After weeks of fierce street fighting, Ukrainian troops have been ordered to withdraw from the main battlefield city of Sievierodonetsk.
The order comes amid mounting casualties and supply problems in the war of attrition for the devastated city and will be hailed by Russia as a major victory.
Ukrainian officials said there was very little to defend in the bombed eastern city, where hundreds of civilians were trapped in a chemical plant.
The order to withdraw on Friday came four months since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions, and turned entire cities into rubble.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said troops in Sievierodonetsk had already been ordered to move to new positions.
“It makes no sense to stay in positions that have been shattered for many months just to stay there,” Gaidai said on Ukrainian television.
The withdrawal marks the biggest turning point for Ukraine since the loss of the strategic southern port of Mariupol in May.
The latest Russian advances seemed to move the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow’s war targets, and clear the way for Sievierodonetsk’s sister city, Lysychansk, to become the next main focal point of the fighting.
Vitaly Kiselev, an official at the interior ministry of the separatist People’s Republic of Luhansk — recognized only by Moscow — told Russia’s TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to gain full control of Lysychansk.
Four months of blood and horror
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 but refrained from advancing early towards the capital Kyiv, despite fierce resistance supported by Western weapons.
Since then, Moscow and its allies have concentrated on the south and Donbas, an eastern region of Luhansk and its neighbor Donetsk. They have deployed overwhelming artillery in some of the toughest ground combat in Europe since World War II.
Through the four months of intense conflict, Ukrainian tactics have also changed to reflect the ever-changing military situation and the advantage in troop numbers and weapons of the invaders.
Ukraine again pushed for more weapons on Friday, with its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling his US counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed “fire parity” with Moscow to stabilize the situation in Luhansk.
South of Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian soldiers also withdrew from Hirske and Zolote in the face of overwhelming Russian forces, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Arestovych said the orderly withdrawal from the cities was good because it broke with a Soviet and post-Soviet military tradition of never withdrawing, no matter the circumstances.
He said the Ukrainian military had learned the hard lesson of defending positions at all costs during clashes with pro-Russian forces in 2014.
Russian forces invaded Hirske on Friday and occupied the surrounding district, city chief Oleksiy Babchenko said.
“A red flag is flying over the municipal administration (in Hirske),” an official told Reuters by phone.
Withdrawing on multiple fronts
Ukraine’s foreign minister downplayed the importance of the potential loss of more territory in the Donbas.
“Putin wanted to occupy the Donbas before May 9. We are (there) on June 24 and still fighting. Withdrawing from a few battles does not mean losing the war,” Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said its forces had some success in the southern region of Kherson, forcing the Russians to turn back from defensive positions near the village of Olhine, the latest of several Ukrainian counter-attacks.
Ukrainian media showed images of a school smoldering and gutted by Russian shelling in Avdiivka, a town in the Donetsk region, just inside the Ukrainian-occupied territory.
The war greatly impacted the global economy and European security arrangements, pushing up gas, oil, and food prices, prompting the EU to reduce its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and prompting Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Search for membership.
In a big sign of support, European Union leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal candidacy to join the bloc – a decision Russia said Friday amounted to the EU “enslaving” neighboring countries.