KOLODYAZI, Ukraine—Fighting continued around the eastern Ukrainian city of Liman Saturday night, despite Russian claims that they have withdrawn from the city.
Artillery and multiple launch missile systems thundered into the night and two pairs of fighter jets could be seen firing flares as they provided close air support.
Russia had kept several thousand troops in the city, and the ongoing violence suggests that some — if not most — of those soldiers may have remained trapped. The roads to Lyman are littered with the burning barrels of Russian tanks and armored vehicles, with the corpses of Russian soldiers lying on the sides.
Little remains of nearby villages, with almost no civilian population. Ukrainian forces are also suffering significant losses.
Ukraine has enveloped the Lyman region from the north and south. Ukrainian troops that bypassed the city are pushing further east into the nearby Luhansk region, facing reinforcements sent by Russia.
The Russian Defense Ministry had written on social media on Saturday afternoon that its forces were withdrawing from Liman.
But Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hana Maliar wrote on social media on Saturday afternoon, after the Russian Defense Ministry said Russia had withdrawn from Liman, that fighting in the city was continuing, warning against premature announcements. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech on Saturday night that fighting was still going on in Liman.
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian forces destroyed the only bridge leading from Liman to Russian-controlled areas, making an organized withdrawal much more complicated.
“We’re already at Lyman. But the fighting continues,” Serhii Tserevaty, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was quoted as saying on Saturday by Ukrainian media.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry, meanwhile, posted a video online of troops raising a Ukrainian flag in the city. “Ukrainian air strike forces enter Liman, Donetsk region. The #UAarmy has and always will have the deciding vote in today’s and any future “referendums”.
The loss of Lyman, a major logistics hub for Russian forces, marks another major blow to the Kremlin’s war effort, after a month in which they lost thousands of square miles of ground.
The defeats sparked an outcry in Russia, with hardline nationalists demanding that the country’s top military officers be held accountable. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen republic’s strongman, urged the dismissal of Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District, which oversaw the Liman region. “If I could, I would demote Lapin to private, strip him of his medals and send him to the front line with a rifle to wash away his dishonor in blood,” Mr. Kadyrov wrote.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would annex officially occupied parts of Ukraine, including the Donetsk region. He and other Russian officials have warned that any attacks on the annexed territory would be seen as attacks against Russia, and the Kremlin is prepared to defend that region with all the tools at Russia’s disposal, which include the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the people.
In addition, Mr. Putin last week announced a mobilization in an effort to strengthen the Russian military, whose weaknesses were exposed last month.
Russia’s attempted withdrawal from Liman undermines Mr Putin’s claims to occupied Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian and Western officials have condemned the declared annexations. Mr Zelensky, meanwhile, said on Friday he would not negotiate with Russia until a new president takes office.
Mr. Zelensky has already pledged to retake the occupied territories. On Friday he asked NATO to fast-track his country’s application to join the security bloc, saying Ukraine was already a de facto ally of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Ukraine should follow the established process.
“We must liberate our entire land and this will be the best proof that international law and human values cannot be violated by any terrorist state, even one as brazen as Russia,” Mr Zelensky said in his evening video speech on Friday. “We have substantial results in the east of our country.”
An adviser to Mr Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, told an Italian publication that Ukraine would negotiate with the Kremlin only when Russian troops leave Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
Western analysts were skeptical that the mobilization in Russia would have an impact on the battlefield anytime soon. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have left the country in the week since Mr Putin announced the call. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said on Friday that Russia will likely continue to “fight to compel participation” in the armed forces.
In addition, the British Ministry of Defense said on Saturday that Russian forces are likely to be facing shortages of ammunition, particularly longer-range precision missiles. As a result, the ministry said, they fired a long-range air defense missile at a parking lot in Zaporizhia on Friday, where a civilian convoy was gathering to head south toward Russian-held territory. About 30 people were killed, according to Ukrainian officials, and nearly 100 were injured.
“Russia is strategically spending valuable military resources in efforts to gain tactical advantage and in the process is killing civilians it now claims are its own citizens,” the ministry tweeted.
Also on Saturday, Ukraine’s nuclear power company accused Russia of kidnapping the manager of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as Ukrainian forces continue to move closer to recapturing the eastern town of Lyman.
Russian forces captured Ihor Murashov, the manager of the nuclear plant, around 4pm on Friday, according to social media posts by Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear power company. The nuclear plant in southern Ukraine, which Russian forces have controlled since the beginning of the war, has been a frequent site of tension in recent months, with each side accusing the other of bombing the facility.
As Mr Murashov was leaving the plant on Friday, his car stopped, according to Energoatom. He was removed from the car, blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location, the post said. his whereabouts remain unknown.
“The detention of … endangers the operational safety of Ukraine and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant,” Energoatom wrote. The post also accused Russian forces of “nuclear terrorism” at the plant and called for Mr Murashov’s immediate release: “Let him return to his responsibilities for maintaining the safe operation of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant.”
Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment. The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Twitter, “The IAEA has been in contact with the relevant authorities and has been informed that Mr. Murasov is in temporary detention.” The agency added that it is seeking clarification.
Operations at the nuclear plant have been seriously compromised since Russian troops moved heavy weaponry to the nuclear plant site in the summer. The bombing has repeatedly disconnected reactors at the plant, which provided about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before the war, from the grid. In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have said the plant will remain out of business until Russian forces leave the site. They also accused Russia of planning to steal power from the plant and reroute it to Russia.
Russian officials have said the presence of their troops is necessary to defend the plant from attack. IAEA inspectors visited the plant a month ago, when shelling of the site had become an almost daily occurrence, in an attempt to stabilize the situation and prevent a nuclear disaster.
—Alan Callison, Lawrence Norman and Matthew Luxmoore contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected] and Ian Lovett at [email protected]
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