By Ivana Kottasová, Yulia Kesaieva, Hannah Ritchie, Mariya Knight, Radina Gigova and Jonny Hallam, CNN
Russia has taken control of Lysychansk, the last city in the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine that was still under Ukrainian control.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the military had taken over Lysychansk and a number of nearby settlements on Sunday, according to the country’s Ministry of Defense.
Ukraine’s military announced Sunday that it had been “forced to withdraw” from the critical city.
In his nightly televised address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the retreat from Lysychansk was motivated to save the lives of Ukrainian troops.
“We will rebuild the walls, we will win back the land, and people must be protected above all else,” he said.
Luhansk is one of the two regions that form Donbas, the eastern part of Ukraine where the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists started in 2014. The area has became the key centerpiece of Putin’s military ambition in Ukraine after his troops failed to take over Kyiv earlier this year.
The fall of Lysychansk shifts Russia closer to achieving the goal of taking over Donbas.
“After heavy fighting for Lysychansk, the Defense Forces of Ukraine were forced to withdraw from their occupied positions and lines,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Sunday on Twitter.
Accompanying the announcement was a photo that read: “Lysychansk: We’ll be back.”
A Facebook post by the Ukrainian military also cited Russian superiority in weapons, ammunition and personnel in the battle for the city.
“We continue the fight. Unfortunately, steel will and patriotism are not enough for success – material and technical resources are needed,” that post read.
Pro-Russia separatists in the area had already claimed a victory in the battle over Lysychansk.
Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), declared the Luhansk region “liberated.”
“Today is the day we have accomplished what we all have been striving to for eight long years. Today our troops, with the support of the Russian armed forces, liberated the town of Lysychansk, thus completing the liberation of the Republic within its historic borders,” Pasechnik said.
Only Russia and Syria recognize the LPR as independent. Ukraine and its western allies consider it part of the Ukrainian territory, currently under Russian occupation.
Video shared by Russian state news outlet Ria Novosti on Saturday purports to show residents installing he old Soviet Union flag at the Memorial to the Memory of the Fallen in Lysychansk.
The Institute for the Study of War said Russia will likely establish control over the remaining territory of Luhansk region in coming days. After that, the institute said in its latest update, Russian troops will likely focus on Ukrainian positions in Siversk, west of Lysychansk, before turning inland to Sloviansk and Bakhmut.
The Donetsk region military administration said Sunday that Russian forces continued shelling Slovyansk and Bakhmut.
At least six people have died and 15 were injured in Sloviansk on Sunday, according to Tetiana Tiurina, the head of the Public Information and Communication Department of Donetsk region.
The city of Kramatorsk was also hit with three missile strikes Sunday morning but there were no casualties, according to Ukraine’s Donetsk Regional Military Administration.
Zelensky said the cities of the Luhansk region were “the epicenter” of the hostilities. In his nightly address on Saturday, Zelensky acknowledged that more than 2,600 Ukrainian cities and towns were under Russian control.
“The Russian army continued to fire missiles at our cities,” Zelensky said, urging people to “help the army, help volunteers, help everyone who was left alone at this time” and to use their contacts to “spread the truth about the war and about the crimes of the occupiers on our land.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine forces said they destroyed a Russian military base in the occupied Melitopol in southern Ukraine early Sunday morning, the city’s exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said in a video address.
Melitopol fell to Russian control in early March, weeks into the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to Fedorov, Ukrainian troops filed “more than 30 shots exclusively at the military base,” rendering it “unable to function.”
“Now the whole city is covered in smoke. This has been going on for three to four hours. Warehouses on the territory of the transport aviation base are burning,” Fedorov added.
The head of the Russia-installed council in the Zaporizhzhia region, Evgeny Balitsky, said in a Telegram post Sunday that “shells fell on the territory on the airfield” and that “there were no casualties.”
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti also confirmed the attack, reporting that Ukraine had hit the Aviagorodok area of Melitopol, but did not specify what had been targeted.
Russia and Belarus claim Ukrainian strikes against their territory
The Russian Defense Ministry also claimed on Sunday that the Ukrainian military launched “a deliberate strike” on residential areas of the Russian cities of Belgorod and Kursk.
The ministry’s spokesperson Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement that Ukrainian forces targeted the cities with Tochka-U ballistic missiles with cluster munitions and drones.
He said three ballistic missiles launched at Belgorod were destroyed by Russian air defense systems in the air, adding that the wreckage of one of the missiles fell on a residential building in the city.
Konashenkov also claimed Russian air defense systems destroyed two Ukrainian military drones as they approached the city of Kursk, about 130 km (80 miles) north of Belgorod.
CNN has been unable to independently confirm those claims and the Ukrainian military has not yet commented on the strikes.
The governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov said in a statement posted on his Telegram channel that at least three people were killed, and dozens of residential buildings were damaged by explosions early on Sunday morning.
Separately, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday accused Ukraine of launching a missile attack against military facilities on his country two days earlier.
In remarks published on the presidential website on Saturday, Lukashenko said Belarusian forces intercepted the missiles. However, he did not provide any evidence of Ukraine’s alleged attack.
Ukraine’s military did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment on Lukashenko’s claims.
Lukashenko, Putin’s key ally in the region, said his country was being dragged into a war with Ukraine and claimed that “not a single Belarusian soldier is fighting on the territory of Ukraine.”
Russian troops launched the invasion on February 24 into Ukraine from Belarus after months amassing manpower and material along Ukraine’s border.
According to intelligence collected by NATO surveillance aircraft and CNN reporting, Belarus’ support for the Russian invasion includes air operations, in addition to ground support.
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CNN’s Julia Presniakova, Oleksandra Ochman, Natasha Bertrand and Zahra Ullah contributed reporting.