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Ukrainian Troops Hunt Demoralized Russian Stragglers in Seized City

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – Ukrainian forces on Sunday pursued Russian stragglers in the key town of Lyman, which was retaken from Russia after its demoralized troops fled with “empty eyes,” according to a major Russian newspaper, and despite Moscow’s baseless claim they had annexed the region around the town.

Two days after President Vladimir V. Putin held a grand ceremony to celebrate the incorporation of four Ukrainian territories into Russia, the debacle in the city – Lyman, a strategic railway junction in the eastern part of the Donbas – already increased the pressure on a Russian leadership. faces withering criticism at home for his handling of the war and his conscription of up to 300,000 men.

Russia’s retreat from Lyman, which sits on a river bank that has acted as a natural divide between the Russian and Ukrainian front lines, came after weeks of heavy fighting.

In an unusually candid article published on Sunday, prominent Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that in the last few days of their occupation, Russian forces in Lyman had been plagued by desertion, poor planning and the delayed arrival of reserves.

“The risk of encirclement or ignominious imprisonment became too great, and the Russian command made a decision to fall back,” wrote a war correspondent who traveled with the fleeing Russian forces, adding that disheartened soldiers with “empty eyes” with distress and scarcely had escaped Lyman with their lives.

The withdrawal is a significant blow to Russian forces, which could further undermine the Kremlin’s position in the Donbas, a mineral-rich and fertile part of eastern Ukraine that has been central to Mr Putin’s war aims.

Mr. Putin’s office made no public comment on the loss of Lyman, even as pro-war commentators and two of his closest allies sharply criticized the Defense Department for withdrawing from the city. Apparently unfazed by its military setbacks, Moscow continued its annexation drive on Sunday as the country’s constitutional court rubber stamp. formally accepted Mr. Putin’s decision to claim the four Ukrainian regions as part of Russia.

But President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine quickly sought to capitalize politically on the retreat, saying it showed Moscow’s attempt to illegally annex a significant part of the country was an “absolute farce” and that “now there is a Ukrainian flag” in Donbas . But the Ukrainian recoveries in areas now claimed by Russia have come as Mr Putin has increasingly hinted at turning to nuclear options in the conflict, alarming US officials.

On Friday, after Russian-appointed officials held discredited referendums in the four partially occupied territories of Ukraine, Mr. Putin announced that the territory, including Lyman, would be absorbed into Russia and that its people would be Russian citizens “forever.”

Mr. Putin claimed the provinces’ residents had voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation, but Ukraine and its Western allies dismissed the referendums as a sham, as most of the citizens had fled the region and many of those left behind had cast ballots with guns.

Despite the Russian leader’s claims and bluster at the ceremony Friday in a grand Kremlin hall — he denounced Washington for “Satanism” — Russian troops withdrew from Lyman barely a day later.

Initially, Ukrainian commanders believed they would quickly retake Lyman, with forces almost completely encircling the city. But Russia’s military sent reinforcements. Fierce fighting ensued in dense forests and along the banks of the Siversky Donets River as Ukraine cut off the roads used to move troops and ammunition into the city.

“In Lyman and around it there were considerably strong forces,” Col. Sergei Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukrainian troops fighting in the east, said in an interview.

Russian soldiers retreated chaotically, broke from their units and fled in small groups into the surrounding forests, Col. Cherevaty said, and many were killed or captured. About 2,000 to 3,000 Russian soldiers were in Lyman when Ukrainian forces arrived on the outskirts of the city on Friday, he said.

As Ukrainian soldiers and police officers fanned out across Lyman to search for Russian sympathizers, it was unclear Sunday how many had fallen into Ukrainian hands.

Mr. Zelensky said the city had been completely cleared by Sunday afternoon as Ukrainian forces carried out patrols and delivered aid to residents who had survived months of Russian occupation and weeks of fighting.

Artillery strikes have damaged much of Lyman. The town is largely in ruins, without electricity, water or regular food supplies, according to Stanislav Zagrusky, the police chief of the Kramatorsk district, which includes Lyman.

Zagrusky said in an interview that the resumption of Ukrainian police patrols late Saturday — hours after the Ukrainian army declared the city liberated and Russia’s military admitted it had withdrawn — underscored the absurdity of the Kremlin’s claim to sovereignty over the four Ukrainian territories. .

“We absolutely do not care what they say, what decrees they issue, what announcements they make,” he said of the Kremlin authorities, lamenting the conditions in which Russian troops had left the residents of Lyman during the occupation: “They did absolutely nothing. for the people all the time.”

“They didn’t try to restore electricity or water and people were living without regular food supplies,” he continued, adding that many residents needed medical attention.

Mr. Zagrusky said that while the Ukrainian military took prisoners after the battle, police officers had not made any arrests of Russian sympathizers as of midday Sunday. His officers found that Russians had hurriedly left a police station and left it littered with rubbish.

Police said about 5,000 people remained in the town, which had a population of 20,000 before the war.

As Ukrainian forces gained full control of Lyman, leaders turned their attention to the next steps in a punishing offensive that has left Russian troops in the eastern Donbas region in an increasingly dangerous position.

From Lyman, Ukraine could push further east to try to dislodge Russian troops from towns and villages they had captured over the summer, although colder temperatures could slow the fighting and Russian lines are expected to be reinforced by recently discharged troops.

Military analysts also warn that if they push too far, Ukrainian forces could be overstretched and unable to defend newly-won territory from Russian counterattacks.

None of the four illegally annexed regions are fully under Russian control. Ukrainian advances in the east and south have left the Kremlin’s forces with diminishing opportunities to take additional territory.

In the south, Ukrainian forces are engaged in a fierce counter-offensive in the Kherson region, which Russia captured in the first weeks of the war. Unlike in the northeast, there has been little movement in either direction, although the odds appear increasingly stacked against Russian forces, the majority of which have been cut off from their supply lines by successful Ukrainian attacks on key bridges spanning the huge Dnipro river.

Across the Dnipro, Russian forces trying to push north into the Zaporizhzhia region, which Mr Putin also claimed to have annexed, have been held at bay for months by strong Ukrainian defense lines.

For now, Russian troops fleeing Lyman appear to be moving to reinforce their lines 25 miles to the south around the town of Bakhmut. It appears to be the only area along the extensive eastern front where Russian forces are on the offensive, primarily led by members of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor whose fighters have been targeting Ukrainian forces for months.

“It is very difficult because they have been hammering for months with artillery and are constantly attacking with tanks and infantry,” said Colonel Cherevaty. “Keeping them is difficult, but they manage.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Michael Schwirtz from Kiev, Ukraine and Norimitsu Onishi from Montreal.