Confusion and recriminations marked the Russian efforts to call up draftees and claim sovereignty over Ukrainian territory, as well as the Russian response to battlefield setbacks.
By Andrew E. Kramer, Carlotta Gall and Anton Troianovski
Oct. 4, 2022
The New York Times
IZIUM, Ukraine — Russian forces in Ukraine were on the run Monday across a broad swath of the front line, as the Ukrainian military pressed its blitz offensive in the east and made gains in the south, belying President Vladimir V. Putin’s claims to have absorbed into Russia territories that his armies are steadily losing.
Following the capture over the weekend of Lyman, a strategic rail hub and gateway to the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian forces showed no sign of stopping, pushing eastward toward the city of Lysychansk, which Russia seized three months ago after bloody fighting. Any loss of territory in the Donbas undermines Mr. Putin’s objectives for the war he launched in February, which has focused on seizing and incorporating the region.
The Kremlin reflected the disarray of its forces on the ground, where territory was rapidly changing hands, acknowledging that it did not yet know what new borders Russia would claim in southern Ukraine. “In terms of the borders, we’re going to continue to consult with the population of these regions,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told reporters on Monday.
The military conscription Mr. Putin ordered on Sept. 21 to bolster his battered forces has set off nationwide turmoil and protest, bringing the war home to many Russians who had felt untouched by it. Many men have been drafted who were supposed to be ineligible based on factors like age or disability.
On Monday, the governor of the Khabarovsk region in the Far East said that half of the men called up there, numbering in the thousands, should not have been drafted and had been sent home and that the region’s military commissar had been dismissed.
Mr. Putin had meant for Monday to be a triumphant day in Moscow, where the lower house of Russia’s rubber-stamp Parliament, the State Duma, voted unanimously to ratify his proclaimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions after sham referendums there.
But events on the battlefield threatened to make a mockery of such declarations, as Ukrainians continued to recapture blasted, largely depopulated cities and towns from the retreating Russians. North of Lyman, the village of Pisky-Radkivski, retaken last week, was littered with burned-out Russian tanks, abandoned Russian gear and the decomposing body of a Russian soldier on Monday.
Ukraine claimed on Monday to have destroyed a Russian armored column near the village of Torske in the Donetsk region, east of Lyman and just 20 miles from Lysychansk. The attack left roads in the dense pine forest cluttered with burned tanks and armored vehicles, said Vladyslav Podkich, a Ukrainian military spokesman.
The attack could not be independently verified, but Russian officials admitted setbacks in the area, saying that Ukrainian forces had crossed into the Luhansk region for the first time in months, and had set up positions closer to Lysychansk. Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, are two of the four regions Moscow now claims as Russian territory.
Piled into the back of an army truck, heading down the road to new positions near Lyman, a company of Ukrainian and foreign soldiers were ebullient over the Russian retreat. “We broke their lines and have been pursuing them since,” said the unit’s commander, a 26-year-old American volunteer who gave his name as Rob Roy, and uses the code name Borys. “Basically,” he added, “we shattered them.” Ukrainian soldiers have encountered hungry, poorly
outfitted Russian troops, some with little weaponry to defend themselves. “Lots of times they were wearing flip-flops, malnourished,” Mr. Roy said.
Two Russian soldiers his unit found had only one gun between them. At another abandoned Russian position, he said, they found graffiti apparently left behind by fleeing soldiers that used a slur to describe their commander. “It does not scream of a well mobilized army,” he said. “My feeling is they don’t want to be here.”
Hundreds of miles away in the south, Ukrainian forces have also begun to move, pushing deeper into the Kherson region, in what a senior Ukrainian military official described as the beginning of the active phase of a monthslong offensive operation.
Russia’s Defense Ministry acknowledged on Monday that Ukrainian tank units had penetrated its line of defense in part of the region, a fertile part of southern Ukraine that Russian forces seized in the first weeks of the war.
A Russian-installed official in the region, Kirill Stremousov, said that Ukrainian troops had advanced along the Dnipro River in the direction of the Russian-held regional capital of Kherson, but insisted that “the situation is completely under control.”
