(Bloomberg) --

A new operational defeat for Russia’s forces -- this time in a strategic eastern Ukrainian town -- casts further doubt on the “forever” annexation of four occupied regions by President Vladimir Putin. 

Outnumbered and increasingly encircled by Kyiv’s forces, several thousand Russian troops withdrew from Lyman in Donetsk province over the weekend. 

Russia’s defense ministry said the troops were moving “to more favorable positions.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday declared the town, a key logistics hub for Moscow’s troops, “fully cleared.”  

Control of Ukraine’s Donbas region, made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, was a stated goal of Putin’s “special military operation” when Russian forces invaded in February. Kremlin troops pushed westward through the Donbas in the summer, gaining territory through extended ground battles. 

Following sham referendums a week ago that were denounced by Ukraine, the US and Europe, Putin on Friday formally “annexed” the two eastern regions, along with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in Ukraine’s south. Yet Moscow’s forces don’t fully control of any of the areas, and are being pushed out of some towns they’ve held for months. 

Zelenskiy vowed to press forward with efforts to recapture territory. “During this week, there were more Ukrainian flags in Donbas. It will be even more in a week,” he said in an address to the nation on Saturday night.

Regional officials have suggested that after Lyman, Kyiv’s army will push toward Kreminna, about 20 miles (32 km) to the east. 

“It is important to capture the area that opens up the way to liberate Donbas settlements -- Svatove, Kreminna, Sievierodonetsk and others,” Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces, said on Saturday. 

Russia’s previous defeat -- its troops retreated from a chunk of Kharkiv province in September -- was thought to be the motivation for Putin’s partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists. Moscow’s forces have also suffered heavy casualties in the seven-month war, although exactly how many is unclear. 

Since the call-up, hundreds of thousands of draft-age Russian men are believed to have left for Kazakhstan, Georgia and other locations. Videos have surfaced of mayhem among those who’ve been conscripted. 

Partly for that reason, the additional reservists are seen as unlikely to turn the tide for Putin. 

“The Ukrainians fight with purpose, have better leadership and have a learning culture that underpins adaptation,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army general who tweets about military strategy. 

The fall of Lyman makes a mockery of Putin’s annexation move, showing he can’t hold what he now says is Russian land, according to Lawrence Freedman, a military historian and emeritus professor of War Studies at King’s College London.

“The Russian position in the area is now even worse, with shortages of men and even more stretched supply lines adding to their woes,” he said in a blog post. “The more Ukrainian forces can move forward, the more Russian assets are in artillery range.” There are also reports of a new push by Ukrainian forces in Kherson, Freedman added.

Criticism of Putin’s military leadership bubbled up within Russian after the Kharkiv retreat and is also getting louder.

“Kremlin propagandists, pundits, and milbloggers registered the defeat as the result of the Russian military command’s failure to send reinforcements in a timely manner, while openly criticizing repeated bureaucratic failures during the mobilization,” said analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank. 

Andrey Gurulyov, a member of Russia’s parliament and a former army commander, issued a lengthy statement on Telegram slamming “the Frunzenskaya Embankment,” shorthand for Russia’s defense ministry leadership. 

“The problem is the wide-scale lying, reporting of a situation being good. This system goes from top to bottom,” Gurulyov said. 

While Russians are thought to have been broadly supportive at first of Putin’s attack on Ukraine, widening the net on conscription has changed the tone. Seven in ten Russians said they felt fear, shock or alarm as a result of Putin’s partial mobilization, according to independent pollsters at the Levada Center. 

Putin last week acknowledged that missteps had occurred in carrying out his mobilization plan. He told a meeting of his Security Council that “it’s necessary to correct all mistakes and prevent them from happening in the future.” 

(Updates with comments from military analyst)

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