KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — Russia’s army has “fully occupied” the key Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk after weeks of fighting, its mayor said Saturday, an important strategic win for Moscow as it seeks to gain full control over the east of the country.
The industrial hub of Severodonetsk has been the scene of weeks of running battles, but the Ukrainian army said Friday that its outgunned forces would withdraw to better defend the neighboring city of Lysychansk.
“The city has been fully occupied by the Russians,” mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Saturday.
A few hours earlier, pro-Moscow separatists said Russian troops and their allies had entered Lysychansk, which faces Severodonetsk across the river.
“Street fighting is currently taking place,” a representative of the separatists, Andrei Marochko, said on Telegram, in a claim that could not be independently verified.
Four months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, they have focused on the eastern Donbas region, gradually making gains despite fierce resistance.
Also capturing Lysychansk would allow Russia to focus its attention on Kramatorsk and Slovyansk further west in its attempt to conquer the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
The breakthrough came on the eve of a week of feverish Western diplomacy, with US President Joe Biden flying to Europe for a G7 summit starting Sunday, and NATO talks later in the week.
The Western allies will take stock of the effectiveness of sanctions imposed so far against Moscow, consider possible new aid for Ukraine, and begin turning their eye to longer-term reconstruction plans.
The European Union offered a strong show of support on Thursday when it granted Ukraine candidate status, although the path to membership is long.
Moscow dismissed the EU decision as a move to “contain Russia” geopolitically.
Pull in Belarus
In another potentially significant development, Ukraine said it had come under “massive bombardment” early on Saturday morning from neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally not officially involved in the conflict.
Twenty rockets “fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air” targeted the village of Desna in the northern Chernigiv region, Ukraine’s northern military command said.
It said infrastructure was hit, but no casualties had yet been reported.
Belarus has provided logistic support to Moscow since the February 24 invasion, particularly in the first few weeks, and like Russia has been targeted by Western sanctions — but is officially not involved in the conflict.
“Today’s strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine,” the Ukrainian intelligence service said.
On Saturday afternoon, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would send Belarus missiles able to carry nuclear warheads within months.
“We will transfer to Belarus Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which can use ballistic or cruise missiles, in their conventional and nuclear versions,” he said, as he met his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Saint Petersburg.
Evacuating the Azot plant
As in the southern port of city of Mariupol before it, the battle for Severodonetsk has come with a heavy price.
Sergiy Gaiday, governor of the Luhansk region that includes the city, said on Friday that 90 percent of Severodonetsk had been damaged.
“Remaining in positions that have been relentlessly shelled for months just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
The Ukrainian army said it would withdraw its forces from the city of some 100,000 inhabitants before the war to better defend Lysychansk.
On Saturday, Severodonetsk mayor Striuk said civilians had started to evacuate the Azot chemical plant, where several hundred people had been hiding from Russian shelling.
“These people have spent almost three months of their lives in basements, shelters. That’s tough emotionally and physically,” he said, adding they would now need medical and psychological support.
Pro-Moscow separatists said Russian forces and their allies had taken control of the Azot factory and “evacuated” more than 800 civilians sheltering there.
The mainly Russian-speaking Donbas has long been a focus of Russia.
Since 2014 it has been partially under the control of pro-Moscow separatists, who set up self-declared breakaway republics in Luhansk and Donetsk.
Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes and their country since the invasion, the majority to neighboring Poland.
Some foreigners have gone the other way to fight. Russia said Saturday its troops had killed up to 80 Polish fighters in strikes on a factory in Konstantinovka in the Donetsk region, a claim that could not be verified.
Russia has also intensified its offensive in the northern city of Kharkiv in recent days.
An AFP team on Saturday saw a 10-story administrative building in the city center hit by missiles overnight, causing a fire but no casualties.
It had already been bombed, prompting one soldier on the scene to note: “The Russians are finishing what they started.”
On Friday, the same reporters found a stray dog eating human remains in the town of Chuguiv, southeast of Kharkiv, where an attack earlier this week left six dead.