KYIV: Russia said it had taken full control of the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk on Sunday (Jul 3) after capturing the final Ukrainian bastion of Lysychansk, the city where Kyiv said it had withdrawn to save the lives of its troops.
The region’s capture, a major Russian war aim, is a political victory for the Kremlin after weeks of grinding advances and shifts the battlefield focus to neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls swathes of territory.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russia says it is capturing Luhansk region in order to give it to the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been “liberated”, the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
Ukraine’s military command said its forces had been forced to retreat from the city.
“The continuation of the defence of the city would lead to fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw,” it said in a statement on social media.
Ukrainian officials, who say references to “liberating” Ukrainian territory are Russian propaganda, had reported intense artillery barrages on residential areas.
In a statement on the Telegram messaging app, Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, also confirmed Ukraine’s withdrawal after “heavy fighting”.
“No betrayal here! When you write – surrendered, gave up, abandoned, think first and foremost about the price of advancing towards our victory, about the fighters who defended the city, some at the cost of their own lives …,” Haidai wrote.
West of Lysychansk in Donetsk region, at least six people were killed when the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was hit by powerful shelling from multiple rocket launchers on Sunday, local officials said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded on Feb 24, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.