A senior Ukrainian official said on Friday that Ukrainian forces would withdraw from Severodnetsk after weeks of fierce fighting over the key city.
The announcement came soon after the EU granted Ukraine candidate status in a show of support for the former Soviet republic, although membership still has a long way to go.
Russia has shifted its focus to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, after being driven out of the capital Kyiv and other regions following the February invasion. Its forces, despite facing fierce resistance and inflicting heavy losses, progressed slowly.
The strategically important industrial center of Severodnetsk has been the scene of weeks of street fighting as outgoing Ukrainians put up a stubborn defence.
But Sergei Gede, the governor of the Lugansk region, which includes Severodnetsk, said an order had been received to withdraw Ukrainian military forces in the city.
“There’s no point in continuing to hold positions with continuous shelling for months,” he said on Telegram, adding that 90 percent of the city had been damaged.
Ukrainians had already been pushed back from much of the city, leaving them only control of the industrial areas.
The capture of Severodonetsk and its twin city Lisichansk would give the Russians control of Lugansk, and would allow them to advance into the wider Donbass.
Lysychansk under fire
Gede said the Russians were now advancing on Lisichansk, which is increasingly facing heavy Russian bombardment.
The condition of the people living in the city is pathetic.
Lilia Nesterenko said that there is no gas, water or electricity in their house and that she and her mother were cooking at the campfire. She was cycling on the road, and went out to feed a friend’s pet.
But the 39-year-old was upbeat about the city’s security: “I believe in our Ukrainian military, should they be confronted.”
A representative of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine had earlier told AFP that resistance by Ukrainian forces trying to defend Lisichansk and Severodonetsk was “futile and futile”.
“At the rate at which our troops are leaving, very soon the entire area of the Lugansk People’s Republic will be liberated,” said Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for Lugansk’s Moscow-backed army.
On Friday, Marochko said on Telegram that all villages in the neighboring regions of Zolot and Hirske were now under the control of Russian or pro-Russian forces.
In a video on Marochko’s Telegram channel, a man in military clothing can be seen changing the flag of Ukraine with a zolot coat of arms and sickle red flag.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Friday that 2,000 people near Zolot and Hirske had been “completely barricaded”, and that about half of Zolot was under Russian control.
Missiles hit the university
Russia has also stepped up its offensive in the northern city of Kharkiv in the past few days.
An AFP team at the scene heard loud explosions in the city center last night and in the morning noticed that Kharkiv Polytechnic Institute was hit by missiles, shattering windows and partially collapsing its roof.
According to an unidentified military official at the scene, the Russians “thought there might be some military, but it was not”.
In the southern Kherson region, a Moscow-appointed officer was killed by an explosive device planted in a car, Russian news agencies reported.
Moscow-appointed Kherson’s deputy head, Kirill Stremosov, said that the regional head of the Department of Family, Youth and Sports had died “as a result of a terrorist act”.
It was the first confirmed death of a pro-Russian official during attacks on pro-Kremlin officials in Ukrainian territories under Russian control.
With a request by Ukraine for accelerated weapons delivery, the United States announced that it was sending another $450 million in new weapons, including the HIMARS rocket system, which can launch multiple missiles over extended range.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Twitter that Ukraine was “grateful” to US President Joe Biden for the decision.
“This support … is now more important than ever,” he said.
‘Equal EU partners of the future’
At the Brussels summit on Thursday, EU leaders gave candidate status to Ukraine, as well as Moldova.
Zelensky described the news as “a unique and historic moment”.
“Today it is recognized that Ukraine is not a bridge, not a cushion between the West and Russia, not a buffer between Europe and Asia, not a sphere of influence,” Zelensky said in a video address to Ukrainians on Friday. Told.
“Ukraine is an equal partner in the future for at least 27 EU countries,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Ukraine’s new EU candidacy status as a “domestic European matter”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has strongly opposed what Moscow sees as attempts to bring the country into NATO.
But Ukraine’s NATO aspirations are far from being realized and EU membership is at least years away.
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