Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared victory in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, a day after Ukrainian forces withdrew from their last remaining stronghold of resistance in the province.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, reported to Mr Putin in a televised meeting on Monday that Russian forces had taken control of Luhansk, which together with the neighbouring Donetsk province makes up Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbas.
Mr Shoigu told Mr Putin that “the operation” was completed on Sunday after Russian troops overran the city of Lysychansk, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces in Luhansk.
Mr Putin, in turn, said the military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victory” in Luhansk, “should rest, increase their combat capabilities”.
Mr Putin’s declaration came as Russian forces tried to press their offensive deeper into eastern Ukraine after the Ukrainian military confirmed that its forces had withdrawn from Lysychansk on Sunday.
Luhansk governor Serhii Haidai said on Monday that Ukrainian forces had retreated from the city to avoid being surrounded.
“There was a risk of Lysychansk encirclement,” said Mr Haidai, adding that Ukrainian troops could have held on for a few more weeks but would have potentially paid too high a price.
“We managed to do a centralised withdrawal and evacuate all injured,” Mr Haidai said. “We took back all the equipment, so from this point withdrawal was organised well.”
The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces were now focusing their efforts on pushing towards the line of Siversk, Fedorivka and Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, about half of which is controlled by Russia.
The Russian army has also intensified its shelling of the key Ukrainian strongholds of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, deeper in Donetsk.
On Sunday, six people, including a nine-year-old girl, were killed in the Russian shelling of Sloviansk and another 19 people were wounded, according to local authorities. Kramatorsk also came under fire on Sunday.
An intelligence briefing on Monday from the British MoD supported the Ukrainian military’s assessment, noting that Russian forces will “now almost certainly” switch to capturing Donetsk.
The briefing said the conflict in Donbas has been “grinding and attritional”, and is unlikely to change in the coming weeks.
While the Russian army has a massive advantage in firepower, military analysts say that it does not have any significant superiority in the number of troops.
That means Moscow lacks resources for quick land gains and can only advance slowly, relying on heavy artillery and rocket barrages to soften Ukrainian defences.
Mr Putin has made capturing the entire Donbas a key goal in his war in Ukraine, now in its fifth month.
Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas have battled Ukrainian forces since 2014 when they declared independence from Kyiv after the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. Russia formally recognised the self-proclaimed republics days before its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged the withdrawal, but vowed that Ukrainian forces will fight their way back.
“If the command of our army withdraws people from certain points of the front where the enemy has the greatest fire superiority, in particular this applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing: We will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons,” Mr Zelensky said.
Since failing to take Kyiv and other areas in Ukraine’s north-east early in the war, Russia has focused on Donbas, unleashing fierce shelling and engaging in house-to-house combat that devastated cities in the region.
Russia’s invasion has also devastated Ukraine’s agricultural sector, disrupting supply chains of seed and fertiliser needed by Ukrainian farmers and blocking the export of grain, a key source of revenue for the country.
In its Monday intelligence report, the MoD pointed to the Russian blockade of the key Ukrainian port of Odesa, which has severely restricted grain exports. It predicted that Ukraine’s agricultural exports would reach only 35% of the 2021 total this year as a result.
As Moscow pushed its offensive across Ukraine’s east, areas in western Russia came under attack on Sunday in a revival of sporadic apparent Ukrainian strikes across the border.
The governor of the Belgorod region in western Russia said fragments of an intercepted Ukrainian missile killed four people on Sunday. In the Russian city of Kursk, two Ukrainian drones were shot down, according to the Russian Defence Ministry.
Meanwhile, two Russian planes departed Bulgaria on Sunday with scores of Russian diplomatic staff and their families amid a mass expulsion that has sent tensions soaring between the historically close nations, a Russian diplomat said.