Russia’s defense minister said on Sunday that his forces had seized control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, amid increasing signs that its defenders retreated in the face of a relentless artillery bombardment.
Lysychansk was the last major city in Luhansk Province not held by the Russians, and a Ukrainian withdrawal, if confirmed, would appear to validate Moscow’s strategy of weeks of bombardment from the ground and air, followed by advancing troops and tanks. A spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, Yuriy Sak, said that Lysychansk was not under the “full control” of Russian forces.
Last month, Russia deployed the same approach to seize Sievierodonetsk, the city that faces Lysychansk on the eastern bank of the Siversky Donets River. Many parts of both cities were destroyed.
A video posted on Twitter on Sunday showed Russian soldiers driving unimpeded through parts of Lysychansk past a small group of waving civilians. A separate video showed Russian soldiers holding flags, including that of the pro-Moscow separatist state, the Donetsk People’s Republic. They posed for pictures outside what appeared to be Lysychansk City Hall and chanted slogans, including “Lysychansk is ours.”
In both cases, the soldiers looked relaxed and did not appear to face an immediate military threat. The New York Times has not verified either video.
The Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said that the army, as well as units of the Luhansk People’s Republic, a pro-Moscow separatist government, had established “full control over the city of Lysychansk and a number of nearby settlements,” according to a Russian Defense Ministry statement.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research body, said in an overnight report that “Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2.”
Lysychansk was the last city in Luhansk Province still held by Ukraine. Its capture would not only give Moscow complete control of that resource-rich region, but would offer a base to regroup and mount offensives on cities to the southwest, notably Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut.
The mayor of Sloviansk, Vadym Lyakh, said on Sunday that the city had suffered its heaviest shelling. A “large number” of people were killed and injured and at least 15 buildings were on fire, he said in a message on Telegram.
Residents who fled the region in recent days said the bulk of the Ukrainian military forces in Lysychansk pulled out on Friday and were bolstering defenses along the border line between the Luhansk and the neighboring province of Donetsk. On the same day, Ukrainian troops repulsed an attempt by Russian forces to cut the last road out near the village of Verkhnokamianske.
The only settlement in Luhansk Province still in Ukrainian hands is the town of Bilohorivka, further north, they said.
Russia’s decision to mass its firepower, and in particular its long-range artillery, which is superior to Ukraine’s, against specific targets is a response to its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv, and the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv, earlier in the war. Military analysts say that initially Russia spread its forces too thinly to be effective.
The war’s current phase has seen fighting along a front line that stretches for more than 600 miles but is most intense in the heavily industrial Donbas region, which contains the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow seized large parts of the Donbas, an area where proximity to Russia gives Moscow an additional advantage.
Russia already controls around 20 percent of Ukraine and for many of the country’s people, engaged in a struggle for national survival, the fall of Lysychansk would be another bitter blow. One resident, Ivan Shybkov, who fled the city last month after helping evacuate civilians, described what was happening as “a knife to the heart.”
“Our emotions are not a switch that can be switched off,” said Mr. Shybkov. “Therefore, of course, it hurts us a lot.”