Russia claimed control Sunday over the key city of Lysychansk, the last major Ukrainian foothold in the Luhansk region — signaling a potential turning point in Moscow’s campaign to take all of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials said their forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk after fierce fighting to preserve lives from the Russians’ relentless assault.
The slow Russian advance across the region it has targeted since the invasion began in February has been facilitated by overwhelming artillery power that has leveled cities and towns and left a trail of wounded and dead prompting comparisons with the devastation of World War I in Europe.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement that Russian troops and pro-Kremlin separatists of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic “have established full control” over Lysychansk “and a number of nearby settlements.”
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said Sunday that Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw from Lysychansk after waging a stiff but losing battle.
Ukraine had tried to defend Lysychansk for weeks. The military said it decided to withdraw because remaining in the city would bring “fatal consequences,” given the Russian forces’ “overwhelming advantage” in “artillery, aviation, ammunition and personnel.”
The decision was “made to save the lives of Ukrainian defenders,” according to a statement posted on Facebook. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to return.
“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,” Zelensky said in his nightly address Sunday. “Ukraine does not give anything up.”
The city is a key target in Russia’s battle to capture the Donbas region, the heavily industrialized area bordering Russia that is partly controlled by separatists loyal to Moscow. In 2014, they unilaterally established two independent “republics” in the Donbas region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cited false claims of Ukrainian “genocide” against Russian-speaking residents there as justification for his invasion.
Russia’s latest advances in eastern Ukraine add to creeping doubts among U.S. lawmakers and observers of the war that the Ukrainian government can stop Putin from seizing territory. Optimism sparked by the defeat of his forces in the battle for Kyiv in the spring has faded as Russian artillery hammers Ukrainian forces and civilian targets.
President Biden said last week that U.S. support for Ukraine is unshakable and will continue “as long as it takes” to ensure a Russian defeat.
“We continue to fight. Unfortunately, the steel willpower and patriotism are not enough to achieve success — we need the technical resources,” the Ukrainian military’s statement added.
Ukrainian troops withdrew just over a week ago from Severodonetsk, a city across the Donets River to the east. Russia’s capture of Lysychansk, if confirmed, would be a major victory that gives its troops clear access to Donetsk, the other region that makes up Donbas.
Biden administration officials say Putin’s gains have been uneven and have come at a significant cost, highlighting the steep death toll among Russian troops.
But Ukrainian forces also are paying a heavy price, which U.S. military officials rarely acknowledge.
Control over Donbas is the primary goal of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine, after it failed to capture the capital, Kyiv, and other areas in the initial weeks of the war. Russian troops and their allies have been making steady gains in the east, as officials in Kyiv say they are outgunned and running out of ammunition.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Yuriy Sak told the BBC earlier Sunday that Ukraine controls other cities in Donetsk and argued that “the battle for the Donbas is not over yet.”
Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said earlier in the day that in attacking Lysychansk, Russian fighters used tactics even more brutal than in Severodonetsk to overcome resistance. Photos showed bombed-out residential buildings in Lysychansk early Sunday, amid a barrage reminiscent of the destruction of Severodonetsk.
As recently as Saturday, a Russian-backed politician said Lysychansk was “completely surrounded,” but defense officials in Ukraine said they still had control of the city. Those counterclaims were probably “outdated or erroneous,” according to an analysis from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank. It cited unconfirmed videos showing Russian forces erecting a red “victory” flag in Lysychansk and “casually walking around” its neighborhoods.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2,” it said.
As Russia issued its claim of control over Lysychansk on Sunday, Slovyansk, a town about 50 miles west in Donetsk, came under intense shelling that killed at least six people, local officials said.
Mayor Vadym Lyakh said in a video on Telegram that “the biggest shelling of Slovyansk recently” had left “a large number of wounded and dead.”
Tetyana Ignatchenko, a spokeswoman for the Donetsk region, told Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne News that at least six people were killed and 15 were injured in the shelling. She added that missiles hit the town of Kramatorsk, to the south of Slovyansk.
In its assessment Saturday, the ISW said Russia was likely to fully take over the Luhansk region “in coming days” and would probably “then prioritize drives on Ukrainian positions in Siversk before turning to Slovyansk and Bakhmut,” in Donetsk.
In other developments, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey said Sunday that Turkish authorities have detained a Russian-flagged cargo ship loaded with stolen Ukrainian grain.
Millions of metric tons of grain await export from Ukraine, blockaded by Russia’s control of Black Sea shipping lanes. The export blockades have resulted in global food shortages and rising prices, which have particularly affected poorer countries.
Three people were killed in Russian strikes early Sunday in the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian officials said. Cities across Kharkiv were shelled Saturday and Sunday, according to regional governor Oleh Synyehubov. In one district, Russian forces “burned farm buildings, garages, and shelled open areas,” he added.
Bryan Pietsch, Paulina Villegas and James Bikales contributed to this report.