Smoke rises after a military attack on a complex of the Azot Chemical Plant of Sievierodonetsk.
Oleksandr Ratushniak | Reuters
Russia launched air strikes and artillery on the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk on Saturday, hitting a chemical factory where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official said.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked the industrial area of Sievierodentsk and also tried to enter and blockade Lysychansk.
“There has been an air strike in Lysychansk. Sievierodonetsk has been hit by artillery fire,” Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd among other places were hit by artillery. size.
He did not mention casualties at the Azot chemical plant and Reuters could not immediately verify the information.
Gaidai said 17 people were evacuated from Lysychansk on Friday by police officers, rescuers and volunteers.
Ukraine said on Friday that its troops had been ordered to withdraw from Sievierodentsk, a key battleground city, as there were few defensive forces left after weeks of intense fighting.
“In the last (several) days, an operation has been conducted to withdraw our troops,” Kharatin Starskyi, a press officer with a National Guard brigade, said on Saturday.
Starskyi, who was already in Sievierodonetsk, told morning television that the flow of information about the withdrawal had been delayed in order to protect troops on the ground. The withdrawal marks the biggest reversal for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.
News of Friday’s withdrawal comes four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops to the border, sparking a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions. and reduced the entire city to rubble.
The latest Russian advances appear to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow’s stated war goals, and set the stage for Lysychansk to become the next battleground.
Vitaly Kiselev, an official in the Interior Ministry of the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic – recognized only by Russia – told Russia’s TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to ensure full control of Lysychansk.
Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance supported by Western weapons.
Since then, Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and the Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in several ground skirmishes. the heaviest in Europe since World War II.
On Saturday, Russia again launched missile attacks on military and civilian infrastructure in the north near Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv to Sievierodonetsk in the east, the General Staff said. Ukrainian armed forces said.
Several regional governors reported shelling attacks on towns across Ukraine on Saturday.
Russia denies targeting civilians, but Kyiv and the West argue that Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.
Ukraine on Friday again pushed for more arms purchases, with its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling his American counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed an “equal relationship” with Moscow to stabilize the situation in Luhansk.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said that in the south of Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian troops had also withdrawn from the towns of Hirske and Zolote in the face of overwhelming Russian forces.
He said that the Ukrainian military learned the hard lesson of trying to defend positions at all costs during battles with pro-Russian forces in 2014.
“Now, for the first time, we have the precedent that our boys withdraw in an orderly fashion,” he said in an online video post.
Ukraine’s foreign minister downplayed the potential loss of more territory in the Donbas.
“Putin wants to take Donbas on May 9. We (there) on June 24 and are still fighting. Withdrawing from a few battles does not mean losing the battle,” Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview. with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said in a statement late Friday: “Ukrainian forces will likely maintain defenses around Lysychansk and continued to exhaust the Russian army after the fall of Sievierodonetsk”.
It said Ukrainian forces would likely take a higher position in Lysychansk, which could repel Russian attacks, and that Russian forces would need to cross the river from Sievierodonetsk, which would require more time. and effort.
On Friday, Ukraine’s General Staff said its troops had achieved some success in the southern Kherson region, forcing Russian troops to withdraw from defensive positions near the village of Olhine, in a counterattack. Ukraine’s latest.
Russia says it has sent troops into Ukraine to degrade its southern neighbor’s military capabilities and eliminate what it calls dangerous nationalists.
Ukraine, which says Russia has waged an imperialist land grab, this week won renewed support from the West.
The war has had a major impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, raising the prices of gas, oil and food, pushing the EU to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy and led Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
The West has imposed an unprecedented package of sanctions on Russia, its leading companies and its business and political elites in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
In a major sign of support, European Union leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal candidacy to join the bloc – a decision Russia said on Friday was subject to the EU’s “subjugation”. “neighboring countries.