Russia claims it now has control of Ukraine's Luhansk Region, one of two eastern regions that were the focal point of its invasion.
This announcement was made after Ukrainian troops pulled out of Lysychansk (an industrial city that was the last major Ukrainian-controlled area in the region).
According to a statement by Russia's defense ministry, Russian troops and a Russian-backed militia "have taken full control" of the city. It is "the liberation and the maintenance of the Luhansk People's Republic," according to the statement, which used the separatists' name as a reference to the self-proclaimed breakaway country.
For months, Ukrainian troops had defended this area of Luhansk from Russian troops, first in Sievierodonetsk and then in Lysychansk. According to the General Staff of Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Russian troops were pressing in on all three sides. They faced danger of being encircled and fled to the east.
"Continuing to defend the city would have had fatal consequences." The decision to withdraw was taken to protect the lives of Ukrainian defenders," the armed forces stated in a Facebook statement.
According to Ukrainian officials, the Russians were superior in many aspects of the battle, including artillery, air force, ammunition, and personnel.
Lysychansk, Ukraine's easternmost region, had been made the last major Ukrainian city after the fall of Sievierodonetsk. Serhiy Haidai (the exiled Luhansk region governor) urged residents to flee the city just a week ago.
Haidai posted on Telegram that the attackers attacked the city using "unexplainably brutal tactics" over the weekend. "If in Sievierodonetsk some houses and administrative structures survived a month of street fighting then in Lysychansk those same administrative buildings were destroyed in a shorter time."
Donetsk and Luhansk are part of eastern Ukraine's Donbas, where violence has been ongoing long before Russia invaded in February. After Russia's illegal annexation in Crimea, 2014 saw the start of fighting between Russian-backed separatists (and Ukrainian forces)
On Feb. 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin set the stage for the full-scale invasion by recognizing separatist-controlled areas in Luhansk and Donetsk as independent and ordering Russian military forces there under what he called a "peacekeeping" mission.
Since then, Russia has refocused its military efforts to eastern Ukraine and reduced its ambitions for invasion. Donbas was the scene of some of the most intense fighting this year.
With Luhansk now largely under Russian control, Donetsk, the next-door region, could be following.
Lysychansk is approximately 50 miles away from the last two Ukrainian-held major cities of Donetsk aEUR” Kramatorsk aEUR” and Slovyansk aEUR” respectively. Other major cities in Donetsk like Mariupol and Kramatorsk aEUR" have been under Russian control or Russian-backed forces for a while.
Slovyansk and Kramatorsk have been subject to Russian bombardment and rocket fire for many months. This includes the April attack on Kramatorsk’s main train station that resulted in the deaths of dozens.
They would fall and the whole Donbas area would be controlled by Russia. This would constitute a victory for Putin in a conflict that has been much longer than expected.
Putin has always valued the Donbas's coal- and steel-producing Donbas. It is home to a majority of Russian-speaking people. Russia would also gain a strategic victory if it captures the entire Donbas, expanding its control in Ukraine's southeast and strengthening the "land link" between Russia and Crimea.