By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and FRANCESCA EBEL
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia claimed control Sunday over the last Ukrainian stronghold in an eastern province that is key to achieving a major goal of its grinding war.
Ukraine’s General Staff of the military reported that its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk in Luhansk province, but the president said the fight for the city was ongoing.
If confirmed, Russia’s complete seizure of Luhansk would provide its forces a stronger base from which to press their advance in neighboring Donetsk province and bring them one step closer to achieving one of President Vladimir Putin’s major goals: capturing the entire Donbas.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that Russia’s troops, with members of a local separatist militia, “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk” and now hold all of Luhansk, according to a ministry statement published Sunday.
As is typical with such descriptions, the Russian statement characterized the victories as “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic.” Separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up the Donbas and have significant Russian-speaking populations, declared independence from Kyiv in 2014, and Russia formally recognized their self-proclaimed republics days before its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought fiercely for Lysychansk in recent days after neighboring Sievierodoentsk fell last week. On Sunday evening, the General Staff of Ukraine’s military confirmed on social media that its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk “to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders.”
Earlier, however, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy said Kyiv’s forces were still battling Russian soldiers on the city’s outskirts “in a very difficult and dangerous situation.”
“We cannot give you the final judgment. Lysychansk is still being fought for,” Zelenskyy told a news conference in Kyiv, while noting that territory can move quickly from one side to the other.
Russian forces maintain an advantage in the area, he acknowledged, calling it a Ukrainian military “weak spot.”
The capture of Lysychansk would give the Russians more territory from which to intensify attacks on Donetsk as they drive their campaign in the Donbas, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
If Russia prevails in the Donbas, Ukraine would lose not only land but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, opening the way for Moscow to grab more territory and strengthen its ability to dictate terms to Kyiv.
Already, Russian forces have concentrated rocket attacks on the sizable Ukrainian-held city of Slovyansk in Donetsk. New attacks were reported in the city Sunday. At least six people were killed, regional government spokeswoman Tatyana Ignatchenko told Ukrainian TV.
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 on Sunday visited a town near the capital that was severely damaged early in the war. Albanese called the destruction in Irpin “devastating.”
“These are homes and these are livelihoods and indeed lives that have been lost here in this town,” he said.
Elsewhere, the exiled mayor of the Russia-occupied city of Melitopol said Sunday that Ukrainian rockets destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.
Attacks were also reported inside Russia, in a revival of sporadic apparent Ukrainian strikes across the border. The governor of the Belgorod region in Western Russia said fragments of an intercepted Ukrainian missile killed four people 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 Ukraine border, came under mortar fire.
Ebel reported from Prokovsk, Ukraine. Associated Press journalist Maria Grazia Murru contributed from Kyiv.
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