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Ukraine retreats from Severodonetsk as Russia advances in the east

Severodonetsk was one of the last cities standing in the way of Russia controlling the entire Luhansk region

Fearing they had spotted a Russian drone overhead, fighters of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense take cover on June 21 in woods along a road that leads to Lysychansk, Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

Ukrainian forces are withdrawing from the strategic city of Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, local and military officials said Friday, marking a new victory for Russia four months into its bloody invasion of its neighbor.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai announced the decision in a Telegram post and said that it “makes no sense to be in broken positions.” The number of dead in the area is growing, he said, and Ukrainian troops already have received the order to pull back to new, fortified locations.

“No one is abandoning our boys, nobody will allow them to be surrounded,” he said. “There is no point in simply being there, because with every day the proportional number of dead on unfortified territories could increase.”

The city on the Donets River, which used to be home to about 100,000 people, has emerged as a focal point of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is one of the last cities standing in the way of Russia controlling the entire Luhansk region, something that senior Pentagon officials and outside analysts have predicted as likely for weeks.

A senior U.S. defense official acknowledged the withdrawal Friday, but downplayed its significance. Russia has made incremental gains while a large number of Russian troops have been killed, the official said.

“The way that I view it is that the Ukrainian armed forces are performing a professional, tactical retrograde to consolidate their forces in positions that they can better defend themselves,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. assessments.

The city has been largely under Russian control for weeks amid heavy fighting. Russian forces have pounded it with artillery and engaged in street fighting, inflicting heavy damage and causing significant casualties among Ukrainian forces.

“The city’s infrastructure is completely destroyed,” Haidai said, adding that almost 90 percent of homes have been damaged or destroyed.

The fall of Severodonetsk complements larger goals that Russia has for Donbas, a largely industrial section of eastern Ukraine that includes both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. After suffering failure in its earlier effort to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Kremlin reoriented its military to the east, where the open terrain favors the Russian military’s propensity to mass forces and destroy cities from afar with artillery.

Russia is expected to continue its offensive, though it is unclear how far its forces can go.

Across the river from Severodonetsk, its sister city Lysychansk is also facing advancing Russian troops, Haidai said Friday, as the Kremlin’s forces move to encircle the city.

So far, it remains under Ukrainian control, but the terrain there makes it “difficult” to defend, Haidai said. Some humanitarian supplies have been delivered and a handful of evacuations have been carried out, he said, but residents have waited too long to flee.

Why Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine is key to Russia’s war

Ukraine’s losing control of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk “will not represent a major turning point in the war,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its latest analysis on Thursday.

“Ukrainian forces have fundamentally accomplished their objective in the battle by slowing down and degrading Russian forces,” it said. “Russian offensive operations will likely stall in the coming weeks … likely granting Ukrainian forces the opportunity to launch prudent counteroffensives.”

President Vladimir Putin recognized the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states before he invaded Ukraine in February, and the United States said last month that Moscow was preparing to annex the regions, along with the southern city of Kherson.

Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Agence France-Presse on Thursday there are few “safe” places left in the region, and he urged civilians to evacuate. Ukraine’s forces were primarily focused on holding the major Donetsk cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, he added.

Ukrainians are continuing to carry out “resistance” operations in Russian-held regions of the country, Ukraine’s military said Friday in an update on Facebook. Russia wants to establish full control in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, create conditions that are favorable for a new offensive in the area around the southern city of Mykolaiv, and secure a land corridor between those areas and the Crimean Peninsula, the post said. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

The top Ukrainian military officer, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said Friday that he had just completed a call with Gen. Mark. A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and said he told Milley that Ukraine needs parity in firepower with Russia. Russia is launching tens of thousands of shells per day, Ukrainian officials have said, significantly outgunning Ukrainian forces.

Army Col. David Butler, a spokesman for Milley, acknowledged in a statement that the phone call occurred while disclosing few specifics.

“They discussed the unprovoked and ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and exchanged perspectives and assessments,” Butler said. “The Chairman once again reaffirmed unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The United States has provided Ukraine with about $5.6 billion in weapons and ammunition since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, most recently pledging $450 million in arms Thursday. The latest batch will include four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, doubling the number of the sophisticated weapon that Washington has provided Kyiv.

Washington also previously provided Ukraine with 126 M777 howitzers that launch 155 mm explosive artillery shells, and NATO allies have provided Ukraine with similar systems.

The senior defense official defended the United States sending a limited number of HIMARS, noting both their sophisticated nature and the weapons that European allies are providing. Additional countries are on “the cusp” of sending other multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine the official said.

“The HIMARS enables standoff distance, but they also with the munitions we’re providing offer incredible precision,” the official said. “So, this isn’t about volume. It’s about precise targeting.”

The official said the first four HIMARS that the United States sent to Ukraine already are there, with a growing number of Ukrainian troops learning how to use them.

“By mid-July, we will have all of this capability in Ukraine,” the official said.

Also included in the package of weapons detailed Thursday are 1,200 Mk 19 grenade launchers, the senior defense official said. The weapons, relied on by U.S. combat units for years, rapidly launch 40 mm explosive shells and are commonly mounted on armored vehicles and vessels.

The latest batch of weapons also will include 18 patrol boats, with a mix of riverine vessels and boats that can be used to defend the Ukrainian coastline, the official said. Ukrainian officials initially asked for something they could use to protect rivers, which connect or bisect several major Ukrainian cities.

Lamothe reported from Washington, Suliman and Bissett from London, and Chapman from Paris. Andrew Jeong and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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