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Russia now claims to control Ukraine’s Luhansk region, one of two eastern regions that were the focus of its invasion of Ukraine.
The announcement comes after Ukrainian troops withdrew from Lysychansk, an industrial city that had become the last major Ukrainian-controlled holdout in the region.
Together, Russian troops and a Russian-backed separatist militia have established “complete control” of the city, a statement from Russia’s defense ministry said. It represents “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” the statement said, using the separatists’ name for the self-proclaimed breakaway state.
Ukrainian troops held out for months in this pocket of Luhansk, first in Sievierodonetsk, then Lysychansk. But with Russian troops entering on three sides, they risked being encircled and retreated east, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.
“Continuing to defend the city would have had fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, it has been decided to withdraw,” the armed forces said in a statement on Facebook.
The Russians had superiority in multiple facets of the battle, Ukrainian officials said, from artillery and air force to ammunition and personnel.
After the fall of nearby Sievierodonetsk late last month, Lysychansk was the last major city under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, 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 inexplicably brutal tactics,” Haidai said in a Telegram message last weekend. “If in Sievierodonetsk some houses and administrative buildings survived a month of street fighting, then in Lysychansk the same administrative buildings have been completely destroyed in a shorter time.”
What does the retreat from Lysychansk mean for Ukraine?
Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where the violence had been going on long before the Russian invasion in February. Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin set the stage for a large-scale invasion by recognizing the separatist-controlled areas in Luhansk and Donetsk as independent and ordering Russian forces there as part of what he called a “peacekeeping mission.”
In the months since, Russia has scaled back its invasion ambitions and refocused its military efforts on eastern Ukraine, with parts of Donbas experiencing the most intense fighting of the year yet.
With Luhansk largely in Russian hands, the neighboring Donetsk region may soon follow suit.
The last two major Ukrainian cities in Donetsk – Kramatorsk and Slovyansk – are about 80 kilometers from Lysychansk. The other major cities in Donetsk, including Donetsk itself, along with Mariupol, have been controlled for some time by Russian or Russian-backed forces.
Kramatorsk and Slovyansk have endured months of Russian shelling and rocket fire, including the deadly April attack on Kramatorsk Central Station that killed dozens of civilians.
If they fall, the entire Donbas region would be effectively controlled by Russia – equating to a demonstrable victory for Putin in a war that has, by all indications, lasted longer than the Kremlin had initially anticipated.
Putin has long praised coal- and steel-producing Donbas, which has a predominantly Russian-speaking population. The full conquest would also bring Russia a strategic victory, extend its control over southeastern Ukraine and further strengthen the “land bridge” between Russian territory and Crimea.