Russia said it had taken full control of the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk on Sunday after capturing the final Ukrainian bastion of the city of Lysychansk, where Kyiv said it had withdrawn to save the lives of its troops.
The region's capture, a key Russian war aim, hands Moscow a boost after weeks of slow advances and shifts the battlefield focus to the neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls substantial territory.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russia says it is capturing the Luhansk region in order to give it to the Russian-backed Luhansk People's Republic whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been “liberated”, the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
Ukraine's military command said its forces had been forced to retreat from the city.
“The continuation of the defence of the city would lead to fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw,” it said in a statement on social media.
Ukrainian officials, who say references to “liberating” Ukrainian territory are Russian propaganda, had reported intense artillery barrages on residential areas.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a briefing note.
They based their assessment on footage showing Russian forces walking casually in northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Lysychansk, saying it suggested few or no Ukrainian forces remained. It said the footage included images posted on social media and geolocated to confirm where it was filmed.
West of Lysychansk in the Donetsk region, at least six people were killed when the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was hit by powerful shelling from multiple rocket launchers on Sunday, local officials said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded on February 24, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
While Russia would try to frame its advance in Luhansk as a significant moment in the war, it came at a high cost to Russia's military, said Neil Melvin of the London-based think tank RUSI.
“Ukraine's position was never that they could defend all of this. What they've been trying to do is to slow down the Russian assault and cause maximum damage, while they build up for a counteroffensive,” he said.
Russia's defence ministry also said on Sunday it had struck the military infrastructure of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city in the northeast, where a Reuters reporter said Ukrainian forces had been building fortifications after nightly shelling.
Outside a school in Kharkiv, some residents threw debris into a large crater created by an early morning rocket strike while others got help repairing damaged houses.
“The wife was lucky that she woke up early in the morning because the roof fell exactly where she had been sleeping,” one resident, Oleksii Mihulin, told Reuters.
About 70 kilometres from Kharkiv on the Russian side of the border, Russia also reported explosions on Sunday in Belgorod, which it said killed at least three people and destroyed homes.
“The sound was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming,” a Belgorod resident told Reuters, adding the blasts occurred around 3am.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Previously, Kyiv has said such incidents as payback for Russia pounding Ukrainian urban areas into rubble.
Military base hit
Ukraine said its airforce had flown some 15 sorties “in virtually all directions of hostilities”, destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military logistics base with more than 30 strikes on Sunday, the city's exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said.
A Russian-installed official confirmed that strikes had hit the city.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Ukraine has repeatedly appealed for an acceleration in weapons supplies from the West, saying its forces are heavily outgunned.
Speaking on a visit to Kyiv, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government would provide Ukraine with additional armoured vehicles, as well as tightening sanctions against Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told broadcaster ARD that Germany was discussing with its allies security guarantees for Ukraine after the war, though it was clear these would “not be the same as if someone were a member of Nato”.