After being encircled by Ukrainian forces, Russia on Saturday announced it had pulled troops out of an eastern Ukrainian city that it had been using as a front-line hub. It was the latest victory for a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russia’s withdrawal from Lyman, which the Defense Ministry announced on its Telegram channel, complicates its internationally vilified move to annex four regions of Ukraine and paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into land that Moscow now illegally claims as its own.
The fighting around Lyman comes at a pivotal moment for Putin’s war. Facing Ukrainian gains on the battlefield — which he frames as a U.S.-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia — Putin this week heightened his threats of nuclear force.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces in battling to hold onto Lyman, but that outnumbered Russian troops were withdrawn to more favorable positions. The Russian announcement came soon after Ukraine’s air force said it had moved into Lyman and the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff posted photos of a Ukrainian flag being hoisted on the town’s outskirts on its Telegram channel.
Lyman is some 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Earlier on Saturday, a senior Ukrainian official said Russian forces had killed 20 people when they shelled a civilian evacuation convoy in the country’s northeast. Bombardments have intensified as Moscow annexed the territory.
Russian officials have not commented on the incident; NBC News was not able to confirm details.
Kharkiv region Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said the civilian convoy was struck in the Kupiansy district, calling the attack on people who were trying to flee the area to avoid being shelled “сruelty that can’t be justified.”
The attack was apparently the second in two days to hit a humanitarian convoy. Russian troops have retreated from much of the Kharkiv region after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive last month but continued to shell the area.
In a daily intelligence briefing, the British Defense Ministry highlighted an attack Friday in the city of Zaporizhzhia that killed 30 people and wounded 88 others.
The British military said the Russians “almost certainly” struck the humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russia is increasingly using anti-aircraft missiles to conduct attacks on the ground likely due to a lack of munitions, the British said Saturday.
“Russia’s stock of such missiles is highly likely limited and is a high-value resource designed to shoot down modern aircraft and incoming missiles, rather than for use against ground targets,” the British said. “Its use in ground attack role has almost certainly been driven by overall munitions shortages, particularly longer-range precision missiles.”
Russian-backed officials in Zaporizhzhia pinned the blame for the attack on Ukraine without offering any evidence.
The British briefing noted the attack came while Putin was preparing to sign the annexation treaties.
“Russia is expending strategically valuable military assets in attempts to achieve tactical advantage and in the process is killing civilians it now claims are its own citizens,” it said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s nuclear power provider accused Russia on Saturday of “kidnapping” the head of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, a facility now occupied by Russian troops and located in the region that has been annexed.
Russian forces seized the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ihor Murashov, around 4 p.m. Friday, Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said. That was just hours after Putin, in a sharp escalation of his war, signed treaties to absorb Moscow-controlled Ukrainian territory into Russia.
Energoatom said Russian troops stopped Murashov’s car, blindfolded him and then took him to an undisclosed location.
“His detention by (Russia) jeopardizes the safety of Ukraine and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant,” said Energoatom President Petro Kotin said.
Kotin demanded that Russia immediately release Murashov.
Russia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has staff at the plant, said it had sought clarification from the Russian authorities and has been informed that Murashov was temporarily detained to answer questions.
The IAEA did not say whether he had been released and what his condition was.
Ukrainian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Zaporizhzhia plant repeatedly has been caught in the crossfire of the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian technicians continued running it after Russian troops seized the power station. The plant’s last reactor was shut down in September amid ongoing shelling near the facility.