KYIV (REUTERS) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday (July 3) acknowledged Kyiv’s forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk in the eastern Donbas region after a grinding Russian assault, but vowed to regain control over the area with the help of long-range Western weapons.
Russia said its capture of the city of Lysychansk, the last holdout in the key region, gave it full control of eastern Luhansk.
The capture comes less than a week after neighbouring Sievierdonetsk fell.
The taking of Lysychansk is a political win that meets a key Kremlin war goal. The battlefield focus now shifts to the neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls swathes of territory.
“If the commanders of our army withdraw people from certain points at the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in firepower, and this also applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
“That we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons.”
Mr Zelensky said Russia was concentrating its firepower on the Donbas front, but Ukraine would hit back with long-range weapons such as the US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers.
“The fact that we protect the lives of our soldiers, our people, plays an equally important role. We will rebuild the walls, we will win back the land, and people must be protected above all else,” Mr Zelensky said.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russia says it is capturing Luhansk region in order to give it to the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been “liberated”, the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
The minister said Russian forces and their allies in the area had “gained full control over the city of Lysychansk”.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a briefing note.
They based their assessment on footage showing Russia forces walking casually in northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Lysychansk, saying it suggested few or no Ukrainian forces remained. It said the footage included images posted on social media and geolocated to confirm where it was filmed.
In nearby Slovyansk, shelling from multiple rocket launchers killed “many” people on Sunday, its mayor said.
“Shelling from multiple rocket launchers on Slovyansk, the heaviest for a long time. There are 15 fires. Many dead and wounded,” Mr Vadim Lyakh said in a video published on Facebook.
Ms Tetyana Ignachenko, a spokesman for the Donetsk region to which Slovyansk belongs, told Ukrainian media that the strikes left “six dead and 15 wounded”.
She also reiterated a call on residents to leave the region, as the frontline is just a few kilometres away.
Ukrainian media said one of the city’s markets was on fire following the strikes.
The strikes, which hit a residential area and an unoccupied hotel, caused no casualties, he said.
Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are key targets for Moscow.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists.
Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
Blasts in Belgorod
Russia also reported explosions on Sunday in its city of Belgorod, about 40km north of the border with Ukraine, that killed at least three people and damaged and destroyed homes.
Senior Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas accused Ukraine of shelling Belgorod and called for a stern response.
Russian regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that five homes were destroyed in the city and at least 11 apartment buildings and more than 30 houses were damaged.
“The sound was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming,” a Belgorod resident told Reuters, adding the blasts occurred at around 3am (8am Singapore time).
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Kyiv has not claimed responsibility but describes such incidents as payback, after Russia has pounded Ukrainian urban areas into rubble.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine on the latest Belgorod incident. Reuters could not independently verify the Russian accounts.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military base with more than 30 strikes on Sunday, the city’s exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said in a video address on Telegram.
He said the base had been “taken out of action”.
A Moscow-installed official said several private residential houses near the airfield were damaged, but there were no casualties.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said its air force had flown some 15 sorties “in virtually all directions of hostilities”, destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Russia’s defence ministry also said on Sunday it had struck military infrastructure of Kharkiv, a city in north-east Ukraine where Ukrainian forces have been digging in and building concrete fortifications after nightly shelling, a Reuters reporter said.
Dozens of civilians have been wounded or killed in the region in recent weeks.
Far from fighting in the east and close to another front in the south, Russia said it had hit army command posts in Mykolaiv near the vital Black Sea port of Odesa, where the mayor on Saturday had reported a number of powerful explosions.
“The Russian occupiers are launching systematic rocket attacks in the direction of Mykolaiv,” Ukraine’s general staff said on Sunday.