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Russia claims it now controls Ukraine’s Luhansk region, one of two eastern regions that were the focus of its invasion of Ukraine.
The announcement comes after the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Lysychansk, an industrial town that had become the last major Ukrainian-controlled dam in the region.
Together, Russian troops and a Russian-backed separatist militia “have established full control” over the city, according to a Russian Defense Ministry statement. It represents “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” the statement said, using the separatists’ name to refer to the self-declared breakaway state.
Ukrainian troops had held out for months in this pocket of Luhansk, first at Sievierodonetsk, then at Lysychansk. But with Russian troops pressing on three sides, they faced the risk of encirclement and retreated east, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“Continuing the defense of the city would have had fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of the Ukrainian defenders, a decision was taken to withdraw,” the armed forces said in a statement on Facebook.
The Russians had superiority in multiple facets of combat, Ukrainian officials said, from artillery and air force to munitions and personnel.
After the fall of neighboring Sievierodonetsk late last month, Lysychansk had become the last major city under Ukrainian control in Lugansk, Ukraine’s easternmost region. Just a week ago, Serhiy Haidai, the exiled regional governor of Luhansk, urged residents of the city to evacuate.
“They attacked the city with tactics of inexplicable brutality,” Haidai said over the weekend in a post on Telegram. “If in Sievierodonetsk some houses and administrative buildings survived a month of street fighting, then in Lysychansk the same administrative buildings were completely destroyed in a shorter period of time.”
What the Lysychansk retreat means for Ukraine
Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where violence has raged since long before the Russian invasion in February. Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, after Russia illegally annexed Crimea.
On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared the ground for a full-scale invasion by recognizing separatist-controlled areas in Luhansk and Donetsk as independent and ordering Russian military forces there as part of what he called it a “peacekeeping” mission.
In the months that followed, Russia scaled back its invasion ambitions and refocused its military efforts on eastern Ukraine, with parts of Donbass seeing the heaviest fighting of the year to date.
Now, with Luhansk largely in Russian hands, the neighboring region of Donetsk may soon follow.
The last two major Ukrainian cities in Donetsk – Kramatorsk and Slovyansk – are about 80 km from Lysychansk. Other major cities in Donetsk, including Donetsk itself, as well as Mariupol, have been controlled by Russians or Russian-backed forces for some time.
Kramatorsk and Sloviansk have endured Russian shelling and rocket fire for months, including the deadly attack on Kramatorsk’s main railway station in April that killed dozens of civilians.
If they fell, then the entire Donbass region would be effectively controlled by Russia – which would amount to a demonstrable victory for Putin in a war that, by all indications, has lasted longer than the Kremlin originally planned.
Putin has long prized the Donbass, a coal and steel producer, whose population is predominantly Russian-speaking. Complete capture would also give Russia a strategic victory, expanding its control over southeastern Ukraine and further consolidating the “land bridge” between Russian territory and Crimea.