Capture of Luhansk is a political victory for Kremlin after weeks of grinding advances
Russia's defence minister said Russian forces took control of the last major Ukrainian-held city in Luhansk province, which would bring Moscow closer to its stated goal of seizing all of Ukraine's Donbas region.
Russia said it had taken full control of the Eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk on Sunday after capturing the final Ukrainian bastion of Lysychansk, the city where Kyiv said it had withdrawn to save the lives of its troops.
The region's capture, a major Russian war aim, is a political victory for the Kremlin after weeks of grinding advances and shifts the battlefield focus to neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls swathes of territory.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russia said it is capturing Luhansk region in order to give it to the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People's Republic whose independence it recognized on the eve of the war.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been "liberated," the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
Ukraine's military command said its forces had been forced to retreat from the city.
"The continuation of the defence of the city would lead to fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw," it said in a statement on social media.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky noted the withdrawal. But he added that "Ukraine does not give anything back" and vowed to return with more modern weapons. Citing his forces' success in recapturing other territory, he promised, "There will be a day when we will say the same about Donbas."
Earlier, Zelensky said Kyiv's forces were still battling Russian soldiers on Lysychansk's outskirts "in a very difficult and dangerous situation." Russian forces maintain an advantage in the area, he acknowledged, calling it a Ukrainian military "weak spot."
"We cannot give you the final judgment. Lysychansk is still being fought for," Zelensky told a news conference in Kyiv alongside Australia's visiting prime minister. He noted that territory can move quickly from one side to the other.
West of Lysychansk in Donetsk region, at least six people were killed when the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was hit by powerful shelling from multiple rocket launchers on Sunday, local officials said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
Russia's defence ministry also said on Sunday it had struck military infrastructure of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city in the northeast, where a Reuters reporter said Ukrainian forces had been building fortifications after nightly shelling.
Western region of Russia hit with blasts
The Russian Defence Ministry said Ukraine also launched missile and drone attacks on the cities of Kursk and Belgorod in western Russia, but that the aerial weapons were shot down. Roman Starovoit, Kursk's regional governor, said the town of Tetkino, on the Ukraine border, came under mortar fire.
As a result of the Ukrainian missiles being hit, the wreckage of one of them fell on a residential building in Belgorod, some 40 kilometres north of the border with Ukraine, said Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, said four people were killed Sunday by fragments of an intercepted missile.
Russia's Defence Ministry said two Ukrainian drones were shot down over the city of Kursk, 190 kilometres north of Belgorod.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Previously, Kyiv has said such incidents are payback for Russia pounding Ukrainian urban areas into rubble.
Military base hit
Ukraine said its air force had flown some 15 sorties "in virtually all directions of hostilities," destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military logistics base with more than 30 strikes on Sunday, the city's exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said. A Russian-installed official confirmed that strikes had hit the city.
As fighting continues in Eastern Ukraine, every weapon and every ounce of determination matters for this Ukrainian unit fighting on the front lines in the Donbas region.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Russian shipcarrying grain detained
In Turkey, customs authorities have detained a Russian cargo ship carrying grain which Ukraine says is stolen, Ukraine's ambassador to Turkey said on Sunday.
Ukraine had previously asked Turkey to detain the Russian-flagged Zhibek Zholy cargo ship, according to an official and documents viewed by Reuters.
Reuters reporters saw the Zhibek Zholy ship anchored about one kilometre from shore and outside of the Karasu port on Sunday, with no obvious signs of movement aboard or by other vessels nearby.
"We have full co-operation. The ship is currently standing at the entrance to the port, it has been detained by the customs authorities of Turkey," Ambassador Vasyl Bodnar said on Ukrainian national television.
Bodnar said the ship's fate would be decided by a meeting of investigators on Monday and that Ukraine was hoping for the confiscation of the grain.
Ukraine has repeatedly appealed for an acceleration in weapons supplies from the West, saying its forces are heavily outgunned.
Speaking on a visit to Kyiv, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government would provide Ukraine with additional armoured vehicles, as well as tightening sanctions against Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told broadcaster ARD that Germany was discussing with its allies security guarantees for Ukraine after the war, though it was clear these would "not be the same as if someone were a member of NATO."
With files from The Associated Press
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