KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Defense Minister said Russian forces seized control of the last major Ukrainian city in Ukraine’s Luhansk province on Sunday, bringing Moscow closer to its stated goal of seizing all of Ukraine. Donbass region of Ukraine.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russian troops and members of a local separatist militia “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk”, according to a ministry statement.
The capture of Lysychansk constitutes “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic”, one of two breakaway regions of Ukraine that Russia recognizes as sovereign, the statement said.
Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks trying to defend Lysychansk and prevent it from falling to Russia, as its neighbor 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 status.
Earlier on Sunday, the governor of Luhansk said Russian forces were reinforcing their positions in a grueling fight to capture the last stronghold of resistance in the province.
“The occupiers threw all their forces at Lysychansk. They attacked the city with tactics of incomprehensible cruelty,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app. .
A river separates Lysychansk from Sievierodonetsk. Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in an online interview on Saturday evening that Russian forces had managed to cross the river from the north for the first time, creating a “threatening” situation.
Arestovitch said they had not reached the center of the city but the course of the fighting indicated that the Battle of Lysychansk would be decided by Monday.
Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbass, where Russia has focused its offensive since pulling out of northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, in the spring.
Pro-Russian separatists have held parts of the two eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. The Syrian government said on Wednesday it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two regions.
An occupation of Lysychansk would pave the way for Russians to move west into Donetsk province, where the major Ukrainian city of Sloviansk has been the target of rocket attacks on several occasions since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Elsewhere in the war, the exiled mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol said on 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 attacks in western Russia, on the cities of Kursk and Belgorod, but air weapons were shot down. Kursk Regional Governor Roman Starovoit said the town of Tetkino, on the Ukrainian border, had come under mortar fire.
The leader of neighboring Belarus, an ally of Russia, claimed on Saturday that Ukraine fired missiles several days ago at military targets in Belarusian territory but all were intercepted by an air defense system. President Alexander Lukashenko called the alleged strike a provocation and noted 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 base 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 for the first time from Belarusian airspace.
Lukashenko has so far resisted efforts to drag his army into war. But during their meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko that his government was dependent on economic support from Russia.
Ebel reported from Prokovsk, Ukraine.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Maria Grazia Murru and Francesca Ebel, Associated Press