Ukraine’s forces are repositioning to defend what remains of Kyiv-held territory in the eastern Donetsk region after Russia claimed to have seized all of the neighbouring Luhansk region following the withdrawal of government troops from the city of Lysychansk.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed that his country would retake Luhansk and the rest of occupied territory with the help of heavy weapons from western allies, and he urged states and corporations to help rebuild Ukraine “to show why freedom is more powerful than any tyranny”.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated his military for taking a step towards occupying the entire Donbas area, which comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, following its failure to topple Kyiv and Ukraine’s other biggest cities.
“If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest superiority in firepower – this applies in particular to Lysychansk – then it means only one thing: we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in supply of modern weapons,” Mr Zelenskiy said.
Ukraine’s forces appear to have escaped potential encirclement close to Lysychansk and neighbouring Sievierodonetsk, which have been at the epicentre of fighting for several weeks, and are now pulling back to defend the cities of Bakhmut, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Those three cities been under increasing artillery attack in recent days, and officials in Slovyansk said at least six people, including a child, died in Russian rocket fire on Sunday.
“The loss of the Luhansk region is painful because it is the territory of Ukraine … but there is nothing critical. We need to win the war, not the battle for Lysychansk,” said Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai.
He said that for Russian forces “goal number one is the Donetsk region. Slovyansk and Bakhmut will come under attack – Bakhmut has already started being shelled very hard … they will shoot at everything with their artillery, but it will be difficult for them to move forward.”
Analysts say Ukraine fought for so long over largely ruined cities in Luhansk to buy time to strengthen defensive positions in Donetsk region and to receive more powerful long-range artillery from western states. These systems, such as the US-made Himars multi-launch rocket system, are now allowing Ukraine to destroy Russian bases and ammunition stockpiles deep inside occupied territory.
In a video address Mr Zelenskiy told the so-called Ukraine recovery conference in Lugano that Russia’s full-scale invasion had destroyed hundreds of medical facilities, thousands of educational establishments, and devastated infrastructure in his country.
“This is Russia’s attack on everything that is of value to you and me. Therefore the reconstruction of Ukraine … is not a project of one nation, but a joint task of the entire democratic world,” he said. “It also means an opportunity for our countries, our companies, our specialists to show why freedom is more powerful than any tyranny.”
Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal valued his country’s rebuilding plan at $750 billion (€719bn) and said “the key source of recovery should be the confiscated assets of Russia and Russian oligarchs”.
“The Russian authorities unleashed this bloody war. They caused this massive destruction and they should be held accountable for it,” he added, noting that frozen Russian assets have an estimated value of up to $500 billion (€479bn).
The Ukrainian flag has been raised again on Snake Island in the Black Sea, Ukraine’s military said on Monday, after Russian forces withdrew from the strategic outpost last week.
“The military operation has been concluded, and ... the territory [Snake Island] has been returned to the jurisdiction of Ukraine,” Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military command, told a news conference.
Some analysts have said Russia’s withdrawal from Snake Island off Ukraine’s southwestern coast could loosen its blockade on Ukrainian ports. But a Kyiv-based foreign diplomat told Reuters it was still not enough to allow for safe transit of Ukrainian grain.
“There is a requirement for demining, and Russia still has capabilities (military vessels, costal defence systems and air superiority) that will allow them to interdict shipping lanes,” the diplomat said.
To unblock its ports so it can ship grain Ukraine would need allied support and for Turkey to play a key role, the diplomat added.
Russia said it had pulled out from Snake Island on Thursday as a “gesture of goodwill” to show it was not obstructing United Nations attempts to open a humanitarian corridor allowing grain to be shipped from Ukraine. Ukraine said it had driven the Russian forces out after an artillery and missile assault. – Additional reporting: Agencies