Russia claimed to have seized the entirety of Ukraine’s Luhansk region after weeks of brutal fighting, which if confirmed would hand President Vladimir Putin a significant military achievement more than four months after he launched his invasion.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, reported to Putin on Sunday that Russia’s forces had “liberated” the whole of the region after capturing Lysychansk, Ukraine’s last stronghold in Luhansk, the ministry said.
Ukraine did not immediately confirm Russia had taken control of the city, though officials had warned repeatedly in recent days that it could fall after troops retreated from neighboring Severodonetsk, separated from Lysychansk by a river.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said late on Saturday that the Russian river crossing “threatened” Lysychansk.
“The city is on fire,” Serhiy Haidai, Luhansk’s Ukrainian governor, wrote in a post on social media app Telegram. “The occupiers have likely thrown all their forces at Lysychansk. They attacked the city with incomprehensibly cruel tactics. ”
Haidai said the destruction in Lysychansk was even worse than in Severodonetsk, which was largely levelled during artillery bombardment.
“If some homes and government buildings survived a month of street battles, then those same government buildings were razed to the ground after a short period,” Haidai wrote. He said Russia’s troops were “sustaining significant losses, but stubbornly progressing”.
Pro-Russian social media accounts posted videos showing Chechen troops posing in the center of Lysychansk and a Soviet flag flying from the town hall. The posts were geolocated by open source intelligence and western analysts.
The advance, if confirmed, would mark the first time Russia had established full control over a Ukrainian region since the early weeks of the war in March.
It also puts Russia closer to capturing eastern Ukraine’s Donbas border region, which is made up of Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk.
Putin has claimed the war’s main goal is to “liberate” the Donbas, where Russia began fueling a separatist proxy war that killed more than 15,000 people in 2014 after a pro-western revolution in Kyiv.
Pro-Moscow accounts on social media posted footage of what they claimed were overjoyed locals greeting their “liberators.” Ukraine has already evacuated most of the population further west.
The industrial region is mostly controlled by Moscow-backed separatist groups whose independence is only recognized by Russia and Syria.
Russia shook up its command and switched its focus to a grueling offensive in the Donbas in late March after its initial attempt to capture Kyiv and most of the rest of Ukraine east of the Dnipro river failed. It also controls Kherson and some of neighboring Zaporizhia in the south, as well as parts of Kharkiv to the north of the Donbas.
On Sunday, Russia claimed Ukraine launched missile and drone attacks at the border cities of Kursk and Belgorod. The defense ministry said it shot down all the missiles but that shrapnel hit the residential buildings in Belgorod, which is just over the border from Kharkiv.
Viacheslav Gladkov, Belgorod’s governor, said four people died in the apparent attack and that dozens of buildings were damaged. He claimed three of the victims were Ukrainian citizens, who state media said were refugees from Kharkiv.
Russia has blamed Ukraine for carrying out several attacks on border cities and nearby infrastructure for its supply routes since the war began. Though Ukraine has not admitted to any of the attacks, it has mocked them in social media posts suggesting Russia was getting its just deserts for the invasion.
Neighboring Belarus, which is letting Russia use its territory to attack Ukraine but has so far resisted Putin’s efforts to drag it into the war, said on Saturday it had also intercepted Ukrainian missiles launched at military targets.
Ukraine did not confirm those claims but said it had destroyed a Russian base in Melitopol, a city in Zaporizhia, in a rocket strike.