By Jonathan Landay ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces in Ukraine were on the verge of one of their worst defeats of the war on Friday even as President Vladimir Putin was due to proclaim the annexation of territory seized in his invasion. The pro-Russian leader of occupied areas in Ukraine’s Donetsk province acknowledged his […]
Russian garrison half-encircled in Ukraine as Putin poised to proclaim annexation
By Jonathan Landay
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces in Ukraine were on the verge of one of their worst defeats of the war on Friday even as President Vladimir Putin was due to proclaim the annexation of territory seized in his invasion.
The pro-Russian leader of occupied areas in Ukraine’s Donetsk province acknowledged his forces had lost full control of Dobryshev and Yampil villages, leaving Moscow’s main garrison in northern Donetsk half-encircled in the city of Lyman.
The Ukrainian army was “trying at all costs to spoil our historic events”, Denis Pushilin said, referring to an annexation ceremony he was due to attend with Putin at the Kremlin.
“This is very unpleasant news, but we must look soberly at the situation and draw conclusions from our mistakes.”
Elsehere, missiles tore through a convoy of civilian cars preparing to cross from Ukrainian-held territory into the Russian-occupied zone, killing at least 23 civilians. Ukrainian officials called it a deliberate Russian attempt to sever the last links across the front. Moscow blamed Kyiv.
Putin was scheduled to preside over the Kremlin ceremony followed by a Red Square pop concert to celebrate Europe’s biggest territorial annexation since Hitler.
But the event looked likely to be overshadowed by the fall of Lyman, which would signal the collapse of Russian forces in northern Donetsk and open the way for Kyiv to assault deep into Russian-held territory just as Putin proclaimed it annexed.
Kyiv was silent about the situation at Lyman, but pro-Russian military bloggers reported Ukrainian forces had all but surrounded thousands of Russian troops, cutting off their escape. Pushilin said one road to Lyman was still open, but acknowledged it was now under Ukrainian artillery fire.
Friday’s missile attack in Zaporizhzhia was gruesome even by the standards of a conflict in which Russia has razed entire cities to the ground. It came amid several other attacks on Friday hitting civilian targets in Ukrainian-held territory along the breadth of the frontline on the morning of Russia’s planned annexation celebration.
The convoy of cars was assembling at a car park to try to cross into Russian-held territory near Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian-held capital of a region Moscow claims to be annexing. One checkpoint in the area has been open in recent days allowing civilians to cross the front.
A crater had been gouged in the ground near two lines of vehicles. The impact had thrown chunks of dirt into the air and sprayed shrapnel across cars packed with belongings, blankets and suitcase. Reuters saw around a dozen bodies.
Plastic sheets were draped over the bodies of a woman and young man in a green car. A dead cat lay next to the young man in the rear seat. Two bodies lay in a white mini-van in front of another car, its windows blown out and the sides pitted with shrapnel. The corpse of an elderly woman lay nearby, next to her shopping bag.
“So far, 23 dead and 28 wounded. All civilians,” Zaporizhzhia regional governor Oleksandr Starukh wrote on Telegram. “The occupiers struck defenceless Ukrainians. This is another terrorist attack by a terrorist country.”
A woman who gave her name as Nataliya said she and her husband had visited their children in Zaporizhzhia and were preparing to cross back into Russian-held territory.
“We were returning to my mother who is 90 years old. We have been spared. It’s a miracle,” she said, standing with her husband beside their car.
Police Colonel Sergey Ujryumov, head of the explosive disposal unit of the Zaporizhzhia police department, said the market was hit by three S300 missiles.
Pro-Russian officials said, without evidence, that Ukraine was to blame for the attack. Russia has always denied its forces target civilians, despite countless confirmed incidents documented by the United Nations and other bodies.
Russia’s annexation of the Russian-occupied areas of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, held after what the West denounces as phoney referendums staged at gunpoint, has been condemned in the West and beyond.
U.N. chief Antonio Guterres called it a “dangerous escalation” and a violation of the United Nations charter.
“It can still be stopped. But to stop it we have to stop that person in Russia who wants war more than life. Your lives, citizens of Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Thursday evening address.
Since his troops were forced to flee from Ukraine’s Kharkiv province this month, Putin has chosen to escalate the war. Last week he endorsed the annexation of Russian-held territory, ordered the call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists, and threatened to use nuclear weapons if Russia is attacked.
On Friday the Kremlin repeated its assertion that any attacks on territory it is now annexing would be attacks on Russia itself. Ukraine has said it will take back all its territory.
Zelenskiy promised a strong response to the annexations and summoned his defence and security chiefs for an emergency meeting on Friday, an official said.
On the eve of the annexation ceremony Putin said that “all mistakes” made in his military call-up should be corrected, his first public acknowledgment of problems in the mass round-up of hundreds of thousands of Russian men since last week.
Tens of thousands of men have fled Russia to escape the call-up. Western countries say Moscow is rushing unprepared troops to the frontlines with little or no training and inadequate equipment. Britain’s Ministry of Defence said troops were being told to buy their own first aid kits.
Putin’s call-up order gave no details of who must be drafted. Russian officials have said older men or those with no military experience should by exempt, but call-up notices have been given to men in their fifties and to students. Members of ethnic minorities say they have been particularly targetted, leading to unrest in southern Russia and Siberia.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Robert Birsel and Angus MacSwan)