Russia says it has full control of Luhansk region in Ukraine

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

Russia has said 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 Vladimir Putin on Sunday that their forces had established “full control” over Lysychansk and several nearby settlements, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Ukraine’s military command confirmed on Sunday evening that its troops had been forced to pull back from the city, saying there would otherwise be “fatal consequences”.

It said: “In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw.”

Earlier in the day Ukraine had disputed the Russian claim. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia was not in full control and the battle was continuing on the outskirts of the city. He admitted, however, that Ukraine was in a tough spot.

But by Sunday night, he acknowledged the loss of the city, vowing to retake the area due to the army’s tactics and the prospect of new, improved weaponry.

“If the commanders of our army withdraw people from certain points at the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in fire power, and this also applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing,” Zelenskiy said in his evening video address. “That we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons.”

Fighting in Ukraine’s east has remained intense since Moscow refocused its efforts there. Violence has even spread out of Ukraine, with officials in the Russian city of Belgorod accusing Ukrainian forces on Sunday of bombing a neighbourhood and killing three people and damaging homes.

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A Russian takeover of Lysychansk means Moscow has in effect won control of the entire Luhansk region as well as more than half of the Donetsk region, amounting to about 75% 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 there after failing to occupy northern Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, at the end of March.

The advance 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 in shelling on Sunday, and in the post-2014 regional capital of Kramatorsk, where a missile destroyed a hotel, according to its mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko. He said three rockets hit the town on Sunday and that there were no reported victims so far.

Russian forces published a video online allegedly shot in Lysychansk of Russian soldiers jubilantly holding up 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, the Ukrainian president’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said at the time that between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying each day.

The London-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukrainian forces had probably deliberately withdrawn from Lysychansk to avoid encirclement.

The highway and main supply route between the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region and Lysychansk had become 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 interviewed by France24 who was still doing evacuations from the city, Russia was using its superior artillery capabilities to flatten buildings one by one, which meant Ukrainian troops had nowhere to shelter.

Related: Russia-Ukraine war: what we know on day 130 of the invasion

“Russian forces are entrenched in the area of Lysychansk and the city is on fire,” said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region. “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.”

Haidai said that despite Ukrainian forces destroying a Russian ammunitions depot in eastern Ukraine, the Russians were “stubbornly advancing”.

Ukraine’s military intelligence told the Guardian last month that Ukraine had 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 it said three people died and four were injured, including a 10-year-old child. Belgorod’s regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said 11 apartment buildings and 39 detached houses were damaged or destroyed in the overnight incident.

The Russian defence ministry spokesperson 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.

The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, a Russian ally, has said the two states have created “a single army” and that Belarus 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 as saying as he marked Belarusian Independence Day on Sunday.

On Saturday, Lukashenko claimed that no Belarusian soldier was currently fighting in Ukraine, and that 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,” Lukashenko said.

Ukraine has not responded to Lukashenko’s claims but in an interview on 6 June, Zelenskiy played down the risk of a repeat invasion from Belarusian territory.

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