Russia claims capture of pivotal city in eastern Ukraine

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In this photo provided by the Luhansk region military administration, damaged residential buildings are seen in Lysychansk, Luhansk region, Ukraine, early Sunday, July 3, 2022. Russian forces pounded the city of Lysychansk and its surroundings in an all-out attempt to seize the last stronghold of resistance in eastern Ukraine's Luhansk province, the governor said Saturday. A presidential adviser said its fate would be decided within the next two days. (Luhansk region military administration via AP)
Demolished residential buildings in Lysychansk, Ukraine, early Sunday. (Associated Press)

Russia claimed control Sunday over the last Ukrainian stronghold in an eastern province that is key to achieving a major goal of its invasion. But Ukraine's president said the fight for the city of Lysychansk was ongoing.

If confirmed, a Russian seizure of Luhansk province would provide its forces a stronger base to capture Donetsk, the other province that makes up the Donbas, one of Russia's main targets in the war.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russia’s troops, with members of a local separatist militia, “have established full control over the city of Lysychansk” and now hold all of Luhansk, according to a ministry statement published Sunday.

As is typical with such descriptions, the Russian statement characterized the victories as “the liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic.” Separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, which have significant Russian-speaking populations, declared independence from Kyiv. Russia recognized their independence earlier this year ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Russian forces have fought fiercely for Lysychansk in recent days after neighboring Sievierodoentsk fell last week.

“We cannot give you the final judgment. Lysychansk is still being fought for,” Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said at a news conference Sunday alongside Australia's visiting prime minister.

He said Ukrainian forces were still battling Russia’s soldiers on the city’s outskirts and that territory can move quickly from one side to the other.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelensky, had predicted late Saturday that Lysychansk's fate could be determined within days.

If Russia prevails in the Donbas, Ukraine would lose not only land — a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 — but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, opening the way for Moscow to grab more territory and strengthen its ability to dictate terms to Kyiv.

Already, Russian forces have concentrated rocket attacks on the sizable Ukrainian-held city of Slovyansk in Donetsk. New attacks were reported in the city Sunday. At least six people were killed, regional government spokeswoman Tatyana Ignatchenko told Ukrainian TV.

Kramatorsk, another major city in the Donetsk region, also came under fire, the regional administration said.

Far from the fighting in the east, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Sunday visited a town near the capital that was severely damaged early in the war. Albanese called the destruction in Irpin “devastating."

"These are homes and these are livelihoods and indeed lives that have been lost here in this town,” he said.

Attacks were also reported inside Russia in a revival of sporadic apparent Ukrainian strikes across the border. The governor of the Belgorod region in Western Russia said fragments of an intercepted Ukrainian missile killed four people Sunday. In the Russian city of Kursk, two Ukrainian drones were shot down, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Kursk regional governor Roman Starovoit said the town of Tetkino, on the Ukraine border, came under mortar fire.

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

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

The leader of neighboring 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 defense 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 Russian President Vladimir 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.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.