vehicle.
Russia has between 5,000 and 5,500 troops at Lyman but the number of troops under siege could be lower because of casualties, Cherevatyi said.
“The Russian group in the Lyman area is under siege,” the spokesman, he said on television.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The last Russian operational update was on Friday night. On Saturday, the ministry’s Telegram channel posted a series of congratulatory messages, including one from Putin, to mark a military holiday, Ground Forces Day.
Russian military bloggers argue that losing the town would be a serious setback and it is clear that Moscow has decided to abandon the town and withdraw its forces.
It is not possible to independently confirm the battlefield claims of either side.
Russia has used Lyman as a logistics and transport hub for its operations in the northern Donetsk region. Its demise would be Ukraine’s biggest battlefield gain since a blitzkrieg counterattack in the northeastern region of Kharkiv last month.
A Ukrainian military spokesman said capturing Lyman would allow Kyiv to push deeper into the Luhansk region, which Moscow announced full capture in early July after weeks of slowness.
“Lyman is very important because this is the next step to liberate the Donbass of Ukraine. It is an opportunity to go further to Kreminna and Sievierodonetsk, and it is very important psychologically,” he said.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions together make up the larger Donbas region, which has been Russia’s main focus since the start of Moscow’s invasion on February 24 in what it calls “military operations” special” to demilitarize the neighboring country.
Putin declared the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as Russian land during Friday’s ceremony – a territory that accounts for about 18 percent of Ukraine’s total land area.
Ukraine and its Western allies consider Russia’s move illegal. Kyiv vowed to continue to liberate the land of Russian forces and said it would not hold peace talks with Moscow while Putin remained president.
Retired US General Ben Hodges, a former commander of US troops in Europe, said a Russian defeat in Lyman following Putin’s announcement would be a major political and military embarrassment for the leader. Russia.
“This makes clear that his request is illegal and cannot be enforced,” he said.
It remains to be seen how Ukrainian commanders will exploit the operation, he said, adding that it would likely further erode the morale of Moscow’s troops holding other Ukrainian territories.
Cherevatyi said the operation around Lyman is still underway and that the Russian military is making unsuccessful attempts to break out of the encirclement.
“Some are surrendering, they are killed and wounded a lot, but the operation is not over yet,” he said.
Ukraine’s exiled governor, Luhansk, said Russian forces had asked for a safe break out of the encirclement, but Ukraine refused the request.
Ukraine’s General Staff told Reuters it had no such information.