The bodies were bloated, some with their mouths open, still wearing an expression of shock. Dead Russians were unceremoniously placed in black bags as Ukrainian troops drove away.
Leonid, a soldier in Ukraine’s National Guard, sat atop a tank several feet away and contemplated Russia’s plans to send 300,000 more troops to Ukraine. “They’ll need a big grave,” Leonid said.
Two days after Ukrainian troops claimed victory in Lyman, a town of 22,000 people used by the Russians as a key transport hub in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, no military presence remained there – a sign of how quickly Ukrainian forces have been advancing in months. Incremental gains, if any.
After Moscow’s “partial mobilization” to bring in 300,000 new troops, Kiev appears to be making a major push to recapture as much occupied territory as possible before those reinforcements arrive.
Forcing the Russians to withdraw from almost the entire northeastern Kharkiv region, and now Lyman, puts Ukraine’s military in a strong position to attack the Russians occupying neighboring Luhansk region.
On Monday, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, voted unanimously to confirm Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, although even a Kremlin spokesman admitted that Russia did not know the exact boundaries of the new territories. Russia does not completely control them.
In a separate, slow-moving counteroffensive to the south, the Ukrainians made another breakthrough over the weekend, reportedly pushing the Russians back about 20 miles to the west bank of the Dnieper River, part of an effort to retake the city of Kherson. Russia at the beginning of the war.
As Kiev plans its next moves, Ukraine’s victory in Lyman will be a symbolic message to the Kremlin: Putin’s annexation of partially occupied territories is a farce. Lyman was at the top of the lands claimed by Putin at a ceremony in Moscow on Friday, but a day later, his soldiers left in a hurry – some dying on the way out.
Lyubov Vildiaskina started to laugh when told that his citizenship had changed, at least in Putin’s eyes, for that one day. “Are you serious?” Vildiaskina asked. “I’m in shock.”
On Monday, agents from Ukraine’s internal security service, the SBU, interviewed him about what happened under Russian occupation, including how many Russian rubles he charged for products in his small shop. Across the street, self-proclaimed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist regime loyal to the Kremlin, had set up a police station. But they suddenly abandoned the site two weeks ago, he said. The next day, someone asked, “How did you do it?” on the building.
Later in the weekend, the occupying soldiers forced her and others to leave the town. Vildiaskina ignored their advice and watched the convoys leave the city five months after their arrival. “Now you can sleep at night,” she said.
Although the Ukrainian army encircled Lyman over the weekend, locals said most Russian forces had already withdrawn. However, a few enemy soldiers may still be hiding in the surrounding woods.
After the Ukrainian army left Lyman in a convoy of its armored personnel carriers, a handful of Ukrainian soldiers told reporters from The Washington Post not to enter the town because it was still dangerous.
Meanwhile, on the northern approach to Lyman, soldiers from Ukraine’s 81st Airborne Division searched for fleeing Russians. A burly commander said his unit had arrested a local separatist in a nearby forest. “The unit operating here belongs to the area,” said the commander. “They know their way through the woods when they need to.”
In the newly liberated villages, residents shuddered at the still-echoing gunfire from Lyman.
“What is that?” Lyudmila, a retired kindergarten teacher, asked her 73-year-old neighbor Olena. “Well, they hunt pheasants, rabbits, or Russians,” Olena laughed.
In the final weeks of the war, villagers caught in the crossfire knew less than the outside world about the Ukrainian counteroffensive unfolding nearby. After months without electricity or cell phone service, information trickled out. They used firewood to warm and light the long nights. “We were living like cavemen,” Lyudmila said.
As the fighting intensified, the villagers retreated to their basements, where they were cut off without any news. Russian soldiers periodically moved in and warned that the Ukrainian army would mercilessly shell the area. Many elderly residents reported returning from rare trips outside to find occupation soldiers looting their food.
Then last Thursday, the war calmed down. Residents found that the bins in their streets now had blue and yellow flags. The Russians left and Ukraine was back in control. The fleeing Russians, however, left behind a mixture of anger and apathy.
In interviews Thursday in the villages of Shandryholove, Drobysheve and Novoselevka, northwest of Lyman, many residents blamed Ukrainian shelling for damage to their homes. As long as the fighting stopped, the others cared little who controlled the land.
In Shandriholo, retired milkmaid Nadia laughs as her husband recalls the Soviet-era film “A Wedding in Malinovka,” in which control of the village changes but everyday realities remain. “Things are not improving here,” he said.
Russian flags draped around Lyman’s city council building now lie in charred pieces on the front lawn. Documents from the proxy government installed in Moscow are still inside, including a list of citizen complaints. One of the apartment buildings was destroyed by shelling.
Under a category labeled “How to fix the problem,” one typed that Russia and the Donetsk People’s Republic would build two neighborhoods in the city with new apartment buildings to replace destroyed buildings.
A page from a pro-Russian local newspaper was on the ground announcing Putin’s referendum on annexing the Donetsk region to Russia. Title: “We’re Coming Home.”
Kamila Hrabczuk and Serhii Korolczuk contributed to this report.
The War in Ukraine: What You Need to Know
Latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the decrees on Friday Unite the four occupied regions of Ukraine, following referendums that were widely condemned as illegitimate. Follow our Live updates here.
Answer: The Biden administration announced Friday New round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the links, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials, and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday Ukraine Applying for “accelerated accession” to NATOIn apparent response to links.
In Russia: Putin announced military mobilization Sep. You can invite as many people as you want in 21 300,000 bookers In a dramatic attempt to reverse the setback in his war on Ukraine. Notice led An discharge of More than 180,000 peopleMostly Men under serviceAnd Renewed protests and other actions against the war.
Fighting: Ukraine loaded A successful counterattack That It forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region By early September, the troops had left the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war. Large quantities of military equipment were dropped.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war – Here are some of their most powerful works.