KYIV: Ukraine's forces have withdrawn from the bombed-out city of Lysychansk, prompting Russia to claim full control of the eastern Luhansk region, a key Kremlin war goal, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed to regain the lost territory.
Ukraine on Sunday (Jul 3) said the tactical withdrawal would save the lives of its soldiers who would regroup, to launch a counter offensive with the help of long-range Western weapons.
But Moscow said the capture of Lysychansk less than a week after taking neighbouring Sievierdonetsk meant it had "liberated" Luhansk. It said it will give Luhansk to the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People's Republic whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
The battlefield focus now shifts to the neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls swathes of territory.
"If the commanders of our army withdraw people from certain points at the front, where the enemy has the greatest advantage in firepower, and this also applies to Lysychansk, it means only one thing," Zelenskyy said in his nightly video on Sunday.
"That we will return thanks to our tactics, thanks to the increase in the supply of modern weapons."
Zelenskyy said Russia was concentrating its firepower on the Donbas front, but Ukraine would hit back with long-range weapons such as the US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers.
"The fact that we protect the lives of our soldiers, our people, plays an equally important role. We will rebuild the walls, we will win back the land, and people must be protected above all else," Zelenskyy said.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been "liberated", the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
In Sloviansk, west of Lysychansk in Donetsk region, Mayor Vadym Lyakh wrote on Facebook that on Sunday fierce shelling had killed at least six people, including a 10-year-old girl.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded on Feb 24, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
The Ukraine war has sparked a global energy and food crisis and Western-led sanctions against Moscow have triggered the worst economic crisis in Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
Germany has warned of gas shortages due to dwindling supplies from Russia. The head of its energy regulator said the €15 billion (US$15.64 billion) of government credit to buy gas for storage may not be enough, according to an interview in the WirtschaftsWoche magazine on Monday.
While Russia would try to frame its advance in Luhansk as a significant moment in the war, it came at a high cost to Russia's military, said Neil Melvin of the London-based think tank RUSI.
"Ukraine's position was never that they could defend all of this. What they've been trying to do is to slow down the Russian assault and cause maximum damage, while they build up for a counteroffensive," he said.
Ukraine has repeatedly appealed for an acceleration in weapons supplies from the West, saying its forces are heavily outgunned.
STRIKES ON KHARKIV
Zelenskyy's office said Russian artillery strikes hit residential and farm buildings in the Kharkiv region.
Russia's defence ministry also said on Sunday it had struck the military infrastructure of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city in the northeast, where a Reuters reporter said Ukrainian forces had been building fortifications after nightly shelling.
Outside a school in Kharkiv, some residents threw debris into a large crater created by an early morning rocket strike while others got help repairing damaged houses.
"The wife was lucky that she woke up early in the morning because the roof fell exactly where she had been sleeping," one resident, Oleksii Mihulin, told Reuters.
About 70km from Kharkiv on the Russian side of the border, Russia also reported explosions on Sunday in Belgorod, which it said killed at least three people and destroyed homes.
"The sound was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming," a Belgorod resident told Reuters, adding the blasts occurred around 3am.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Kyiv has never claimed responsibility for any of these incidents.
MILITARY BASE HIT
Ukraine said its air force had flown about 15 sorties "in virtually all directions of hostilities", destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military logistics base with more than 30 strikes on Sunday, the city's exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said. A Russian-installed official confirmed that strikes had hit the city.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.