- The capture of Sievierodonetsk is a huge gain for Russia
- Ukraine says it is carrying out a ‘tactical withdrawal’
- Dozens of missiles hit Ukrainian military bases
Kyiv/POKROVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces have fully occupied the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk on Saturday, both sides said, underlining the biggest setback on the Kyiv battlefield in more than a month after weeks of the war’s bloodiest battle.
Ukraine described its withdrawal from the city as a “tactical withdrawal” to fight from the high ground of Lyschansk on the opposite bank of the Seversky Donets River. Pro-Russian separatists said Moscow’s forces were now attacking Lyschansk.
The fall of Sievierodonetsk – once home to more than 100,000 people but now a wasteland – was Russia’s biggest victory since the capture of the port of Mariupol last month. It is transforming the battlefield in the east after weeks in which Moscow’s formidable advantage in firepower yielded only slow gains.
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Russia will now seek to squeeze and seize more territory on the opposite bank, while Ukraine hopes that the price Moscow paid for capturing the ruins of the small city will leave Russian forces vulnerable to a counterattack.
President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged in a video speech that Ukraine would take back the cities it lost. But acknowledging the emotional cost of the war, he said, “We have no idea how long it will last, and how much more strikes, casualties, and efforts will be required before we see victory on the horizon.”
“The city is now under the complete occupation of Russia,” Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television. “They are trying to establish their own system.”
Kirillo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told Reuters that Ukraine was carrying out a “tactical regrouping” by withdrawing its forces from Severodonetsk.
“Russia is using the tactic … which it used in Mariupol: to wipe the city off the face of the earth,” he said. “Under these conditions, it is no longer possible to install defense in rubble and open fields. So Ukrainian forces are heading to higher ground to continue defense operations.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said Russian forces had taken full control of Severodonetsk and the nearby town of Borevsky.
Shortly afterwards, Ukrainian shelling from outside Severodonetsk forced Russian forces to suspend evacuating people from a chemical plant there, TASS news agency quoted local police working with Russian separatist authorities as saying.
Oleksiy Aristovich, Zelensky’s chief adviser, said some Ukrainian special forces were still in Severodonetsk directing artillery fire. But he did not refer to those forces that carried out any direct resistance. Read more
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a representative of the pro-Russian separatist fighters as saying that Russian and pro-Russian forces had entered Lyschansk and were fighting in urban areas there. Read more
Russia has also launched missile strikes across Ukraine. The local regional military administration said at least three people were killed in the town of Sarny, about 185 miles (300 km) west of Kyiv, after missiles hit a car wash and a car repair facility.
Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes.
In their quest to tighten the screws on Russia, US President Joe Biden and G7 leaders who will attend a summit in Germany starting on Sunday will agree to ban new gold imports from Russia, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. Read more
A German government source said the G7 governments also had “very constructive” talks on a possible price ceiling for Russian oil imports. Read more
‘It was horror’
In the Ukraine-controlled Donbass town of Pokrovsk, Elena, an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Lyschansk, was among dozens of evacuees who arrived from front-line districts.
“Lisechansk, it was terrifying last week. Yesterday we couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said. “I already told my husband if I died, please bury me behind the house.”
As Europe’s largest ground conflict since World War II enters its fifth month, Russian missiles have also rained down on the western, northern and southern parts of the country.
“48 cruise missiles. At night. Across Ukraine,” an adviser to Ukrainian President Mikhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, causing panic.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border on February 24, sparking a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions. It also caused an energy and food crisis that shook the global economy.
Since the defeat of Russian forces in an attack on the capital, Kyiv, in March, they have shifted their focus to Donbass, an eastern region consisting of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the last major Ukrainian strongholds of Luhansk.
The Russians crossed the river forcefully in recent days and were advancing towards Lysychansk, threatening to encircle the Ukrainians in the area.
Russia is likely to view the capture of Severodonetsk as justification for its shift from its early failed attempt at “lightning war” to a relentless and grinding offensive in the East.
Moscow says Luhansk and Donetsk, where it has supported the uprisings since 2014, are independent states. Ukraine is demanding the ceding of the two provinces entirely to the separatists.
Ukrainian officials never held much hope of retaining Severodonetsk, but they sought to reap a price high enough to exhaust the Russian army.
Ukrainian General Valery Zaluzhny wrote on Telegram that the newly arrived advanced HIMARS missile systems supplied by the United States are now hitting targets in the areas occupied by Russia. Read more
The war had a major impact on the global economy and European security, driving up gas, oil, and food prices, pushing the European Union to reduce dependence on Russian energy and pushing Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
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Additional reporting from the offices of Max Hander, Alessandra Prentice and Reuters; Writing by Madeline Chambers, Peter Graf and Matt Spitalnick; Editing by Peter Graf and Alistair Bell
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