Russia claimed Sunday it has taken control of the industrial city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian-held territory in the eastern Luhansk province.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that the Luhansk People’s Republic — as the pro-Russian separatist government that claims control over Luhansk calls itself — has been “liberated,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Telegram.
“As Army General Sergei Shoigu reported, as a result of successful combat operations, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, together with units of the People’s Militia of the Lugansk People’s Republic, have established full control over the city of Lisichansk and a number of nearby settlements, the largest of which are Belogorovka, Novodruzhesk, Maloryazantsevo and Belaya Gora,” the ministry said in its post, using the Russian spelling of Lysychansk.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, in an interview with the BBC, disputed the Russian claim, saying that Lysychansk was not under the “full control” of Russian forces and their separatist allies.
But it acknowledged that Ukrainian forces could retreat from parts of the city amid “very intense” Russian attacks.
Ukrainian regional governor Serhiy Haidai said the city was “on fire.”
A Ukrainian military spokesman said, “For Ukrainians, the value of human life is a top priority, so sometimes we may retreat from certain areas so that we can retake them in the future.”
Since failing early in its four-month invasion of Ukraine to topple President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or capture the capital, Kyiv, Moscow has focused on taking control of the eastern Donbas region. Ukraine retains control of several cities in Donetsk province, adjacent to Luhansk.
Russian forces seized Lysychansk's sister city, Sievierodonetsk, last month, after some of the heaviest fighting of the war.
In his nightly television address Saturday, Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to maintain their resolve and inflict losses on the "aggressor ... so that every Russian remembers that Ukraine cannot be broken."
"In many areas from the front, there is a sense of easing up, but the war is not over," he said. "Unfortunately, it is intensifying in different places, and we mustn't forget that. We must help the army, the volunteers, help those who are left on their own at this time."
Meanwhile, Russian officials said blasts Sunday in a Russian city bordering Ukraine killed at least three people.
Dozens of residential buildings were damaged in the explosions in Belgorod. Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas has called for a military response to the attacks.
"The death of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Belgorod,” Klishas posted on Telegram, “are a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine and require the most severe — including a military — response."
Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on the Russian claims about the Belgorod explosions.
The mayor of the occupied Ukraine city of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, said on Telegram that Ukraine had hit one of four Russian military bases in the occupied territory.
Along with the Lysychansk and Bakhmut areas, the Kharkiv region is seeing some of the front line's worst fighting. Four people were killed, and three others were wounded in shelling in Izium and Chuguiv, two districts of the northeastern Kharkiv region, according to Oleg Synegubov, Kharkiv chief of the district.
Russian rockets also struck residential properties in Sloviansk, killing a woman in her garden and wounding her husband, according to a neighbor who spoke with Agence France-Presse.
In Kharkiv, missiles hit some railway infrastructure, but no deaths or injuries were reported. The strike damaged railroad tracks and knocked down high voltage power lines.
“After Russian rockets hit at 4 in the morning, the power grid and three high-voltage lines powering traffic lights and [a] substation are damaged,” Pavlo Svistelnikov, manager of the regional power grid, told Reuters. Russian forces have been pounding the city for more than a week, killing civilians and hitting apartment buildings and schools, regional authorities said.
Ukrainian authorities released video Saturday of Russian fighter jets bombing Snake Island a day after Russia said it had retreated from the island.
Russia also launched new bus service from the Crimea Peninsula it seized in 2014 to newly captured cities in the eastern sections of Ukraine.
As the war continues, the United States announced details of $820 million in additional military aid for Ukraine, including new surface-to-air missile systems and counter-artillery radar.
The 14th U.S. package of military aid includes two air defense systems, known as NASAMS, which can help Ukrainian forces defend against cruise missiles and aircraft.
The latest aid package is designed to help Ukraine counter Russia's use of long-range missiles and follows calls by Ukrainian officials for Western countries to send more advanced weapons systems that can better match Moscow's arsenal.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.