Ukrainian troops have “almost abandoned” Sievierodonetsk after weeks of heavy fighting against Russian forces, the eastern city’s mayor said on Saturday, marking the biggest setback for Ukraine since losing the port of Mariupol in May.

The withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk, if confirmed, would bring Moscow closer to full control of Lugansk, with Ukrainian troops in the province largely holding out only in Sievierodonetsk’s twin city of Lysychansk, across the Siverskyi Donets River.

“Unfortunately, they have almost abandoned the city,” Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television. He would not confirm whether a full pullout was underway after regional authorities said Friday that Ukraine was ready to withdraw its troops from there.

Ukrainian soldiers inspect a destroyed warehouse
Ukrainian soldiers inspect a destroyed warehouse reportedly attacked by Russian troops on the outskirts of Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk’s twin city, on June 17, 2022.Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images archive

The pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper Izvestia said one of its correspondents had arrived in Sievierodonetsk’s Azot industrial zone, where Ukrainian forces had been holding out in recent weeks.

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechnya region, which has troops fighting alongside regular Russian army units in Ukraine, said on social media on Saturday that the Sievierodonetsk industrial zone and airport had been “fully liberated.”

Russia is likely to see the capture of Sievierodonetsk as vindication of its switch from its first failed “blitzkrieg” attempt to a slower offensive that relies more on long-range bombardment.

Moscow has recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as independent countries and has demanded that Ukraine cede the entire territory of the two provinces to breakaway administrations.

Kharatin Starskyi, the press officer of a Ukrainian National Guard brigade, said on television on Saturday that the flow of information about the Sievierodonetsk withdrawal had been delayed to protect troops on the ground.

“During the last (several) days, an operation was carried out to withdraw our troops,” Starskyi said.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked the Sievierodonetsk industrial zone on Friday and also tried to enter and blockade Lysychansk.

Missile attacks in the west and north

Elsewhere in Ukraine, governors of the western and northern regions reported multiple missile strikes, indicating that Russia was not limiting its attack to eastern territories.

“48 cruise missiles. In the evening. Throughout Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people afraid.”

The governor of the Lviv region in western Ukraine, Maxim Kozytskyi, said in a video posted online that six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at the Yavoriv base near the Polish border. Four hit the target but two were destroyed.

In the north, Vitaliy Bunechko, governor of the Zhytomyr region, said attacks on a military target killed at least one soldier, adding that almost 10 missiles had been intercepted and destroyed.

In the south, Oleksandr Senkevych, mayor of Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, said five cruise missiles hit the city and nearby areas on Saturday. The number of casualties was becoming clear.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the various reports.

Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.

Western support for Ukraine

Ukraine’s top general Valeriy Zaluzhnyy wrote on the Telegram app on Saturday that US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems are now operational and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies are expected to show long-term support for Ukraine and discuss how to tighten the screws on Russia at a three-day summit in Germany starting on Sunday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will attend, said he feared Ukraine could face pressure to reach a peace deal with Russia and that the consequences of Putin getting his way in Ukraine would be dangerous for international security.

In a major sign of support, European Union leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal bid to join the bloc, a move Russia said on Friday amounted to “enslaving” neighboring countries by the EU.

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