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KYIV — If Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions was supposed to act as a warning to Ukraine to stop fighting, it hasn’t worked.
Ukrainian troops on Monday liberated more of the country from Russian occupation — pushing hard in offensives in the east following the successful recapture of the strategic hub of Lyman and in south of the country, where Ukrainian units appear to have broken through Russian defenses on the west side of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region.
Even the Russian Defense Ministry had to admit that things aren’t going Moscow’s way, with spokesperson Igor Konashenkov saying: “Superior enemy tank units succeeded in wedging into the depth of our defense” in the Kherson region.
That news came on the same day that the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, unanimously backed the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions into Russia — something that President Vladimir Putin announced with great fanfare on Friday. Putin stressed that the people in the illegally occupied regions became “our citizens forever” and that Russia “will protect our land using all our forces and means at our disposal.”
That’s not causing Ukraine’s leaders to lose much sleep.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his address to the nation on Sunday night that “the story of the liberation of Lyman has now become the most popular in the media. But the successes of our soldiers are not limited to Lyman.”
“This, you know, is the trend … Recently, someone somewhere held pseudo-referendums, and when the Ukrainian flag is returned, no one remembers the Russian farce with some pieces of paper and some annexations,” he added.
There are two main directions for the Ukrainian counteroffensives.
The one in the east is tracking toward the city of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, after Ukrainian troops retook Lyman — their most significant gain in the last two weeks.
“Some of [the Russians] have been physically destroyed,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern forces, told Ukrainian television. He said that the Russians are trying to establish a new defensive line, but Ukraine has been “hitting enemy units with artillery fire.”
The second thrust comes in the south of the country, where Ukrainian soldiers have spent weeks pushing at thousands of Russians on the west side of the Dnipro River after a series of attacks on the few bridges crossing the river made resupplying them difficult.
In the last days, the Ukrainians have started to move.
According to the Kherson region’s authorities in exile, in the past hours Ukrainian troops liberated the villages of Arkhanhelske and Myroliubivka.
“The situation keeps gaining momentum,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, told Ukrainian television on Monday.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, believes that Russia’s defeat around Lyman indicates that Putin — who has reportedly been micromanaging Russian commanders on the ground — is “deprioritizing” the defense of the Luhansk region “in favor of holding occupied territories in southern Ukraine.”
Russia’s inability to hold back the Ukrainian counter-offensives, and reports of growing chaos in the country’s mobilization efforts and problems in equipping and training new troops, is creating growing tensions within Russia’s ruling establishment.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman and Putin ally, denounced the Russian general in charge of defending Lyman as “talentless” and said on his Telegram channel on Saturday that the commander should be demoted to private and sent to the front lines to “wash his shame in blood.”
Kadyrov also called for “drastic measures” including declaring martial law and using “low-yield nuclear weapons.”
That prompted some row-back from the Kremlin on Monday, with spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying of Kadyrov that “even in difficult moments, emotions should not cloud any assessments.”
However, he added: “We may use nuclear weapons on the basis of what is stated in the relevant doctrine … There can be no other considerations here.”
Russia’s Tass news agency added that Russia’s nuclear doctrine calls for the use of the weapons “if the enemy uses this or other types of weapons of mass destruction against Russia and its allies,” as well as “in the event of aggression against Russia with conventional weapons that endanger the very existence of the state.”