Ukraine: Russia demands the capture of a key city

Kyiv, Ukraine –

Russia’s defense minister said Russian forces took control of the last major city held by Ukraine in Ukraine’s Luhansk province on Sunday, bringing Moscow closer to its stated goal of seizing the entire Ukrainian region of Donbas.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russian troops together with members of a local separatist militia “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk,” a ministry statement said.

Taking Lysychansk constitutes “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” one of two breakaway regions in Ukraine that Russia recognizes as sovereign, the statement said.

Ukrainian fighters spent weeks trying to defend Lysychansk from falling to Russia, as neighboring Sievierodonetsk did a week ago. A presidential adviser predicted late Saturday that the city’s fate could be determined within days.

Ukrainian officials did not immediately provide an update on his condition.

Earlier on Sunday, the governor of Luhansk said Russian forces were fortifying their positions in a grueling fight to capture the last resistance stronghold in the province.

“The occupiers threw all their forces on Lysychansk. They attacked the city with incomprehensibly cruel tactics,” Lugansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app. “They are suffering significant losses, but they are stubbornly advancing. They are gaining ground in the city.”

A river separates Lysychansk from Sievierodonetsk. Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said during an online interview on Saturday night that Russian forces for the first time managed to cross the river from the north, creating a “threatening” situation.

Arestovych said they had not reached the city center but the course of the fighting indicated that the battle for Lysychansk would be decided on Monday.

Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbas, where Russia has focused its offensive since withdrawing from northern Ukraine and the capital Kyiv in the spring.

Pro-Russian separatists have occupied parts of both eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. Syria’s government said on Wednesday it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two areas.

An occupation of Lysychansk would open the way for the Russians to push west into Donetsk province, where the major Ukrainian-controlled city of Slovyansk has been attacked by rockets multiple times since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Elsewhere in the war, the exiled mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol said Sunday that Ukrainian rockets destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.

The Russian Defense Ministry said Ukraine also launched missile and drone strikes in western Russia, on the cities of Kursk and Belgorod, but the aerial weapons were shot down. Kursk Regional Governor Roman Starovoit said the town of Tetkino, on the border with Ukraine, was hit by mortars.

The leader of neighboring Belarus, an ally of Russia, claimed on Saturday that Ukraine fired missiles at military targets on Belarusian territory several days ago, but all were intercepted by an air defense system. President Alexander Lukashenko described the alleged attack as a provocation, noting that no Belarusian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine.

There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian military.

Belarus hosts Russian military units and was used as a staging ground for the Russian invasion. Last week, just hours before Lukashenko was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian long-range bombers fired missiles at Ukraine from Belarusian airspace for the first time.

Lukashenko has so far resisted efforts to draw his army into the war. But during his meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko that his government depends on Russia’s financial support.

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Ebel reported from Prokovsk, Ukraine.

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