Vladimir Putin has ordered his top generals to carry on their advance towards western parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk province after the Russian army captured the country’s far eastern Luhansk region at the weekend.
The Russian president was speaking at the Kremlin on Monday as Ukrainian forces retreated from Lysychansk, the last city in the Luhansk region that was under Kyiv’s control. A week earlier, Ukrainian forces had pulled out of Severodonetsk, a nearby city across the Siversky Donets river following months of fierce battles.
The seizure marks the first time Russia has conquered an entire Ukrainian province since starting a full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February. Moscow, along with its proxy separatist forces, has controlled large parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that form Donbas since it fomented a breakaway conflict soon after it annexed Crimea in 2014.
The battles will now shift to large cities Ukraine still controls in the Donetsk region to the west of Lysychansk — namely Bakhmut, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
“The units that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victories in the Luhansk direction, of course, should rest, increase their combat capabilities,” Putin was quoted in a Kremlin statement.
“And other military formations . . . must carry out their tasks according to a previously approved plan, according to a single plan.”
Putin has justified the invasion of Ukraine as an operation to “liberate” the two internationally unrecognised “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, which Kyiv and its western backers say are puppets of Moscow.
After failing to capture Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv, Russia’s army has focused on gaining more ground in Donbas through heavy artillery bombardments.
Ukraine has meanwhile retaken some territory in southern coastal regions north of Crimea, notably around Kherson. It is a provincial capital of the southern Kherson region which — along with Zaporizhia to the east — Russian forces have not yet fully conquered.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration on Monday defended the retreat from Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, saying that the preservation of troops that faced encirclement was vital to future operations.
“The defence of the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration has been a successful military operation,” Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser in Zelenskyy’s office, said in a Telegram post.
He described the battles in Lysychansk and Severodonetsk as successful in bogging down Russia’s invading army and inflicting high costs until more western weaponry needed for a Ukrainian counter-offensive is supplied.
Ukrainian officials say more than 34,000 Russian troops have perished in the war and that thousands of military vehicles and equipment including planes and helicopters have been destroyed. Zelenskyy has said the attritional battles over Donbas are claiming the lives of 100 to 200 Ukrainian troops each day in recent weeks. Ukrainian and Russian military claims could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian forces had succeeded in achieving set-out objectives by holding out in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk longer than expected, Arestovych insisted.
“The main tasks were: to pin down the main enemy forces; inflict losses on them; buy time for the supply of western weapons and improve the second line of defence; to create conditions for our offensive operations in other sectors of the front,” he said.
Outgunned and outnumbered by Russia’s army, Ukrainian forces needed to be “cunning and manoeuvrable” to win a protracted war, he added.