Russian forces have occupied Severodonetsk, the mayor of the eastern Ukrainian city said, confirming Ukraine’s worst battlefield setback for more than a month after weeks of fighting to preserve the strategic city and the latest symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Russian missiles also rained down on the country’s western, northern, and southern parts on Saturday as Europe’s biggest land conflict since World War II entered its fifth month.
The fall of Severodonetsk — once home to more than 100,000 people, now reduced to a wasteland of rubble by Russian artillery — is Moscow’s biggest victory since the capture of the port of Mariupol last month.
The city’s fall transformed the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s massive advantage in firepower had so far yielded only slow gains.
“The city is now completely occupied by Russia,” the city’s mayor, Oleksandr Stryuk, said on national television. He told anyone left behind could no longer reach the Ukrainian-occupied territory as the town was cut off.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine’s attempt to turn the chemical plant in Azot into another center of resistance had been thwarted.
“As a result of successful offensive operations, units of the LPR. People’s Militia have [Luhansk People’s Republic]with the support of Russian troops … completely liberated the cities of Severodonetsk and Borivske,” he said.
The head of Ukrainian military intelligence described the city’s fall as a means for Ukrainian troops to regroup from Severodonetsk to higher ground in neighboring Lysychansk.
“The activities in the Severodonetsk area are a tactical regrouping of our forces. This is a withdrawal to advantageous positions to gain a tactical advantage,” said Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Defense Intelligence Service at the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.
“Russia is using the tactic… that it used in Mariupol: to wipe the city off the face of the earth,” he said.
“Given the circumstances, holding the defenses in the ruins and open fields is no longer possible. So the Ukrainian troops are moving to higher ground to continue the defense operations.”
Russia now hopes to go ahead and gain more ground across the Siverskyi Donets River, where Severodonetsk’s sister city Lysychansk is located.
Ukraine will also hope that the price Moscow paid to take the ruins of Severodonetsk will leave Russian forces vulnerable to a counter-attack in the coming weeks.
Lysychansk and Severodonetsk were the focal point of Russian offensives aimed at capturing the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and destroying the Ukrainian army that defended it – the most capable and battle-hardened segment of the armed forces of the United States. Country.
The two cities and the surrounding areas are the last major Ukrainian hotbeds of resistance in Luhansk province, 95 percent of which is under Russian and local separatist control. Russians and separatist forces also control about half of Donetsk, the second-largest area in the Donbas.
The capture of Severodonetsk will likely be seen by Russia as justifying its move from its early, failed attempt at “lightning warfare” to a relentless, devastating offensive using massive artillery in the east.
The withdrawal from Severodonetsk also brings Moscow close to full control of Luhansk.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford report from the capital Kyiv said the withdrawal from Severodonetsk puts Ukrainian forces in control of only one remaining city in Luhansk.
“The big question is whether the Ukrainians can hold on to Luhansk. After seemingly losing control of Severodonetsk, there is only one town left in the Luhansk region that Ukrainian forces still control,” Stratford said.
“This is fundamentally described as the possibly biggest defeat for Ukrainian armed forces since Mariupol last month,” he said.
Ukrainian officials said they were withdrawing troops from Severodonetsk to avoid being surrounded by the Russians, who had crossed the river with great force in recent days and were advancing towards Lysychansk on the other side. Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk, said Russian troops had tried to enter and block Lysychansk.
Moscow says that Luhansk and Donetsk, which have supported the uprisings since 2014, are independent countries and that Ukraine has demanded that the entire territory of the two provinces be ceded to separatist governments.
Ukraine’s top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, wrote in the Telegram app on Saturday that the newly arrived US-supplied advanced HIMARS missile systems were now deployed and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts Ukraine.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, governors of western and northern regions reported multiple rocket attacks, indicating that Russia was not limiting its attack to eastern areas.
“48 cruise missiles. ‘at night. All over Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, spread panic, and scare people.”
48 🇷🇺 cruise missiles. ‘at night. Throughout Ukraine. For civilian purposes only… Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, spread panic, and make people afraid of Z-monsters… Ukraine knows everything and is prepared for anything. And it will punish all evil…
— ихайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) June 25, 2022
The governor of the Lviv region of western Ukraine, Maxim Kozytskyi, said in a video posted online that six rockets were fired from the Black Sea at the Yavoriv base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target, but two were destroyed.
In the north, Vitaliy Bunechko, governor of the Zhytomyr region, said at least one soldier was killed in attacks on a military target, adding that nearly ten missiles had been intercepted and destroyed.
In the south, Oleksandr Senkevych, mayor of Mykolaiv near the Black Sea, said five cruise missiles hit the city and nearby areas on Saturday.
The number of victims is being clarified, and there was no independent confirmation of the various reports.
‘Belarus as a fellow combatant.’
In another potentially significant development, Ukraine said it had come under “large-scale bombardment” early Saturday morning from neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally not officially involved in the conflict.
Twenty rockets “fired from the territory of Belarus and the air” were aimed at the village of Desna in the northern Chernigiv region, Ukraine’s Northern Military Command said. It said infrastructure was affected, but no casualties had yet been reported.
“Today’s strike is directly related to the Kremlin’s efforts to involve Belarus as a combatant in the war in Ukraine,” Ukraine’s intelligence agency said.
Ukraine’s air command also said Russian Tu-22 bombers were deployed from Belarus for the first time. Belarus is home to Russian military units and was used as a staging area before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but its troops have not yet crossed the border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday afternoon that Moscow would send Belarus missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads within months.
“We will transfer Iskander-M tactical missile systems, which can use ballistic or cruise missiles, in their conventional and nuclear versions to Belarus,” he said, meeting his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in St. Petersburg.