KYIV/KOSTYANTYNIVKA, (Ukraine): Russia said on Sunday its forces had taken control of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region after capturing the final Ukrainian holdout of Lysychansk in heavy fighting, though Ukraine did not confirm the claim.
Control of Luhansk, a key war aim for Russia, would come after weeks slow advances, hand Moscow a limited political win and shift the battlefield focus to neighbouring Donetsk region, where Ukraine still controls substantial territory.
Driven back from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv following its Feb. 24 invasion, Russia has concentrated its military campaign on the Donbas, which includes Luhansk and Donetsk. Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting there since Russia’s first military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
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.
The minister said Russian forces and their allies in the area had “gained full control over the city of Lysychansk”.
Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukraine’s defence minister, told Reuters over the phone that he “cannot confirm that Lysychansk is under full Russian control”. Ukraine’s defence ministry press service did not reply to a request for comment.
Ukrainian officials, who say references to “liberating” Ukrainian territory are Russian war propaganda, had reported intense artillery barrages on residential areas.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a briefing note.
They based their assessment on footage showing Russia forces walking casually in northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Lysychansk, saying it suggested few or no Ukrainian forces remained. It said the footage included images posted on social media and geolocated to confirm where it was filmed.
West of Lysychansk, the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was hit by powerful shelling from multiple rocket launchers on Sunday and many people were killed and wounded, the city’s mayor Vadim Lyakh said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.