KYIV/POKROVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces fully occupied the eastern Ukrainian town of Sievierodonetsk on Saturday, the two sides said, confirming Kyiv’s biggest battlefield setback in over a month after weeks of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Ukraine called its withdrawal from the city a “tactical withdrawal” to fight from higher ground in Lysychansk, on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets River. Pro-Russian separatists said forces from Moscow were now attacking Lysychansk.
The fall of Sievierodonetsk – once home to more than 100,000 people but now a wasteland – was Russia’s biggest victory since capturing the port of Mariupol last month. It transforms the battlefield in the east after weeks in which Moscow’s huge firepower advantage had produced only slow gains.
Russia will now seek to pursue and seize more ground on the opposite bank, while Ukraine hopes that the price paid by Moscow to seize the ruins of the small town will leave Russian forces vulnerable to counterattack. -offensive.
President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in a video address that Ukraine would get back the cities it lost, including Sievierodonetsk. But acknowledging the emotional toll of the war, he said: “We have no idea how long this will go on, how many blows, casualties and additional efforts will be needed before we see victory looming in the background. ‘horizon.”
“The city is now under total Russian occupation,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told state television. “They are trying to establish their own order, as far as I know they have appointed some sort of commander.”
Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told Reuters that Ukraine was carrying out a “tactical regrouping” by withdrawing its forces from Sievierodonetsk.
“Russia is using the tactic…it used in Mariupol: to wipe the city off the face of the earth,” he said. “Given the conditions, holding the defense in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. Ukrainian forces are therefore moving to higher ground to continue defense operations.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that “as a result of successful offensive operations” Russian forces had established full control over Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Borivske.
Shortly afterwards, however, Ukrainian shelling from outside Sievierodonetsk forced Russian troops to suspend the evacuation of people from a chemical plant there, Russian news agency Tass said citing the local police working with Russian separatist authorities.
Oleksiy Arestovych, senior adviser to Zelensky, said some Ukrainian special forces were still in Sievierodonetsk directing artillery fire at the Russians. But he made no mention of those forces that put up direct resistance.
Russian news agency Interfax quoted a representative of pro-Russian separatist fighters as saying that Russian and pro-Russian forces had entered Lysychansk across the river and were fighting in urban areas there.
Russia also launched missile strikes across Ukraine on Saturday. At least three people have been killed and others may have been buried under rubble in the town of Sarny, about 300km west of Kyiv, after rockets hit a car wash and repair shop automobile, said the head of the local regional army. administration.
Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.
Seeking to tighten the screws further on Russia, US President Joe Biden and other Group of Seven leaders attending a summit in Germany from Sunday will agree to a ban on imports of new gold from Russia, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
“IT WAS HORROR”
In the Ukrainian Donbass town of Pokrovsk, Elena, an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Lysychansk, was among dozens of evacuees who arrived by bus from frontline areas.
“Lysychansk was horrible last week. Yesterday we couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I already told my husband that if I died, please bury me behind the house.”
As Europe’s biggest ground conflict since World War II entered its fifth month, Russian missiles also rained down on the west, north and south of the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border on February 24, sparking a conflict that has killed thousands and uprooted millions. It has also fueled an energy and food crisis that is shaking the global economy.
Since Russian forces were defeated in an assault on the capital Kyiv in March, they have focused on Donbass, an eastern territory made up of the provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the last major Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk.
The Russians have crossed the river in force in recent days and advanced towards Lysychansk, threatening to surround the Ukrainians in the area.
The capture of Sievierodonetsk is likely to be seen by Russia as vindication of its move from its failed first attempt at a “lightning war” to a fierce and relentless offensive using massive artillery in the east.
Moscow claims that Lugansk and Donetsk, where it has supported uprisings since 2014, are independent countries. He asks Ukraine to cede the entire territory of the two provinces to the separatist administrations.
Ukrainian officials had never had much hope of holding Sievierodonetsk but sought to exact a price high enough to wear down the Russian army.
Ukrainian Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi wrote on the Telegram app that recently arrived advanced HIMARS rocket systems supplied by the United States were now deployed and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
Asked about a possible counterattack in the south, Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told Reuters that Ukraine should start seeing results “from August”.
Russian missiles also struck elsewhere overnight. “48 cruise missiles. The night. All over Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is always trying to intimidate Ukraine, to sow panic.”
The governor of Lviv region in western Ukraine said six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at a base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target but two were destroyed.
The war had a huge impact on the global economy and European security, driving up gas, oil and food prices, pushing the European Union to reduce its dependence on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership.