After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces will withdraw from a besieged city in the country’s east to avoid encirclement, a regional governor said on Friday.
The city of Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, has faced relentless Russian bombardment. Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to a huge chemical factory on the outskirts of the city, where they hid in its sprawling underground structures.
In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring town of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across the river, in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Ukrainian troops were ordered to leave Sievierodonetsk to prevent that.
“We’re going to have to withdraw our guys,” he said. “There is no point in staying in the destroyed positions, because the number of casualties in poorly fortified areas will grow every day.”
Haidai said Ukrainian forces “were ordered to withdraw to new positions and continue fighting there,” but did not elaborate.
He said the Russians were also advancing towards Lysychansk from Zolote and Toshkivka, adding that Russian reconnaissance units raided the edges of the city but were pushed back by its defenders.
The governor added that a bridge on a highway leading to Lysychansk was badly damaged in a Russian airstrike and made unusable for trucks. The claim could not be independently verified.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Friday that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of “foreign mercenaries” totaling some 2,000 soldiers had been “completely blocked” near Hirske and Zolote, south of Lysychansk.
Following a failed attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in the initial stage of the invasion that began on February 24, Russian forces shifted their focus to the Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian-backed separatists. Moscow since 2014.
The Russian military controls about 95% of Luhansk province and about half of neighboring Donetsk province, the two areas that make up the Donbas.
After repeated requests to its Western allies for heavier weaponry to counter Russia’s advantage in firepower, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said an answer had come in the form of US medium-range rocket launchers.
A US defense official confirmed on Wednesday that the promised four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, were in the hands of Ukrainian forces, but said it was unclear if they had already been used.
The United States approved providing the precision-guided systems in late May, and once they were in the region, Ukraine forces needed about three weeks of training to operate them. The rockets can travel about 45 miles.
The United States will send an additional $450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including four more medium-range rocket systems, ammunition and other supplies, US officials announced Thursday.