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Ukraine reclaims territory as Russia struggles on the battlefield

The capture of Lyman, a small city in Donetsk, Ukraine, is another humiliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin and causing anger among Russia's elite.

(CN) — Ukrainian troops made significant advances by Monday against Russian forces in the Donetsk and Kherson regions, the two main fronts of a war that is escalating after Moscow's annexation of Ukrainian territories and apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines.

Videos and photographs showed Ukrainian troops hoisting flags in Lyman, a small city in the north of the eastern region of Donetsk, and in settlements of Kherson, a southern region on the Black Sea.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the annexation of those two regions and two others, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. His move came amid a large-scale mobilization effort in Russia to round up 300,000 more troops to shore up Russia's overextended and weakened forces in Ukraine.

Western powers slammed the annexations as illegal land grabs they'd never recognize while Kyiv pushed forward to recapture more territory, undeterred by threats from the Kremlin that it will now consider attacks against the four regions as attacks against Russia.

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin hailed Ukraine's battlefield successes and attributed them to the skill of its soldiers and good use of U.S. and NATO weapons.

“What we’re seeing now is a kind of change in the battlefield dynamics,” Austin said in an interview with CNN. “They’ve done very, very well in the Kharkiv area and moved to take advantage of opportunities. The fight in the Kherson region’s going a bit slower, but they’re making progress.”

Ukraine obtained its biggest win in early September when it pushed Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region and retook about 3,000 square miles of territory.

“The Ukrainians have amazed the world in terms of their ability to fight back, their ability to exercise initiative, their commitment to the defense of their democracy,” Austin said. “And that willingness to fight has rallied the international community in an effort to help provide them the security assistance so that they can continue to fight.”

Russians line up on Sept. 28, 2022, to get a Kazakh registration after crossing the Mariinsky border into Uralsk, Kazakh officials said they observed an influx of Russians entering the country — men fleeing by land and air into neighboring countries —in the week since President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Denis Spiridonov)

In Russia, the loss of Lyman and retreat from some areas of Kherson was seen as fresh evidence of Moscow's battlefield struggles. It also prompted new rumblings of anger among Putin's inner circles, with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov singling out a Russian commander, Col. Gen. Alexander Lapin, as the cause for the Lyman retreat.

Kadyrov, a Russian and Chechen politician who glorifies war and machismo, is seen as a brutal warlord close to Putin who used ruthless tactics to suppress an independence rebellion in Chechnya, a North Caucasus region of Russia devastated by two wars. Putin's hold on power in the Kremlin is linked to his own forceful repression of Chechen rebels.

On Monday, Kadyrov announced that he was sending his three underage sons — aged 14, 15 and 16 — to fight in Ukraine. Chechen fighters under Kadyrov's command have been in Ukraine from the outset of the invasion.

In a post on social media, Kadyrov attacked Lapin for allegedly moving his command headquarters far from the front lines and failing to provide his troops with the logistics they needed.

“It is not that Lapin is talentless that is a shame. It’s the fact that he is covered up by his superiors in the General Staff,” Kadyrov vented angrily. “If I had my way, I would have demoted Lapin to private, would have deprived him of his rewards and would have sent him to the front line to wash his shame in blood.”

In the same post, Kadyrov even advocated the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons.”

A small release from Nord Stream 2 is seen on Sept. 28, 2022, following suspected sabotage. (Swedish Coast Guard via AP, File)

The war in Ukraine has escalated dangerously in recent weeks following Ukraine's battlefield successes and Putin's desperation and determination to both win in Ukraine and destroy what he sees as a U.S.-dominated world order.

Apparent sabotage attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines — two Russian gas lines across the Baltic Sea that have been at the heart of controversies in Europe and German industrial policy — are fueling tensions even further.

European and American officials accuse Russia of striking the pipeline while Moscow has tried to suggest American interests were behind the attack.

The U.S. has for years tried to stop the pipelines from being built and used, seeing them as tying Germany and the European Union too closely to Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden said that the U.S. would shut the pipelines down if Putin invaded Ukraine.

Investigations are underway to find out what happened. It remains unclear how bad the damage to the pipelines is and whether they will ever be used again. Russia had shut off gas flows into Europe before the attacks as part of its counteroffensive against Western sanctions.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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