Russia has claimed it is in control of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region after taking over Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian-controlled city in the region.
The Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, told president Vladimir Putin on Sunday that their forces had established “full control” over Lysychansk and several nearby settlements, Russian state-media RIA Novosti reported.
Ukraine disputed the claim. Its president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia was not in full control and the battle for the city was continuing on the outskirts of the city. He admitted, however, that Ukraine was in a tough spot.”We don’t have an advantage there,” said Mr Zelenskiy at a press briefing with Australia’s prime minister, Anthony Albanese, who was in Kyiv on Sunday. “It’s really a very difficult situation there.”
Mr Zelensky said that they were still trying to get weapons to Lysychansk in order to strengthen Ukrainian forces.
Fighting in Ukraine’s east has remained intense since Moscow refocused its efforts there. Violence has even spread out of Ukraine – officials in the Russian city of Belgorod accused Ukrainian forces on Sunday of bombing a neighbourhood and killing three people and damaging homes.
A Russian takeover of Lysychansk would mean Moscow had effectively won control of the entire Luhansk region as well as over half of the Donetsk region amounting to about 75 per cent of the two eastern regions, which are collectively known as Donbas.
Occupying the whole of the Donbas region has been a key goal of the Russian invasion, with the country concentrating a large chunk of its forces in Donbas after failing to occupy northern Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, at the end of March.
The win would bring Russian forces closer to several other cities and towns in Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk, including the frontline town of Sloviansk, where authorities said six people were killed and 15 injured on Sunday because of shelling, and the post-2014 regional Donetsk capital of Kramatorsk where a hotel was destroyed, also on Sunday, by a missile, according to its mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko. He said that three rockets hit the town and there were no reported victims so far.
Russian forces published a video online allegedly shot in Lysychansk of Russian soldiers jubilantly holding up the Russian and Chechen flags in front of war-damaged buildings.
Last month, Ukraine’s army withdrew from the Luhansk city of Sievierodonetsk, just north of Lysychansk, citing the scale of their losses. Though Ukraine does not publicise figures on the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed and in what locations, Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said at the time that between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying per day.The London-based Institute for the Study of War said that Ukrainian forces had probably deliberately withdrawn from Lysychansk, the last Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk, to avoid encirclement.
The highway and main supply route between the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region and Lysychansk had become incredibly precarious because of shelling. Several civilians, including a French journalist, have died driving along the route over the last month.
Inside Lysychansk, according to one aid worker who was still doing evacuations from the city interviewed by France24, Russia was using its superior artillery capabilities to flatten buildings one by one, which meant that Ukrainian troops had nowhere to shelter.
“Russian forces are entrenched in the area of Lysychansk and the city is on fire,” said Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk regional military administration. “If houses and administrative buildings in Sievierodonetsk survived a month of street fighting, in Lysychansk the same administrative buildings were completely destroyed in a shorter period of time.”
Mr Haidai added that despite Ukrainian forces successfully destroying a Russian ammunitions depot in eastern Ukraine, the Russians were “stubbornly advancing”.
Ukraine’s military intelligence told the Guardian last month that Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10 to 15 Russian artillery pieces. Since then, several western countries have promised the delivery of more military aid, including artillery.
Separately, Russia blamed Ukraine for a missile attack on the Russian city of Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine, in which they said three people died and four were injured, including a 10-year-old child. Belgorod’s regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said that 11 apartment buildings and 39 detached houses were damaged or destroyed in the overnight incident.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said it “was intentionally planned and launched at the civilian population”. Russia said it intercepted three Ukrainian missiles, but one fell on to an apartment building.
There have been several instances of explosions in Belgorod since the invasion began. Ukraine has not directly accepted responsibility but has previously described the incidents as “karma” for Russia.
Russia’s primary ally, Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has said the two states have created “a single army” and that it will stick with Russia in its war against Ukraine.”We were and will act together with our brothers in Russia. Our participation in the ‘special operation’ was determined by me a long time ago,” the Belarusian state news agency Belta reported Lukashenko saying as he marked Belarusian Independence Day on July 3rd.
On Saturday, Mr Lukashenko claimed that no Belarusian soldier was currently fighting in Ukraine, and Belarus would only fight in response to a provocation. He then claimed, without providing evidence, that last week Belarusian anti-aircraft systems had shot down several missiles that were fired by Ukraine at Belarusian military installations.”We are being provoked. I have to tell you – three days ago, maybe a little more, they tried to attack military facilities on the territory of Belarus from the territory of Ukraine. But, thank God, the Panzer anti-aircraft systems managed to intercept all the missiles,” said Lukashenko. Ukraine has not responded to Mr Lukashenko’s claims but in an interview on June 6th,Mr Zelenskiy, played down the risk of a repeat invasion from Belarusian territory. -Guardian Service