Russia’s withdrawal from northeastern Ukraine is a setback for Moscow, but opens the door to the possibility of an even bigger one: that Ukrainian troops, spurred by their success, will move south to seek territory in eastern Donbas. reclaiming the region was one of the Kremlin’s main objectives in the war.
Russian troops occupy most of Donbas, but there are already signs that the government in Kiev is challenging its grip. On Wednesday, Ukrainian troops fought on the outskirts of the city of Lyman, according to Ukrainian officials.
Donbas consists of two regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russia has supported separatist uprisings since 2014. On Wednesday, the head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, said Ukraine wanted to reclaim Lyman and use it as a springboard to attack Luhansk, Tass, a Russian state news agency, reported. mr. Pushilin said the attempt would fail.
The situation on the front line remains murky. On Tuesday, exiled Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said in a Twitter post that Russian troops had left the city of Kreminna, which lies in Luhansk and lies east of Lyman, though he said on Wednesday they had returned and tore up Ukrainian flags. . “They give the appearance of a big presence in the city,” he tweeted.
Ukrainian control over those locations would be of strategic importance. It would indicate that the fighting has expanded beyond a new line of defense set up by the Russian Defense Ministry after its withdrawal to the northeast. And it could indicate that the city of Sievierodonetsk, taken by Russian forces in late June after a protracted battle that left huge casualties on both sides, could be vulnerable to a counter-attack.
Lyman stands on an access road that runs west of Sievierodonetsk, while Kreminna lies to the north. Any advance would make Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk more vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery, military analysts said.
“Everything north of Sievierodonetsk and that area is in a bit of an uproar for Russia,” said Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a research institution in London. He said the defeat in the northeast had in fact caused the collapse of one of the four Russian military groups in Ukraine, but added: “I don’t see the moral shock effect transferring to other groups of forces.”
In recent weeks, Moscow has moved some of its troops in Donbas to southern Ukraine to defend itself against a Ukrainian counter-offensive. Still, military experts said, some of the most effective troops remain in Donbas, supported by separatist fighters.