Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory Monday in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk province as Ukrainian troops retreated from their last stronghold in the city of Lysychansk.
Moscow’s forces immediately turned their attention to fighting in the adjoining Donetsk province. It is part of the industrialized Donbas region Putin has sought to take control of during his invasion of Ukraine, now in its fifth month, after failing earlier to topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine said Russian forces are now trying to advance on Siversk, Fedorivka and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, about half of which is controlled by Russia.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin in a televised meeting Monday that Russian forces had taken control of Luhansk. In turn, Putin, said that the military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victory” in Luhansk, “should rest, increase their combat capabilities.”
Ukraine’s Luhansk governor, Serhiy Haidai, told the Associated Press Monday that Ukrainian forces had retreated from Lysychansk to avoid being surrounded.
“There was a risk of Lysychansk encirclement,” Haidai said, saying that Ukrainian troops could have remained a while longer but would have potentially sustained too many casualties.
“We managed to do centralized withdrawal and evacuate all injured,” Haidai said. “We took back all the equipment, so from this point withdrawal was organized well.”
The Ukrainian General Staff said that Russian forces, aside from pushing toward Siversk, Fedorivka and Bakhmut, are also shelling of the key Ukrainian strongholds of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, deeper in Donetsk.
Ukrainian authorities said that on Sunday, six people, including a 9-year-old girl, were killed in the Russian attack on Sloviansk and another 19 people were wounded. Kramatorsk was also shelled Sunday.
The British Defense Ministry intelligence briefing Monday called the conflict in Donbas “grinding and attritional,” and said it is unlikely to change in the coming weeks.
Military analysts said the Russian army has a massive advantage in firepower, but not any significant superiority in the number of troops. Ukraine is hoping to counter the Russian onslaught in Donbas with the ongoing resupply of munitions from Western nations, including the United States.
Zelenskyy acknowledged the Ukrainian withdrawal from Lysychansk during his nightly video address late Sunday but vowed that the country’s forces will fight their way back.
“If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority, in particular this applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing: We will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons,” Zelenskyy 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 win back the land, and people must be protected above all else,” Zelenskyy said.
Luhansk Governor Haidai told the Reuters news agency there was nothing critical in losing Lysychansk, and that Ukraine needed to win the overall war, not the fight for the city.
“It hurts a lot, but it’s not losing the war,” he said Monday.
Switzerland is hosting a conference Monday and Tuesday focusing on what it will take to rebuild Ukraine.
The meeting in Lugano brings together leaders from dozens of countries as well as international organizations and the private sector.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland, Artem Rybchenko, said the conference would help produce a roadmap for his country’s recovery.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.