LONDON — Ukraine ordered its soldiers to retreat from their remaining foothold in the embattled city of Severodonetsk.
Luhansk’s regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, said on Telegram on Friday, “Remaining in positions that have been relentlessly shelled for months just doesn't make sense.”
“They have received orders to retreat to new positions ... and from there continue their operations,” he said, according to a BBC translation.
A senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy that the decision will help Severodonetsk get into “a position where they can better defend themselves.”
It was unclear on Friday if the withdrawal had started or what the time frame surrounding it was.
For weeks, Ukrainian forces have fought to defend the key eastern city. But in recent days, Russian forces have surrounded Severodonetsk as well as its neighboring city Lysychansk. These two cities have seen the worst of the Kremlin’s offensive. According to Haidai, nearly all of the city’s infrastructure has been destroyed, with over 90% of the houses having been shelled.
Four months ago, Russia began its brutal war against Ukraine. Failing to secure the capital, Kyiv, in the early part of the invasion, the Kremlin set its sights on taking full control of the separatist provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the Donbas region.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russian air and artillery attacks were aimed at destroying the entire Donbas region. The president urged Ukraine’s allies to rush shipments of heavy weaponry to defend against enemy forces.
“We must free our land and achieve victory, but more quickly, a lot more quickly,” he said in a video address on Thursday. “There were massive air and artillery strikes in Donbas. The occupier’s goal here is unchanged. They want to destroy the entire Donbas step by step.”
Earlier this month, it was reported that at least 1,200 civilians, including more than 120 children, were being “held hostage” at a chemical plant in Severodonetsk. Speaking to the Russian state news agency TASS, the pro-Russian Luhansk People’s Republic’s interior minister, Vitaly Kiselev, alleged that Ukrainian forces were keeping civilians at the Azot plant “against their will.”
However, Haidai said that about 500 civilians were sheltering in the Azot plant, along with 40 children. On June 15, Russia claimed it had set up a humanitarian corridor to allow people trapped inside the plant to escape. It was later reported by Britain’s Ministry of Defense that the Kremlin might have been using the so-called humanitarian corridors to force civilians into Russian-backed areas.
“Since 14 June, Russian and separatist officials have claimed they are attempting to establish humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to evacuate Sieverodonetsk,” the ministry’s statement read. “Russia has precedent, both earlier in the Ukraine campaign and in Syria, of using unilaterally-declared ‘humanitarian’ corridors as a mechanism to manipulate the battlespace and impose the forced transfer of populations.”
The statement added: “If trapped civilians don’t take up the offer of exiting via a corridor, [Russia] will likely claim justification in making less of a distinction between them and any Ukrainian military targets in the area.”