Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has acknowledged that his troops have withdrawn from the bombed city of Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in eastern Luhansk province.
But he promised late Sunday to regain control of the lost territory using Western long-range weapons.
Russia said the capture of Lysychansk less than a week after it took neighboring Severdonetsk gave it full control of Luhansk — a political victory satisfying an important Kremlin war goal. The focus on the battlefield is now shifting to the neighboring province of Donetsk, which together with Luhansk forms the so-called Donbas region.
“If our army commanders are withdrawing people from certain points on the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in firepower, and that includes Lysychansk, that only means one thing,” Zelenskyy said in his overnight video address.
“We will get that back thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons.”
This included long-range weapons such as the United States-supplied HIMARS missile launchers, he said.
“The fact that we protect the lives of our soldiers, our people, plays an equally important role. We will rebuild the walls, we will reclaim the land and the people must be protected above all else,” he added.
Since halting an attack on the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial heart of Donbas, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014.
Russia says it is taking the Luhansk region to give it to the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic, whose independence it recognized before invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been “liberated,” the defense ministry said, after Russia said earlier on Sunday that its troops had taken villages around Lysychansk and surrounded the city.
Ukraine’s military command said its troops had been forced to withdraw from the city.
“Continuing to defend the city would have fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, it has been decided to withdraw,” it said in a statement posted on social media. Ukrainian officials, who say references to “liberating” Ukrainian territory are Russian propaganda, had reported intense artillery shelling of residential areas.
While Russia would try to portray its advance into Luhansk as a key moment in the war, it came at a high cost to the Russian military, said Neil Melvin of London-based think tank RUSI.
“Ukraine’s stance was never that they could defend all of this. What they have tried to do is slow down the Russian attack and deal maximum damage while preparing for a counter-offensive,” he told Reuters news agency.
West of Lysychansk in the Donetsk region, at least six people were killed on Sunday when the city of Sloviansk was hit by strong fire from multiple rocket launchers, local officials said.
Zelenskyy said at least 20 more were injured in Sloviansk, adding that Russia had also “relentlessly” hit the cities of Kharkov and Kramatorsk with rocket attacks.
Russia’s defense ministry also said it had hit the military infrastructure of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city in the northeast.
Far from the fighting in the east, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanian visited a town near the Ukrainian capital that had been badly damaged at the start of the war on Sunday. Albanian called the destruction in Irpin “devastating”.
“These are houses and these are livelihoods and even lives that have been lost here in this city,” he said, adding that his government would provide Ukraine with more armored vehicles and tighten sanctions against Russia.
Meanwhile, the exiled mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol said on Sunday that Ukrainian missiles destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.
Attacks were also reported in Russia, with the governor of the Belgorod region saying fragments of an intercepted Ukrainian missile killed four people on Sunday.
“The noise was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming,” a Belgorod resident told Reuters news agency, adding that the blast happened at about 3 a.m. (00:00 GMT).
Moscow has accused Kiev of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Kiev never claimed responsibility for any of these incidents.
Meanwhile, two Ukrainian drones have been shot down in the Russian city of Kursk, Russia’s defense ministry said.
Kursk regional governor Roman Starovoit said the town of Tetkino, on the border with Ukraine, came under mortar fire.