Ukrainian troops forced to retreat from 'smashed to pieces' Severodonetsk

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Ukrainian servicemen go to a position in the city of Severodonetsk of Luhansk area - OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Ukrainian servicemen go to a position in the city of Severodonetsk of Luhansk area - OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Ukraine has been forced to retreat from Severodonetsk after their positions were "smashed to pieces," marking the end of one of a weeks-long battle with Russian forces that has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk region which includes the city, said on Telegram early on Tuesday that troops would be redeployed to stronger defensive lines.

"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense,” he said on Telegram.

He said the troops in the city "have already received the order to move to new positions," but did not indicate whether they had already done so or where exactly they were going.

It was not immediately clear whether the Ukrainian forces holding the Azot chemical plant, their last bastion inside the town, had begun to leave.

Severodonetsk has been the Ukrainian administrative capital of Luhansk region since Russian-led separatists seized Luhansk itself in 2014.

Russia launched an offensive to capture it in April after Vladimir Putin ordered his generals to concentrate on capturing the Donbas following the failure of his assault on Kyiv.

It took them weeks of intensive fighting preceded by massively destructive artillery bombardments to reach the outskirts of the city, despite deploying overwhelming concentrations of troops and equipment.

Street-to-street fighting in the town itself has raged for a month, with some areas changing hands several times until the Ukrainians were boxed into the Azot plant.

They had to be supplied by rafts after the Russians destroyed the bridges linking the town with Ukrainian-held Lysychansk.

Ukrainian servicemen ride a bus to their positions near the city of Severodonetsk - OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Ukrainian servicemen ride a bus to their positions near the city of Severodonetsk - OLEKSANDR RATUSHNIAK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr Gaidai said all critical infrastructure has been “destroyed” and “90 per cent of the city is damaged, 80 per cent (of) houses will have to be demolished," he added.

The decision to fight for Severodonetsk rather than retreating after it was nearly surrounded in May has been costly in lives and was controversial in Ukraine, where many feared a repeat of the siege of Mariupol.

Mr Gaidai told the Telegraph in May that Ukraine needed to hold the town as long as possible in order to tie down large numbers of Russian troops and buy time for Ukraine to ready a counter-offensive later in the year.

Ukrainian forces are now likely to pull back to the city of Lysychansk, which lies on a commanding hill on the opposite bank of the Siverky Donets river.

However, Lysychansk itself is also now under threat of encirclement.

Several villages in the area have fallen to Russian forces in recent days, including Pidlisne and Myrna Dolyna, and Russian forces are already reported to be probing the southern edges of the town.

On Friday morning Mr Gaidai confirmed Ukraine had lost Mykolaivka, a village close to the critical supply road linking Lysychansk with Bakhmut, the next city in Ukrainian-held territory.

“Victories and successes are colossal. Over the past several days, enormous work has been accomplished,” Andrei Marochko, an officer in the separatist army of Luhansk, told Russian state TV.

Mr Marochko claimed Lysychansk was already effectively surrounded, with only small groups of Ukrainian forces able to retreat via country roads. It was not possible to verify the claim.

Maj Gen Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian ministry of defence, said on Friday morning that Ukrainian forces in  Zolotoe, a town to the south of the city, had been surrounded and prisoners taken.

He said half the town had been taken by Russian forces on Thursday. The claim could not be immediately verified.

A Ukrainian tank is in position during heavy fighting on the front line in Severodonetsk - AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak
A Ukrainian tank is in position during heavy fighting on the front line in Severodonetsk - AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak

Severodonetsk and Lsysychansk are the last major towns in Luhansk still under Ukrainian control.

Their capture by Russia would allow Mr Putin to claim he has achieved one of his key war aims. The Kremlin has told the Russian public it is fighting to “liberate” the Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as the Donbas.

The battle for Donbas has been dominated by mass artillery fire and both sides are believed to have suffered heavy casualties there.

Ukraine considers casualty figures sensitive information, but officials said in early June that about 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed since the start of the war.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to president Volodymyr Zelensky, said earlier this month that on the worst days Ukraine was losing 200 men and women a day.

Russia has not publically updated its casualty figures for several weeks. American officials have estimated Russian losses at 16,000 killed up to mid-June.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which is controlled by Moscow, said this week that more than 2,000 of its military personnel were killed and almost 9,000 wounded since the beginning of the year.

The British Ministry of Defence said that figure represented about 55 per cent of the DPR’s original force, it added.

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