POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk on Monday, a day after Ukrainian forces withdrew from their last stronghold of resistance in the province.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin in a televised meeting on Monday that Russian forces had taken control of Luhansk, which together with neighboring Donetsk province is Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbass.
Shoigu told Putin the “operation” ended on Sunday after Russian troops overran the town of Lysychansk, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in Luhansk.
Putin, in turn, said that military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victory” in Lugansk, “should rest, increase their combat capabilities.”
Putin’s statement came as Russian forces tried to push their offensive deeper into eastern Ukraine after the Ukrainian military confirmed its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk on Sunday. Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai said on Monday that Ukrainian forces had withdrawn from the city to avoid being surrounded.
“There was a risk of encirclement of Lysychansk,” Haidai told The Associated Press, adding that Ukrainian troops could have held out for a few more weeks but potentially paid too high a price.
“We managed to carry out a centralized withdrawal and evacuate all the wounded,” Haidai said. “We took over all the material, so from then on the withdrawal was well organised.”
The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces were now focusing their efforts on the push towards the line of Siversk, Fedorivka and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, about half of which is controlled by Russia. The Russian army also intensified its shelling of the main Ukrainian strongholds of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, deeper in Donetsk.
On Sunday, six people, including a 9-year-old girl, were killed in the Russian shelling of Sloviansk and 19 others were injured, according to local authorities. Kramatorsk also came under fire on Sunday.
A Monday briefing from the British Ministry of Defense backed up the Ukrainian military’s assessment, noting that Russian forces will “now almost certainly” move on to capture Donetsk. The briefing said the conflict in Donbass has been “crushing and attritional” and is unlikely to change in the coming weeks.
While the Russian military has a huge advantage in firepower, military analysts say it does not have a significant superiority in troop numbers. This means that Moscow lacks resources for quick ground gains and can only advance slowly, relying on heavy artillery and rocket barrages to soften Ukrainian defenses.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made capturing all of Donbas a key objective of his war in Ukraine, which is now in its fifth month. Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbass have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014, when they declared independence from Kyiv following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea. Russia officially recognized the self-declared republics days before its February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged the withdrawal, but vowed that Ukrainian forces would fight to return.
“If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority, in particular this applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing: we will return thanks to our tactics , thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons, ”said Zelenskyy.
Since failing to take Kyiv and other parts of northeastern Ukraine at the start of the war, Russia has focused on Donbass, unleashing fierce bombardment and engaging in house-to-house fighting that devastated towns in the region.
The Russian invasion also devastated Ukraine’s agricultural sector, disrupting seed and fertilizer supply chains needed by Ukrainian farmers and blocking the export of grain, a key source of income for the country.
In its Monday intelligence report, Britain’s Ministry of Defense highlighted the Russian blockade of the key Ukrainian port of Odessa, which has severely restricted grain exports. They predicted that Ukraine’s agricultural exports would only reach 35% of the 2021 total this year.
As Moscow pushed its offensive across eastern Ukraine, areas of western Russia came under attack on Sunday in a resumption 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.
– Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front lines in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region – where Russia is waging a fierce offensive – describe life during what has turned into a grueling war of attrition as apocalyptic.
– Two Russian planes left Bulgaria on Sunday with dozens of Russian diplomatic staff and their families amid a mass deportation that has raised tensions between historically close nations, a Russian diplomat said.
Associated Press reporters Maria Grazia Murru and Oleksandr Stashevskyi contributed from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine