- Ukraine retakes Lehman deal, Moscow suffers major setback
- Chechen leaders recommend low-yield nuclear weapons
- Lehman is the main logistics hub in the Eastern Donetsk region
- Donetsk is one of four regions Putin says is now Russia
Kyiv, Oct. 2 (Reuters) – Ukrainian troops said they had recaptured Lehman, a key fortress in occupied eastern Ukraine, in a harrowing defeat that prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin close allies have called for the possible use of low-level nuclear weapons.
Saturday’s capture came a day after Putin announced it would annex nearly a fifth of Ukraine, including Donetsk, where Lehman is located, and put those areas under Russia’s nuclear umbrella. Kyiv and the West condemned the flamboyant ceremony as an illegal farce.
Ukrainian soldiers announced the arrest in a video recorded outside the town council building in downtown Lehman and posted on social media.
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“Dear Ukrainians – today the Ukrainian Armed Forces … liberated and controlled the settlement of Leman in the Donetsk region,” said one of the soldiers. At the end of the video, a group of soldiers cheered, dropped the Russian flag from the roof of the building and raised a Ukrainian flag in their place.
A few hours ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced the withdrawal of troops “related to the creation of the threat of siege” from the area.
Lehman fell into the hands of Russian troops in May, which used it as a logistical and transportation hub for its operations in the northern Donetsk region. Its capture was Ukraine’s biggest battlefield gain since last month’s blitzkrieg counter-offensive in northeastern Kharkiv.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has promised faster success in the Donbass, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions largely under Russian control.
“In the past week, the number of Ukrainian flags in the Donbass has increased. One more week to go,” he said in an evening video address.
Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement on Sunday morning that its warplanes carried out 29 airstrikes in the past 24 hours, destroying weapons and anti-aircraft missile systems, while ground forces attacked command posts, ammunition depots and anti-aircraft missile complexes.
The Ukrainian statement said Russian forces fired four missiles and 16 airstrikes and used Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones to attack infrastructure, adding that more than 30 settlements were damaged, mainly in the south and southeast.
Reuters was unable to verify either side’s battlefield assertions
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Lehman’s arrest would create new problems for the Russian military. “We’re very encouraged by what we’re seeing right now,” Austin said at a news conference Saturday.
Austin noted that, following the Kremlin’s more than seven-month-long invasion of Ukraine, Lehmann was placed on supply lines that Russia uses to push its troops and materiel down the south and west.
“Without these routes, it would be much more difficult. So this creates a dilemma for the Russians going forward.”
Austin did not say whether he thought the Ukrainian occupation of Lehman could prompt Russia to escalate, although U.S. officials have widely condemned Russia’s nuclear rhetoric in recent days, and President Joe Biden has publicly urged Putin not to use nuclear weapons.
Ukraine’s success has angered Putin’s allies such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region.
“In my personal opinion, tougher measures should be taken until the declaration of martial law and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons in border areas,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram ahead of Zelensky’s remarks.
Other senior officials, including former President Dmitry Medvedev, have suggested Russia may need to resort to nuclear weapons, but Kadyrov’s call was the most urgent and clear.
Putin said last week that he was not bluffing when he said he was ready to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity” by all means available, and made clear on Friday that this extended to new areas that Moscow claims.
Washington said it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons.
Analysts at the Washington-based think tank the Institute for Warfare (ISW) said the Russian military in its current state is almost certainly unable to fight on a nuclear battlefield, even though it has historically been trained to do so.
“The chaotic massing of exhausted contract soldiers, hastily mobilized reservists, conscripts and mercenaries that currently make up Russia’s ground forces cannot function in a nuclear environment. Any area affected by Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons, therefore, is very important to the Russians. are all impassable and may rule out Russian progress,” ISW said.
Russia has 5,000 to 5,500 troops in Lehman, but there could be fewer under siege, Ukrainian forces spokesman Shervati said before his arrest.
Luhansk Oblast Governor Sergei Ghede said the recapture of Lehman was one of the key factors in regaining lost territory in neighboring Luhansk, which Moscow announced in early July after weeks of grinding.
“The liberation of the city of the Donetsk region is one of the key factors in the further occupation of the Luhansk region,” Gaidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday.
The Donbass have been Russia’s main focus since Russia launched its invasion on February 2. On the 24th, Putin called it a “special military operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” his smaller neighbor.
The regions that Putin claims belong to Russia – the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporozhye – form a territory equivalent to about 18 percent of Ukraine’s total area.
Germany said it would provide Ukraine with the first of four advanced IRIS-T air defense systems in the coming days to help defend against drone attacks.
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Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Felix Light, Mark Trevelyan and David Ljunggren; Writing by Tom Balmforth and Kim Coghill; Editing by Daniel Wallis and William Mallard
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