Ukrainian forces seize new positions as Putin hails Luhansk victory

  • Ukrainians move from Bagmut to Slovenians holding line
  • The Battle of Luhansk was one of Europe’s largest in generations
  • Putin congratulated the victorious soldiers

KYIV, July 4 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces were taking up new defensive lines in the country’s east on Monday, preparing for the next phase of the war as President Vladimir Putin declared victory over Russia in the months-long battle for Luhansk.

Russia captured the city of Lysizansk on Sunday, ending one of Europe’s biggest battles in generations. For two months, Moscow brought the full strength of its ground forces to bear in a small pocket of the front line. It completed Russia’s seizure of Luhansk province, one of two regions it demanded Ukraine cede to separatists in the Donbass region.

During a brief televised meeting with his defense minister, Putin wished Russian forces “successes in the direction of Luhansk.” Participants in that battle “must completely rest and restore their military readiness,” he said, adding that other units continue to fight in other areas.

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The battle is the closest Moscow has come to achieving one of its goals since the defeat of Moscow’s forces that attempted to seize Kiev in March. It was Russia’s biggest victory since capturing the southern port of Mariupol in late May.

At the bend of the Chivarsky Donets River, which passes through Luhansk and Donetsk, both sides inflicted much greater losses on both sides, killing and wounding thousands.

Incessant Russian bombardment left Lysizansk a desolate wasteland, neighboring Severodonetsk and surrounding towns, many of which contained heavy industrial plants that defenders used as fortified bunkers. Russia tried and failed several times to encircle the Ukrainians, eventually blasting them with artillery.

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Although the destroyed cities have little strategic value, military experts said the battle could be a turning point in the war, with a major impact on the fighting ability of both sides.

“I think it’s a tactical victory for Russia, but at an enormous cost,” said Neil Melvin of the London-based RUSI think tank. He compared the war to the great battles for trivial territorial gains that characterized the First World War.

“It took 60 days to progress very slowly,” he said. “I think the Russians may declare some sort of victory, but the main battle is yet to come.”

Moscow hopes Ukraine’s withdrawal will provide momentum to push Russian forces further west into neighboring Donetsk province.

‘It hurts a lot’

Ukraine could have withdrawn from Luhansk weeks ago, but chose to continue fighting to expel the invading force. A ferocious war would hopefully leave the Russians too depleted to hold onto gains elsewhere.

Serhiy Keitai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, acknowledged that his entire province was now effectively in Russian hands, but told Reuters: “We have to win the war, not the battle for Lysizansk … It hurts a lot, but it’s not a lost war.”

Keidai said that Ukrainian forces that had retreated from Lysizansk were now holding the line between Pakmut and Sloviansk, preparing to block further Russian advances.

Heavy shelling on Sunday killed at least six people, including a 10-year-old girl, the mayor of Sloviansk said. read more

Russia’s Tass news agency, citing military officials in the Donetsk People’s Republic, said shelling by Ukrainian forces killed three civilians and wounded 27 others.

Reuters could not verify Battlefield accounts.

Rob Lee of the US-based Institute for Foreign Policy Research said the new Ukrainian defense line should be easier to defend than the abandoned pocket in Luhansk province.

“This is something that Putin can show as a sign of victory,” he said. “But overall, this does not mean that Ukraine will concede or give in any time soon.”

Russia has said its “special military operation” in Ukraine is to militarize its southern neighbor and protect Russian-speakers from so-called nationalists.

Ukraine and its Western allies say it is a baseless pretext for a blatant aggression aimed at seizing territory.

Speaking at a conference in Lugano, Switzerland, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmykal said the cost of rebuilding Ukraine could reach $750 billion and that wealthy Russians would have to help foot the bill.

“The Russian authorities have unleashed this bloody war. They have caused this massive destruction and they must take responsibility for it,” Schmigel said. read more

Counter attack

RUSI expert Melvin said a decisive battle for Ukraine is unlikely to take place in the east, where Russia is intensifying its main offensive, but in the south, where it has launched a counteroffensive to recapture Ukrainian territory.

“This is where we see the Ukrainians advancing around Kherson. That’s where the counterattacks start, and I think we’ll see the momentum swing to Ukraine as they try to launch a large-scale counteroffensive to push the Russians back,” he said.

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Ukraine hopes, in part, to get additional weapons from the West, including rockets that can neutralize Russia’s huge firepower advantage, to strike deep behind the front lines.

Last week, Ukraine scored its own major victory, driving Russian forces from Snake Island, a desolate but strategic area in the Black Sea that Moscow captured on the first day of the war but can no longer defend against Ukrainian strikes.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersen said the best way to end the war was to increase support for Ukraine and increase pressure on Russia. “We are ready for more sanctions” on Russia, Anderson said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, adding that Moscow must not be allowed to profit from its aggression in Ukraine.

Sweden, along with its neighbor Finland, recently applied for membership in NATO. Anderson said it could take a year for his country to become a full member of the alliance.

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Report by Reuters Bureau; By Michael Perry, Peter Graf and Paul Simao; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Alison Williams

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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