Russia launches airstrikes on twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Ukrainian official says

Russia launched artillery and air strikes on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysichansk on Saturday, hitting a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official said.
Sergei Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said that Russian troops attacked the Severodentsk industrial zone and also tried to enter and blockade Lysichansk.
“There was an air strike on Lisichansk. Severodonetsk came under artillery fire,” Gaidai said on the messaging app Telegram, adding that the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, the villages of Sinetsky and Pavlograd and others were shelled.

He did not mention casualties at the Azot chemical plant, and Reuters was unable to immediately verify this information.

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According to Gaidai, on Friday, police officers, rescuers and volunteers evacuated 17 people from Lisichansk.
Ukraine said on Friday that its forces had been ordered to retreat from Severodentsk, a key battlefield city, as few defenders remained after weeks of heavy fighting.
“During the last [several] days, an operation was carried out to withdraw our troops,” the press officer of the National Guard brigade, Kharatin Starsky, said on Saturday.
Mr. Starsky, who was in Severodonetsk, told morning television that the flow of information about the withdrawal had been delayed to protect troops on the ground. This retreat marks the biggest turnaround for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.

News of Friday’s troop withdrawal comes four months after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved tens of thousands of troops across the border, sparking a conflict that has left thousands dead, millions uprooted and entire cities reduced to rubble.

Russia’s recent advances appear to have moved the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Lugansk, one of Moscow’s declared war targets, and set the stage for Lysychansk to become the next major center of hostilities.
Vitaly Kiselyov, an Interior Ministry official in the separatist Lugansk People’s Republic, recognized only by Russia, told the Russian news agency TASS that it would take another week and a half to take full control of Lisichansk.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv after facing fierce resistance backed by Western weapons.

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Since then, Moscow and its puppets have focused their attention on the south and the Donbass, the eastern territory made up of Lugansk and neighboring Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in some of the fiercest ground fighting in Europe since World War II.
On Saturday, Russia again launched missile strikes against military and civilian infrastructure in the north near Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv to Severodonetsk in the east, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.
Several regional governors reported shelling cities across Ukraine on Saturday.
Russia denies hitting civilians, but Kyiv and the West say Russian troops have committed war crimes against civilians.

Ukraine again demanded more weapons on Friday, with its commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny telling his American counterpart in a telephone conversation that Kyiv needs “fire parity” with Moscow to stabilize the situation in Lugansk.

“Organized Retreat”

South of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian soldiers also withdrew from the towns of Gorskoye and Zolote in the face of overwhelming Russian forces, Aleksey Arestovich, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said.
He said the Ukrainian military had learned a hard lesson in trying to defend positions at all costs while fighting pro-Russian forces in 2014.
“Now for the first time we have a precedent for our guys to retreat in an organized manner,” he said in an online video.
The Ukrainian Foreign Minister downplayed the possible loss of more territory in the Donbas.

“Putin wanted to occupy Donbass by May 9th. [there] June 24 and still fighting. Retreating from several battles does not at all mean defeat in the war, ”Dmitry Kuleba said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said in a Friday memo: “Ukrainian forces are likely to maintain their defenses around Lysychansk and continue to deplete Russian forces after the fall of Severodonetsk.”
It stated that Ukrainian forces would likely occupy the high ground at Lysichansk where they could repel Russian attacks, and that Russian forces would need to cross the river from Severodonetsk, which would require additional time and effort.
On Friday, Ukraine’s General Staff said its forces had made some headway in southern Kherson region, pushing the Russians back from defensive positions near the village of Olkhino in the latest of several Ukrainian counter-offensives.

Russia says it has sent troops to Ukraine to undermine its southern neighbor’s military capabilities and root out people it has called dangerous nationalists.

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Ukraine, which claims Russia has begun an imperial-style land grab, has received renewed support from the West this week.
The war had a huge impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, pushing up gas, oil and food prices, forcing the EU to reduce its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and forcing Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
The West has imposed an unprecedented package of sanctions on Russia, its leading companies, its business and political elites in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a show of support, European Union leaders this week approved Ukraine’s formal candidacy for membership in the bloc, a move Russia announced on Friday is tantamount to EU “enslavement” of neighboring countries.