By Jared Malsin

Sept. 30, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

Russian forces around a crucial eastern Ukrainian city faced defeat Friday, even as their president said he was annexing the territory they were losing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was formally claiming four areas of Ukraine as part of Russia on Friday in an escalation of the war. His announcement on state television and subsequent government-orchestrated celebrations were broadcast at the same time that Ukrainian troops were encircling thousands of Russian soldiers in the strategic town of Lyman, a logistical center for Russia’s operations in one of the four regions Moscow is claiming.

Russia doesn’t fully occupy any of those areas. Russian-backed authorities held a series of referendums on joining Russia in the territories. Ukraine and Western governments have rejected the votes as a sham exercise intended to confer legitimacy on Russia’s military occupation of parts of Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, a Russian missile strike killed at least 30 civilians, Ukrainian officials said, as Ukrainian forces made military gains in the east, in the hours before Russia declared its annexation of four regions of Ukraine on Friday.

Russian forces fired 16 S-300 missiles at areas near the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, including a gathering point for Ukrainians preparing to cross the front line into Russian-occupied territory, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. At least 50 people were also wounded in the attack, according to Andriy Yermak, the president’s chief of staff.

Mr. Tymoshenko posted images online of the attack that showed bodies and shattered glass lying on muddy ground next to lines of civilian cars. The S-300 is primarily an air-defense system that Russia has repurposed for ground attacks in inaccurate strikes that have killed civilians, according to Ukrainian authorities and military analysts. Russian-installed leaders blamed Ukrainian forces for the attack.

Mr. Zelensky said on Friday that Ukraine will apply to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization through an expedited procedure, echoing moves by Finland and Sweden, which applied to join the alliance earlier this year in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine first applied to join NATO in 2008 but the country’s application has remained in limbo in recent years.

The Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia is one of four that Mr. Putin claimed as part of Russia on Friday in an escalation of the war. Russia doesn’t fully occupy any of those areas.

Ukrainian officials say Russia is escalating a bombing campaign against civilian targets, including many that lie far behind the front lines of the war. Ukrainian officials have described the attacks as an effort to terrorize and psychologically wear down Ukraine’s general population during the war.

Another attack struck a local transportation company in the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, sparking a fire that destroyed more than 50 buses and killed at least three people, according to local authorities in the city. Ukrainian authorities published images appearing to show flames engulfing a bus terminal. A separate attack hit a residential neighborhood in the city of Mykolaiv, officials said.

Mr. Zelensky rejected Russia’s declared annexation of Ukrainian territory in a video address on Friday afternoon in which he announced Ukraine’s new application to join NATO. He also met with his top military and security leaders on Friday to discuss ways of countering Russia’s supposed annexation, the Ukrainian president’s office said. “The entire territory of our country will be liberated from this enemy—the enemy not only of Ukraine, but also of life itself, humanity, law and truth,” he said.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday following Mr. Zelensky’s remarks that the alliance remained open to new members but that the organization’s current focus was on providing immediate support to Ukraine during the war. He also condemned Russia’s purported claim of Ukrainian territory.  “This is the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War,” he said. “This land grab is illegal and illegitimate.”

Ukraine’s renewed attempt to join NATO is unlikely to succeed anytime soon. The alliance has been reluctant to take any action that could provoke a direct conflict with Russia. Ukraine’s original request to join the alliance in 2008 resulted in an ambiguous promise that it would someday become a member.

All the current members of the organization must also approve any new members. Finland and Sweden are still waiting for the parliaments of all 30 current members to ratify their accession. Turkey initially threatened to veto the Nordic countries’ membership over their policy on Kurdish militant groups, before agreeing to accept the two countries in a pact signed in June.

In response to Russia’s declared annexation, the Biden administration announced a new set of sanctions against hundreds of people and institutions in Russia, including its defense procurement network, its central bank governor and 278 members of its legislature. “Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere,” said President Biden.

The Russian decision to lay claim to four regions of Ukraine—Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson—mirrors the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move that not even Russia’s closest allies recognized. Countries that have remained friendly with Russia during this year’s Ukraine war, including China and Turkey, have pushed back on the annexation plans.

The attacks on civilians and the annexation come after weeks in which Ukrainian forces have rolled back Russian gains in a lightning offensive in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv region

this month. Faced with swift Ukrainian advances, Mr. Putin also called up hundreds of thousands of reservists and threatened nuclear strikes in an attempt to raise the stakes of the war, military analysts have said.

Ukrainian forces have moved closer to encircling thousands of Russian troops stationed in Lyman, a strategic town and railway hub in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian military correspondents and Ukrainian officials.

Losing Lyman would be a major blow to the Kremlin’s war effort in eastern Ukraine. Russian troops have used the town as a staging ground for operations in the east since seizing control of it in May. It would also be a significant symbolic loss for Mr. Putin as he moves to claim control over all of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area, made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, wrote on Twitter that Russian forces “will have to ask for an exit from Lyman.”

A prominent Russian war correspondent, Semyon Pegov, reported that the last highway used for supplying Russian troops in the town had been cut off by Ukrainian forces. Mr. Pegov called the situation “extremely difficult” for Russian soldiers stationed there.

Separately, a Ukrainian military strike killed a Russian-installed leader in the occupied southern city of Kherson, Russian authorities acknowledged. A senior security official, Alexey Katerinichev, died in the strike, Russia’s state-run news agency TASS reported.