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Ukraine retreats from key Luhansk redoubt, in major gain for Russia

Kyiv gives up control of Lysychansk, last major city in the region still in its hands, freeing up Moscow’s forces to advance on other Ukrainian strongholds

Damaged residential buildings in Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, July 3, 2022. (Luhansk region military administration, via AP)
Damaged residential buildings in Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, July 3, 2022. (Luhansk region military administration, via AP)

SIVERSK, Ukraine (AFP) — The Ukrainian army retreated from the strategic city of Lysychansk on Sunday, as Russia claimed a major victory by seizing control of the entire eastern Luhansk region.

The Ukrainian withdrawal followed weeks of fierce fighting and marked a decisive breakthrough for Moscow’s forces more than four months after their invasion and after turning their focus away from the capital Kyiv.

Lysychansk was the last major city in the Luhansk area of the eastern Donbas region still in Ukrainian hands, and taking control of it frees up Moscow’s forces to advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in neighboring Donetsk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had earlier denied Russian claims of Lysychansk’s fall before the Ukrainian army announced the retreat on Sunday evening.

“The continuation of the defense of the city would lead to fatal consequences,” in the face of Russia’s superiority in numbers and equipment, the army said in a statement.

“In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw.

“Unfortunately, steel will and patriotism are not enough for success — material and technical resources are needed.”

Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored vehicle on the main road to Lysychansk in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, on June 26, 2022. (Bagus Saragih/AFP)

Russian forces seized Lysychansk’s twin city of Severodonetsk last week, following weeks of intense fighting.

The latest blow to Ukrainian resistance came after Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Sunday pledged further military support, including armored vehicles and drones, during a meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv.

‘Shooting from all sides’

On Sunday, Russia accused Ukraine of firing three cluster missiles at the city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border, which came after Belarus said on Saturday that it had intercepted Ukrainian missiles.

In what would represent an escalation of the conflict, Moscow said its anti-aircraft defenses shot down three Tochka-U cluster missiles launched by “Ukrainian nationalists” against Belgorod, close to the Ukrainian border.

Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said 11 residential buildings and 39 houses had been damaged.

Russia previously accused Kyiv of conducting strikes on Russian soil, particularly in the Belgorod region.

Illustrative: A view of the site of fire at an oil depot in Belgorod region, Russia, April 1, 2022. (Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP)

On Saturday, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko accused Kyiv of provocation and said his army intercepted missiles fired at his country by Ukrainian forces “around three days ago.”

Belarus, a Russian ally, supported the February 24 invasion and has been accused by Kyiv of launching its own attacks on Ukrainian territory.

Lukashenko denied any involvement in a recent cross-border incident.

“We do not intend to fight in Ukraine,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency Belta on Saturday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, during their meeting in St. Petersburg, on June 25, 2022. (Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP)

Elsewhere, the mayor of Sloviansk, 75 kilometers (45 miles) west of Lysychansk, reported the heaviest Russian shelling “for a long time,” saying a child had been among six people killed, with another 15 people wounded.

The city of Siversk, 30 kilometers west of Lysychansk, saw overnight shelling, residents and an official told AFP.

“It was intense, and it was shooting from all sides,” said a woman sheltering in a cellar.

‘Fierce fighting’

“Fierce fighting continues along the entire frontline, in Donbas,” Zelensky said in an address late Saturday, accusing “enemy activity” of “intensifying” in the wider region around Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv.

Two people were killed and three wounded — including two children — in a strike on the town of Dobropillya, local authorities in Donetsk said.

On Monday, leaders from dozens of countries and international organizations gather in the Swiss city of Lugano for a conference on Ukraine’s reconstruction. The aim is to provide a roadmap for the war-ravaged country’s recovery.

The tail section of a 300mm rocket, which appeared to contained cluster bombs and was launched from a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher, embedded in the ground after shelling in Kramatorsk, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on July 3, 2022. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

Zelensky said “colossal investments” would be needed, as 10 regions of Ukraine had been affected in the war, with many towns and villages needing to be “rebuilt from scratch.”

Ukraine will also face demands for broad reforms, especially in cracking down on corruption, after Brussels recently granted Kyiv “candidate” status, in its push to join the 27-member bloc.

‘Out of action’

A Ukrainian official said Sunday that his country’s forces had “put out of action” a Russian military base in Melitopol, while the Ukrainian army said the air force had destroyed around 20 Russian units and two ammunition depots.

“The town of Melitopol is covered in smoke,” said the city’s exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov.

In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia’s invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine’s ports seized, razed or blockaded — sparking concerns about food shortages, particularly in poor countries.

Local residents carry boxes with a humanitarian aid in the town of Siversk, Donetsk Oblast, on July 3, 2022, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP)

Farmer Sergiy Lyubarsky, whose fields are close to the frontline, warned that time was running out to harvest this year’s crop.

“We can wait until August 10 at the latest, but after that, the grains are going to dry out and fall to the ground,” he said.

Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.

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