Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian forces on Sunday captured the last major Ukrainian-held city in Ukraine’s Luhansk province, Russia’s defense minister said, bringing Moscow closer to its stated goal of capturing the entire Ukrainian region of Donbass.
A ministry statement said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russian forces, along with members of a local separatist militia, had “imposed complete control over the city of Lyschansk”.
The statement said the taking of Lysechansk constituted “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” one of two breakaway regions of Ukraine recognized by Russia as a sovereign state.
Ukrainian fighters spent weeks trying to defend Lysychansk and prevent it from falling into Russia, as did neighboring Sievierodonetsk a week earlier. And a presidential adviser expected late on Saturday that the city’s fate would be determined within days.
Ukrainian officials did not immediately provide an update on her status.
Earlier Sunday, the governor of Luhansk said that Russian forces were consolidating their positions in a fierce battle for control of the last bastion of resistance in the region.
The occupiers threw all their forces at Lyschansk. “They attacked the city with inexplicably cruel tactics,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said in the Telegram messaging app. They have suffered great losses, but are advancing stubbornly. They are gaining a foothold in the city.”
It separates the Lysychansk River from Sievierodonetsk. During an online interview late Saturday, Oleksiy Aristovich, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said that for the first time Russian troops managed to cross the river from the north, causing a “dangerous” situation.
Aristovich said they had not reached the city center, but the course of the fighting indicated that the battle for Lysichansk would be decided on Monday.
Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbass, where Russia has focused its offensive since its withdrawal from northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, in the spring.
Pro-Russian separatists have controlled parts of the two eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes both Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. On Wednesday, the Syrian government said it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two areas.
The occupation of Lysichansk would open the way for the Russians to move west into Donetsk province, where the large Ukrainian-controlled city of Sloviansk has been hit by missile attacks several times since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Mayor Vadim Lyach said new attacks on Sunday had killed an unspecified number of people.
Elsewhere in the war, the mayor of the Russian-occupied exiled city of Melitopol said on Sunday that Ukrainian missiles had destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.
The governor of the Belgorod region in western Russia said that four people were killed Sunday by shrapnel of an intercepted Ukrainian missile. The Russian Defense Ministry said two Ukrainian drones were shot down over the city of Kursk.
Roman Starovit, the governor of the Kursk region, said the town of Tetkino on the Ukrainian border was hit by mortars.
The leader of neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally, claimed Saturday that Ukraine had fired missiles at military targets in Belarusian territory several days ago, but an air defense system intercepted all of them. President Alexander Lukashenko described the alleged strike as a provocation and noted that there were no Belarusian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian military.
Belarus hosts Russian military units and was used as a springboard for the Russian invasion. Last week, hours before Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, 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 their meeting, Putin announced that Russia plans to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system, and reminded Lukashenko that his government relies on economic support from Russia.
Ebel reported from Prokovsk, Ukraine.
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