Russia has taken control of Lysychansk, the last city in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine that was still under Ukrainian control.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the military had taken over Lysychansk and a number of nearby settlements on Sunday, according to the country’s Ministry of Defense.
Ukraine’s military announced Sunday that it had been “forced to withdraw” from the critical city.
In his nightly televised address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the retreat from Lysychansk was motivated to save the lives of Ukrainian troops.
“We will rebuild the walls, we will win back the land, and people must be protected above all else,” he said.
Luhansk is one of the two regions that form Donbas, the eastern part of Ukraine where the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists started in 2014. The area has became the key centerpiece of Putin’s military ambition in Ukraine after his troops failed to take over Kyiv earlier this year.
The fall of Lysychansk shifts Russia closer to achieving the goal of taking over Donbas.
“After heavy fighting for Lysychansk, the Defense Forces of Ukraine were forced to withdraw from their occupied positions and lines,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Sunday on Twitter.
Accompanying the announcement was a photo that read: “Lysychansk: We’ll be back.”
A Facebook post by the Ukrainian military also cited Russian superiority in weapons, ammunition and personnel in the battle for the city.
“We continue the fight. Unfortunately, steel will and patriotism are not enough for success - material and technical resources are needed,” that post read.
Pro-Russia separatists in the area had already claimed a victory in the battle over Lysychansk.
Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), declared the Luhansk region “liberated.”
“Today is the day we have accomplished what we all have been striving to for eight long years. Today our troops, with the support of the Russian armed forces, liberated the town of Lysychansk, thus completing the liberation of the Republic within its historic borders,” Pasechnik said.
Only Russia and Syria recognize the LPR as independent. Ukraine and its western allies consider it part of the Ukrainian territory, currently under Russian occupation.
Video shared by Russian state news outlet Ria Novosti on Saturday purports to show residents installing he old Soviet Union flag at the Memorial to the Memory of the Fallen in Lysychansk.
The Institute for the Study of War said Russia will likely establish control over the remaining territory of Luhansk region in coming days. After that, the institute said in its latest update, Russian troops will likely focus on Ukrainian positions in Siversk, west of Lysychansk, before turning inland to Sloviansk and Bakhmut.
The Donetsk region military administration said Sunday that Russian forces continued shelling Slovyansk and Bakhmut.
At least six people have died and 15 were injured in Sloviansk on Sunday, according to Tetiana Tiurina, the head of the Public Information and Communication Department of Donetsk region.
The city of Kramatorsk was also hit with three missile strikes Sunday morning but there were no casualties, according to Ukraine’s Donetsk Regional Military Administration.
Zelensky said the cities of the Luhansk region were “the epicenter” of the hostilities. In his nightly address on Saturday, Zelensky acknowledged that more than 2,600 Ukrainian cities and towns were under Russian control.
“The Russian army continued to fire missiles at our cities,” Zelensky said, urging people to “help the army, help volunteers, help everyone who was left alone at this time” and to use their contacts to “spread the truth about the war and about the crimes of the occupiers on our land.”