Ukraine was due to withdraw its troops from the ruined city of Severodonetsk last night after weeks of shelling, the regional governor said, in a major gain for Russia as it continues its offensive in the east.
Russian troops also fully occupied a town about 10 km further south, Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow closed in on the last slices of territory under Ukrainian control in the industrial region of Luhansk. Moscow said it surrounded around 2,000 Ukrainian troops in the area.
The reports come four months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border, sparking a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and reduced entire cities in ruins.
The latest Russian advances appeared to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow’s declared war aims, and set the stage for Severodonetsk’s twin city of Lysychansk to become the next main focus of the fights.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said troops from Severodonetsk had already been ordered to move to new positions.
“Staying in shattered posts for several months just to stay there doesn’t make sense,” Gaidai told Ukrainian television.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance.
Since then, Moscow and its proxies have focused on battles along the front line in southern Ukraine and in Donbass, an eastern territory made up of Lugansk and Donetsk.
Ukrainian forces resisted an assault on Severodonetsk for weeks, trying to wear down Russian troops through attrition and to buy time for the arrival of weapons supplies.
“Our forces had to withdraw and carry out a tactical retreat because there was hardly anything left to defend. There was no town left there and, secondly, we could not allow them to be surrounded” said Oleksander Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians were trying to encircle Lysychansk and mount assaults on Severodonetsk to take full control of it. South of Lysychansk, Russian troops entered the town of Hirske yesterday and fully occupied the district, city leader Oleksiy Babchenko said.
“There is a red flag flying over the municipal administration (in Hirske),” a spokesman for the regional administration told Reuters.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it surrounded up to 2,000 Ukrainian troops in Hirske.
Russian control of the Donbass region by proxy separatists would allow it to link up with Crimea to the south, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. But Ukraine’s foreign minister played down the significance of the loss possible more territory in the Donbass.
“Putin wanted to occupy Donbass before May 9. We are [there] on June 24 and is still fighting. Withdrawing from a few battles does not mean losing the war,” Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Italian newspaper. Corriere della Sera.
He seemed pessimistic about the prospects for peace talks soon.
“Only our military victory will convince Russia to engage in serious peace negotiations. Weapons will secure the diplomatic route,” Kuleba said.
A senior US defense official said Russia had been unable to prevent the flow of Western weapons into Ukraine.
He also said that the Ukrainians’ withdrawal from Severodonetsk could end up leaving them in a stronger position. “What they’re doing is putting themselves in a position where they can better defend themselves,” the official said.
The UN nuclear watchdog has expressed concern for the well-being of Ukrainian staff at Russia’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, the largest in Europe.