Russia’s troops are in a precarious position in the Kherson region. The bulk of the Kremlin’s forces are deployed west of the broad Dnipro, in and around the city of Kherson, while their supplies and logistical support are mostly on the river’s east bank.
Ukrainian forces have largely destroyed the crucial bridges needed to continue to supply troops with ammunition and equipment. Though the Russians are well dug in after many months in control of the territory, a concerted attack could tax their limited supply lines and possibly force — and complicate — a retreat across the river.
In the Zaporizhzhia region, where the security of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant has become an issue of international concern, Russian forces released the plant’s director, the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Monday, three days after they detained him. Russian troops seized control of the plant early in the war but it continues to be run by its Ukrainian staff, under what Ukrainian officials describe as a brutal occupation.
Also on Monday, Danish officials and the Nord Stream pipeline company said that natural gas had stopped spewing from the damaged pipes below the Baltic Sea linking Russia to Germany. The pipes ruptured last week in what was widely described as an act of sabotage, though no evidence has yet emerged about who was to blame.
Despite Ukraine’s recent gains, Russian forces still control about one-sixth of Ukrainian territory, including the areas they and their proxies seized in 2014. Moscow still holds the advantage in firepower and has threatened the use of a nuclear weapon to defend what it now calls Russian territory, and it has demonstrated repeatedly that it can rain destruction on Ukraine. On Monday, Ukrainian officials said a Russian strike on a hospital in Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, had killed a doctor and wounded a nurse.
Analysts have said the Ukrainian military risks stretching itself too thinly as it advances, becoming vulnerable to counterattack. Fighting in the east has been so fast-paced, soldiers from several Ukrainian brigades said in interviews, that they do not know where they will be deployed day to day.
The senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning, cautioned that success in the south, as well as other theaters, was contingent on “a million” factors that could not always be predicted. The official said that it was important to view military operations in particular theaters not as independent from one another, but as elements of a single strategic offensive operation. “All offensive actions in the last few weeks are playing out within the framework of a unified design,” the official said. “For sure, there are decisions that are made outside the general plan on the basis of changes in conditions. This is called flexibility in command and control.”
In Washington, a senior Pentagon official on Monday cited the Ukrainian military’s “stunning success” in pushing Russian forces back in the Kharkiv region in the northeast, in capturing Lyman and in making progress in Kherson.
Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Ukraine’s offensive in the south was particularly significant, blocking Russia from advancing along the Black Sea coast into southwestern
Ukraine. “That will be a major defeat for Russia because it means it pushes back even more of Russia’s ambition to take Odesa, which was one of the stated objectives earlier this year,” said Ms. Wallander, a Russia specialist, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research group. “It becomes that much harder, and it gives Ukraine a much better defensive position to ride out what probably will be a tamping down of the hot fighting over the winter.”
Amid the Kremlin’s efforts to legitimize an illegal annexation that no other country has recognized, officials were still struggling to explain their continued losses at the front. Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya and a close Putin ally, over the weekend blamed the Russian military leadership in a remarkable instance of public infighting within the ruling elite.
Mr. Kadyrov has sought to make himself indispensable to the Kremlin by sending thousands of Chechen fighters to Ukraine, while styling himself as operating separately from the Russian Defense Ministry and answering only to Mr. Putin himself. “Of course, even in difficult moments, emotions should be kept out of any assessments,” Mr. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, said on Monday in response, an indication of the sensitivity of Mr. Kadyrov’s comments.
Taken together, the day’s events in Moscow showed that Mr. Putin’s political system is under growing strain — even though there was no evidence the president’s own grip on power was under threat.
After lawmakers in the Duma voted in favor of Mr. Putin’s annexation, one of them delivered a speech blasting the government for lacking the resources to properly outfit its soldiers. “It’s a disgrace,” said Sergei Mironov, a senior, hawkish lawmaker. “What is this? The greatest country in the world cannot provide everything that’s necessary.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Izium, Ukraine, Carlotta Gall from Pisky-Radkivski, Ukraine, and AntonTroianovski from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, Valerie Hopkins from Berlin, Maria Varenikova from Izium, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Oleksandr Chubko from Pisky-Radkivski