Thousands of Russians mobilised for military service in Ukraine have been sent home and the military commissar in Russia’s Khabarovsk region removed in the latest setback to President Vladimir Putin’s chaotic conscription of 300,000 servicemen.
On the battlefield, Putin suffered a stinging setback on Sunday with Ukrainian forces claiming full control of Russia’s eastern logistics hub of Lyman, their most significant gain in weeks.
Russia’s first mobilisation since World War Two, after its forces suffered major battlefield defeats in Ukraine, has led to widespread discontent and forced thousands of men to flee abroad.
Mikhail Degtyarev, the governor of the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East, said several thousand men had reported for enlistment in 10 days but many were ineligible.
“About half of them we returned home as they did not meet the selection criteria for entering the military service,” Degtyarev said in a video post on the Telegram messaging app.
He said the region’s military commissar was removed but that his dismissal would not affect the mobilisation.
The mobilisation was billed as enlisting those with military experience but has often appeared oblivious to service records, health, student status and even age.
The taking of Lyman by Ukrainian forces sets the stage for further advances aimed at cutting Russia’s supply lines to its battered troops to a single route.
Days earlier, Putin proclaimed the annexation of four regions covering nearly a fifth of Ukraine, an area that includes Lyman. Kyiv and the West have condemned the proclamation as an illegitimate farce.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the capture of the town, where Ukrainian flags were raised over civic buildings on Saturday, demonstrated that Ukraine was capable of dislodging Russian forces and showed the impact Ukraine’s deployment of advanced Western weapons was having on the conflict.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the success of the country’s soldiers was not limited to Lyman and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington was “very encouraged” by Ukrainian gains.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Saturday it was pulling troops out of the Lyman area “in connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement”.
It did not mention Lyman in its daily update on Sunday, although it said Russian forces had destroyed seven artillery and missile depots in the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and Donetsk.
The recapture of Lyman by Ukrainian troops is Russia’s largest battlefield loss since Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region in September.
Control over Lyman could prove a “key factor” in helping Ukraine reclaim lost territory in the Luhansk region, its governor, Serhiy Gaidai, said.
Lyman commands a crossing of the Siverskyi Donets River, behind which Russia has been attempting to consolidate its defences, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said.
“Thanks to the successful operation in Lyman we are moving towards the second north-south route … and that means a second supply line will be disrupted,” said reserve colonel Viktor Kevlyuk at Ukraine’s Centre for Defence Strategies think tank.
“In that case, the Russian group in Luhansk and Donetsk could only be supplied strictly through (Russia’s) Rostov region,” Kevlyuk told media outlet Espreso TV.
Ukraine’s military said early on Monday Russian forces had used missiles, air strikes and artillery in attacks on 35 settlements in the previous 24 hours. Ukraine’s air force had attacked a command post, weapons caches and an anti-aircraft missile complex, as well as bringing down one helicopter, one attack aircraft and eight drones, it said.
The governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, said Russian forces had attacked Zaporizhzhia city and nearby villages overnight, with at least 10 missiles.
Reuters could not independently verify battlefield reports.
The areas Putin claimed as annexed just over seven months into Russia’s invasion of its neighbour – Donetsk and Luhansk plus Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south – are equal to about 18% of Ukraine’s total surface land area.
Russia’s parliament is to consider on Monday bills and ratification treaties to absorb the regions, the speaker of the lower house of parliament said.
A pomp-filled Kremlin signing ceremony with the regions’ Russian-installed leaders on Friday failed to stem a wave of criticism within Russia of how the military operation is being handled.
Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s southern Chechnya region, on Saturday called for a change of strategy “right up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and the use of low-yield nuclear weapons”. The United States says it would respond decisively to any use of nuclear weapons.
Other hawkish Russian figures on Saturday criticised generals and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on social media for overseeing the setbacks but stopped short of attacking Putin.