Ukraine will win back fallen cities, including Severodonetsk, says Zelenskiy

Country hit by 45 Russian missiles and rockets over the previous 24 hours, president says

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday said Ukraine would win back all the cities it had lost to Russia, including Severodonetsk, and admitted the war was becoming tough to handle emotionally.

In a late-night video address, he also said Ukraine had been hit by 45 Russian missiles and rockets over the previous 24 hours, which he described as a cynical but doomed attempt to break his people’s spirits.

“Therefore all our cities — Severodonetsk, Donetsk, Luhansk — we’ll get them all back,” he said.

It was the only time in the address that he mentioned Severodonetsk, which finally fell to Moscow’s forces earlier in the day after weeks of brutal fighting.

“At this stage of the war it’s spiritually difficult, emotionally difficult ... we don’t have a sense of long it will last, how many more blows, losses and efforts will be needed before we see victory is on the horizon,” he said.

The relentless missiles attacks confirmed that sanctions against Russia were not enough to help Ukraine, which needed more weapons, he said.

“The air defence systems — the modern systems that our partners have — should not be on training grounds or in storage, but in Ukraine, where they are needed now, needed more than anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Russian occupation

Earlier, the mayor of Ukraine’s Severodonetsk said on Saturday the city was now fully under Russian occupation. Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk had said Ukrainian troops had “almost left” the city’s strategic frontline after holding out for weeks against advancing Russian forces.

On Friday, regional authorities said Ukraine was set to pull back its troops there. “Unfortunately, they have almost left the city,” Mr Stryuk said on national television.

On Saturday, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said their forces are regrouping from the rubble of the city Severodonetsk to higher ground in neighbouring Lysychansk to gain a tactical advantage over Russia.

In an interview in Kyiv, Kyrylo Budanov, told Reuters that Ukrainian forces would continue their defence of that front from Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine and that it was no longer possible to hold the line in Severodonetsk.

“The activities happening in the area of Severodonetsk are a tactical regrouping of our troops. This is a withdrawal to advantageous positions to obtain a tactical advantage,” said Mr Budanov, head of the Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.

“Russia is using the tactic ... it used in Mariupol: wiping the city from the face of the earth. Given the conditions, holding the defence in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. So the Ukrainian forces are leaving for higher ground to continue the defence operations,” he said.

Asked if he meant Lysychansk, he said: “Yes, this is the only higher ground.”

Moldova

Earlier, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine stands with Moldova in response to renewed threats from Russia, after Moscow warned of negative consequences over the two countries becoming candidates for EU membership.

“We stand with the people and the government of friendly Moldova amid renewed threats coming from Moscow. All Russia has left is spitting out threats at other states after decades of failed policies based on aggression, coercion, and disrespect,” Mr Kuleba said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Russia launched artillery and air strikes on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk on Saturday, hitting a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked Sievierodentsk's industrial zone and also attempted to enter and blockade Lysychansk.

“There was an air strike at Lysychansk. Severodonetsk was hit by artillery,” Mr Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app, adding the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd and others were shelled.

He made no mention of casualties at the Azot chemical plant and Reuters could not immediately verify the information.

Mr Gaidai said 17 people were evacuated on Friday from Lysychansk by police officers, rescuers and volunteers.

Ukraine said on Friday that its troops had been ordered to retreat from Severodonetsk, a key battleground city, as there was very little left to defend after weeks of intense fighting.

“During the last [several] days, an operation was conducted to withdraw our troops,” Kharatin Starskyi, the press officer of a National Guard brigade, said on Saturday.

Mr Starskyi, who had been in Severodonetsk, told morning television that the flow of information about the withdrawal was delayed to protect troops on the ground. The retreat marks the biggest reversal for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.

News of the withdrawal on Friday came four months to the day since Russian president Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and reduced whole cities to rubble.

The latest Russian advances appeared to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow's stated war objectives, and sets the stage for Lysychansk to become the next main focus of fighting.

Vitaly Kiselev, an official in the Interior Ministry of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic — recognised only by Russia — told Russia’s TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance bolstered by Western arms.

Since then Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbour Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since the second World War.

On Saturday, Russia again launched missile strikes on military and civilian infrastructure in the north near Ukraine’s second-biggest city Kharkiv through to Severodonetsk in the east, said the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Several regional governors reported shelling attacks on towns across Ukraine on Saturday.

Russia denies targeting civilians, but Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.

Ukraine on Friday again pressed for more arms, with its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling his US counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed “fire parity” with Moscow to stabilise the situation in Luhansk.

South of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian soldiers also withdrew from the towns of Hirske and Zolote in the face of overwhelming Russian forces, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

He said Ukraine's military had learned the hard lesson of trying to defend positions at all cost during battles with pro-Russian forces in 2014.

“Now, for the first time, we have a precedent where our boys retreated in an orderly fashion,” he said in an online video post.

Ukraine's foreign minister played down the significance of the possible loss of more territory in the Donbas.

“Putin wanted to occupy the Donbas by May 9th. We are (there) on June 24th and still fighting. Retreating from a few battles does not mean losing the war at all,” Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said in a late Friday note: “Ukrainian forces will likely maintain their defences around Lysychansk and continue to exhaust Russian troops after the fall of Severodonetsk”.

It said Ukrainian forces would likely take higher ground in Lysychansk which may see them repel Russian attacks and that Russian forces would need to cross the river from Severodonetsk which will require additional time and effort.

On Friday, Ukraine's general staff said its troops had some success in the southern Kherson region, forcing the Russians back from defensive positions near the village of Olhine, the latest of several Ukrainian counter-assaults.

Russia says it sent troops into Ukraine to degrade its southern neighbour's military capabilities and root out people it called dangerous nationalists.

Ukraine, which says Russia has launched an imperial-style land grab, this week won new support from the West.

The war has had a massive impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, driving up gas, oil and food prices, pushing the EU to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek Nato membership.

The West has imposed an unprecedented package of sanctions on Russia, its top companies and its business and political elite in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a major sign of support, European Union leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal candidature to join the bloc — a decision that Russia said on Friday amounted to the EU’s “enslaving” of neighbouring countries. — Reuters