- The capture of Sievierodonetsk is a huge gain for Russia
- Ukraine says it is carrying out a ‘tactical withdrawal’
- Dozens of missiles hit Ukrainian military bases
Kyiv/POKROVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces have fully occupied Severodonetsk, the mayor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kyiv said on Saturday, confirming the biggest setback on the Kyiv battlefield in more than a month, weeks after some of the war’s bloodiest battles. .
Ukraine described its withdrawal from the city as a “tactical withdrawal” to fight from the high ground of Lyschansk on the opposite bank of the Seversky Donets River. Pro-Russian separatists said Moscow’s forces were now attacking Lyschansk.
The fall of Sievierodonetsk – once home to more than 100,000 people, is now a wasteland – was Russia’s biggest victory since the capture of the port of Mariupol last month. It is transforming the battlefield in the east after weeks in which Moscow’s formidable advantage in firepower yielded only slow gains.
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Russia now hopes to squeeze in more territory on the opposite bank, while Ukraine hopes that the price Moscow paid for capturing the ruins of the small city will leave Russian forces vulnerable to a counterattack in the coming weeks.
“The city is now under the complete occupation of Russia. They are trying to establish their own system, and as far as I know they have appointed some kind of leader,” Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television.
Kirillo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told Reuters that Ukraine was carrying out a “tactical regrouping” by withdrawing its forces from Severodonetsk to higher ground across the river.
“Russia is using the tactic … which it used in Mariupol: to wipe the city off the face of the earth,” he said. “Under these conditions, it is no longer possible to install defense in rubble and open fields. So Ukrainian forces are moving to higher areas to continue defense operations.”
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a representative of the pro-Russian separatist fighters as saying that Russian and pro-Russian forces had entered Lyschansk across the river and the fighting was taking place in urban areas there.
‘It was horror’
In the Ukrainian-controlled town of Donbass, Elena, an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Lyschansk, was among dozens of evacuees who arrived by bus from front-line districts.
“Lisechansk, it was horrible, last week. Yesterday we could not stand it any more. Thanks to the soldiers who evacuated us from there. Otherwise it would have been,” she said. “I already told my husband if I died, please bury me behind the house.”
As Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II enters its fifth month, Russian missiles have also rained down on the western, northern and southern parts of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border on February 24, sparking a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions. It also caused an energy and food crisis that shook the global economy.
Since the defeat of Russian forces in an attack on the capital, Kyiv, in March, they have shifted their focus to Donbass, an eastern region consisting of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the last major Ukrainian strongholds of Luhansk.
The Russians crossed the river forcefully in recent days and were advancing towards Lysychansk, threatening to encircle the Ukrainians in the area.
Russia is likely to view the capture of Severodonetsk as justifying its shift from its early failed attempt at “lightning war” to a relentless and grinding offensive with massive artillery in the east.
Moscow says Luhansk and Donetsk, where it has supported the uprisings since 2014, are independent states. Ukraine demands the ceding of the entire territory of the two provinces to the separatist administrations.
Ukrainian officials never held much hope of holding Sievierodonetsk indefinitely, but hoped for a price high enough to exhaust the Russian army and leave the invasion forces vulnerable to a counterattack.
Ukrainian General Valery Zaluzhny wrote on Telegram on Saturday that the newly-arrived advanced HIMARS missile systems supplied by the United States are now deployed and hitting targets in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. Read more
Asked about a possible counterattack in the south, Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said Ukraine should start seeing results “from August”.
“Wait a bit and we’ll see what it brings,” he told Reuters.
Russian missiles also struck elsewhere across Ukraine during the night in an unusually large shot.
“48 cruise missiles. At night. Across Ukraine,” an advisor to Ukrainian President Mikhailo Podolek said on Twitter. Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, create panic and make people afraid.”
The governor of the Lviv region in western Ukraine said that six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at a base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target while two were destroyed.
In the north, the governor of the Zhytomyr region said that the strikes on a military target killed at least one soldier. In the south, the mayor of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, said five cruise missiles hit the city and nearby areas on Saturday.
Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.
Western support for Ukraine
Despite the setbacks on the battlefield, Kyiv gained the support of the West, which imposed sanctions on Russia and sent weapons to Ukraine.
The war had a major impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, driving up gas, oil and food prices, prompting the European Union to reduce its heavy dependence on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies are expected to show long-term support for Ukraine and discuss how to clamp down on Russia at a three-day summit in Germany starting on Sunday. Read more
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will take part, said he feared Ukraine would face pressure to agree to a peace deal, and that the consequences of Putin’s arrival in Ukraine would be dangerous for international security. Read more
In a major sign of support, EU leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal candidacy to join the bloc – a decision that Russia said on Friday amounted to the EU’s “enslavement” of neighboring countries. Read more
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Additional reporting from the offices of Max Hander, Alessandra Prentice and Reuters; Writing by Michael Perry, Madeline Chambers, Peter Graf; Editing by Sam Holmes, Edwina Gibbs, David Clarke and Peter Graf
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