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Russia claims capture of Lysychansk, pivotal city in Eastern Ukraine

Russia’s defence minister said Russian forces took control Sunday of the last major Ukrainian-held city in Luhansk province, which would bring Moscow closer to its stated goal of seizing all of Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russia’s troops, together with members of a local separatist militia, “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk,” a ministry statement said.

Taking Lysychansk constitutes “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” one of two separatist regions in Ukraine that Russia recognizes as sovereign, the statement said.

Ukrainian fighters spent weeks trying to defend Lysychansk and to keep it from falling to Russia, as neighbouring Severodonetsk did a week ago. A presidential adviser predicted late Saturday that the city’s fate could be determined within days.

Ukrainian officials did not immediately provide an update on its status.

Earlier Sunday, Luhansk’s governor said Russian forces were strengthening their positions in a gruelling fight to capture the last stronghold of resistance in the province.

‘They are gaining a foothold’

“The occupiers threw all their forces on Lysychansk. They attacked the city with incomprehensibly cruel tactics,” Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app. “They suffer significant losses, but stubbornly advance. They are gaining a foothold in the city.”

A river separates Lysychansk from Severodonetsk. Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said during an online interview late Saturday that Russian forces had managed for the first time to cross the river from the north, creating a “threatening” situation.

Russia intensifies attacks on Lysychansk

Russian-backed separatists claim that the Ukrainian city of Lysychansk is surrounded despite denials from Ukrainian officials.

Arestovych said they had not reached the centre of the city but that the course of the fighting indicated the battle for Lysychansk would be decided by Monday.

Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up the Donbas, where Russia has focused its offensive since pulling back from northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, in the spring.

Pro-Russia separatists have held portions of both eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. Syria’s government said Wednesday that it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two areas.

An occupation of Lysychansk would open the way for the Russians to move west into Donetsk province, where the sizable Ukrainian-held city of Slovyansk has come under rocket attacks several times since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Elsewhere in the war, the exiled mayor of the Russia-occupied southern city of Melitopol said Sunday that Ukrainian rockets destroyed one of four Russian military bases in the city.

Russia says missiles fired at Belgorod

The Russian Defence Ministry said Ukraine also launched missile and drone attacks on the cities of Kursk and Belgorod in western Russia, but that the aerial weapons were shot down. Roman Starovoit, Kursk’s regional governor, said the town of Tetkino, on the Ukraine border, came under mortar fire.

As a result of the Ukrainian missiles being hit, the wreckage of one of them fell on a residential building in Belgorod, some 40 kilometres north of the border with Ukraine, said Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov.

Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, said four people were killed Sunday by fragments of an intercepted missile.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said two Ukrainian drones were shot down over the city of Kursk, 190 kilometres north of Belgorod.

Rescue specialists work at the site of a destroyed residential building after blasts were reported in Belgorod, Russia, on Sunday. (Alexey Stopichev/BelPressa/Reuters)

The leader of neighbouring Belarus, a Russian ally, claimed Saturday that Ukraine fired missiles at military targets on Belarusian territory several days ago but all were intercepted by an air defence system. President Alexander Lukashenko described the alleged strike as a provocation and noted that no Belarusian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine.

There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian military.

Belarus hosts Russian military units and was used as a staging ground for Russia’s invasion. Last week, just hours before Lukashenko was to meet with Putin, Russian long-range bombers fired missiles on Ukraine from Belarusian airspace for the first time.

Lukashenko has so far resisted efforts to draw his army into the war. But during their meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko that his government depends on economic support from Russia.

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