Russia on Sunday claimed control of Ukraine’s last major city in one of two eastern provinces that have been at the center of Moscow’s bitter war.
A Ukrainian official, however, denied that Moscow’s control was complete. If confirmed, Russia’s claim that it has captured the last stronghold of the resistance in Lugansk province would bring its forces closer to achieving one of President Vladimir Putin’s main goals, the capture of the whole of Donbass, where a crucial battle of the war is taking place.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that Russian troops, along with members of a local separatist militia, “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk”, according to a ministry statement released on Sunday.
As is usually the case with such descriptions, the Russian statement said the capture of the city marked “the liberation of the People’s Republic of Lugansk”, one of two Ukrainian provinces that have declared independence and are recognized by Moscow.
The BBC quoted a Ukrainian military spokesman who denied that Lysychansk was under full Russian control. Yuriy Sak told the BBC it would “not be the end” for the Donbass region even if Russia captured all of Luhansk.
“For Ukrainians, the value of human life is a top priority, so sometimes we may withdraw from certain areas so that we can take them back in the future,” Sak added.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, predicted on Saturday evening that the fate of Lysychansk could be determined within days. Earlier on Sunday, the governor of Luhansk said Russian forces had reinforced their positions.
“The occupiers threw all their forces at Lysychansk. They attacked the city with incredibly cruel tactics,” Governor Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app. “They are taking heavy losses, but are pushing forward stubbornly. They set foot in the city.
Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks trying to prevent Lysychansk from falling to Russia, as neighboring Sievierodonetsk did a week ago in bloody battles that devastated both cities. Taking Lysychansk would give the Russians a stronger base to step up attacks on Donbass’ second province, Donetsk.
Since withdrawing from northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, after setbacks at the start of the war, Russia has focused its offensive on Donbass, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
If Russia prevails there, Ukraine would not only lose land, but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, paving the way for Moscow to seize more territory and strengthen its ability to dictate terms to Kyiv.
Already, Russian forces have focused their rocket attacks on the major Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in Donetsk. New attacks were reported in the city on Sunday. At least six people were killed, regional government spokeswoman Tatyana Ignatchenko told Ukrainian television.
Kramatorsk, another major city in the Donetsk region, also came under fire, the regional administration said.
Far from the fighting in the east, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese visited a town near the capital badly damaged at the start of the war on Sunday. Albanese called Irpin’s destruction “devastating”.
“It’s homes and it’s livelihoods and in fact lives that have been lost here in this city,” he said.
Elsewhere, the exiled mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol said on Sunday that Ukrainian rockets destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.
Attacks were also reported inside Russia, in a resurgence of sporadic apparent Ukrainian strikes across the border. The governor of Belgorod region in western Russia said fragments of an intercepted Ukrainian missile killed four people on Sunday. In the Russian city of Kursk, two Ukrainian drones were shot down, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Kursk Regional Governor Roman Starovoit said the town of Tetkino, on the Ukrainian border, had come under mortar fire.
Ebel reported from Prokovsk, Ukraine.
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