Two Russian generals are facing the sack after their troops disobeyed orders and retreated from a key Ukraine town, western officials said on Tuesday.
Thousands of Russian troops fled the strategically important town of Lyman that guards an important river crossing, despite direct orders from Moscow to remain in place.
As the Ukraine counter-offensive gathers pace, the strategically vital city of Kherson in the south was also coming under pressure from three axes of attack, but President Vladimir Putin had allegedly ordered its 20,000 defenders to remain, despite the threat of encirclement.
There was now an increasing likelihood that the two Russian generals commanding the Army Group South and Army Group Centre will be dismissed from their post, the western sources said.
“We could well expect to see more command changes in the military,” an official said. “There is particular weight on the shoulders of two individuals, General Alexander Lapin and General Sergei Surovikin in the south. Above them we've seen broadening discontent with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and General [Valery] Gerasimov [head of armed forces].
There was an “increasingly strident tone in the criticism of Russian leadership” from Russian nationalists who felt “loss and even betrayal” over the defeats.
The sacking of General Surovikin would be a further humiliation for Mr Putin as Moscow inflated his reputation as a victor in the Syria conflict when he took over the Ukraine post in early summer.
The invaders were now under immense pressure across their frontline with Kyiv’s generals “throwing problems at the Russian chain of command faster than the Russians can effectively respond” which was “compounding the existing dysfunction” within the invasion force”.
Foremost, the loss of Lyman demonstrated the dysfunction and confusion among Moscow’s commanders.
The town, which commands a key bridge across the Donets river, as well as an important road and rail junction, is politically important as one of the main urban areas in the recently annexed Donetsk area.
It was also defended by well-trained Russian forces, including specialist Arctic troops from the Russian Northern Fleet, volunteer reservists and regular soldiers from the 20th Combined Arms Army.
“They all appear to have withdrawn in poor order suffering high casualties from artillery fire as they attempted to leave the town to the east,” the western official said. It is understood that their casualties numbered more than 1,000 dead, wounded or captured.
Unlike the orderly withdrawal from about 10,000 square kilometres of land in the Kharkiv region two weeks ago, the retreat was more of a rout.
“In Lyman we think that Russian troops retreated despite orders to defend and remain,” the official said. “As part of the supposedly newly-annexed Donbas area, relinquishing this area was exactly what the Kremlin didn't want to happen.
“It was an area where we believe the Russian political leadership did not want to retreat from given the announcements made 24 hours earlier over the annexation.”
He added that the whole of the northern part of Russia's Donbas operation was now looking “increasingly vulnerable”.
A far more serious blow for Moscow, with significant implications for Mr Putin’s leadership, would be the loss of Kherson, which Russian has occupied since the early days of the war.
Ukraine forces are pressing on the Black Sea city, that is also the gateway to Crimea, from three sides on, with one along the western bank of the Dnipro river.
Despite Russia having strong defences and 20,000 high-grade troops on the western bank, there is now a threat they could be cut off, the sources said.
“The situation is rapidly evolving,” the official reported. “It is clear that the northern of Ukraine's three axes of assault has gained some momentum and the forces there are seeking to exploit down the west bank of Dnipro River.”
This threatened the town of Nova Khakovka, 55km east of Kherson. “This would really pose a critical challenge to the viability of the Russian force in Kherson,” the official said.
“Again, we think it unlikely that the Russian leadership would sanction a full pull-out from Kherson for political reasons. So this situation in the south could become increasingly messy, with potentially a more desperate Russian force with their backs to the river Dnipro.”
The official also confirmed that the number of Russian men who had fled conscription equalled the 300,000 that Mr Putin summoned to fight in Ukraine.
He also stated that there was no sign of Russian nuclear forces conducting activities that would raise “any indicators of warning” of a strike.