After weeks of urban warfare and months of shrinking Russian air strikes, Ukraine ordered its troops to withdraw from the city of Severodonetsk to avoid being encircled, giving Russia a symbolically significant “win” in the war for control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, the head of the Luhansk region’s military administration, Serhiy Haidai, said it “does not make sense” to hold on to what he described as broken positions in the city any longer.
“The number of people killed will increase every day. It was decided that our defenders would retreat to new positions, fortified areas, and from there conduct hostilities and inflict damage on the enemy,” he said.
Haidai also claimed that roughly 80% of buildings in Severodonetsk had been damaged beyond repair by a barrage of Russian artillery fire and air raids. All the city’s vital infrastructure has been destroyed, he said.
Most of the city’s residents have recently evacuated the city for safer regions in Ukraine or other European countries.
“It makes no sense to remain on positions that have been demolished over the months,” Haidai said. “The defenders have already received orders to pull back to new positions, new fortified areas, and to conduct full military activities and to inflict damage on the enemy from there.”
If Ukrainian forces had remained there, it could have led to heavy troop losses, he added.
With 100,000 residents before the conflict began, Severodonetsk was the administrative center of Luhansk, one of the two Ukrainian regions that make up Donbas. Russian troops recently seized most of the city, while Ukrainian soldiers mainly occupied the Azot industrial plant.
The Kremlin’s capture of Severodonetsk means that the Russian military can focus on taking the city’s twin city, Lysychansk, the last piece of land in Luhansk province that the Ukrainian government still controls.
Russia has committed a considerable amount of its military to take the city and the 30-mile-wide surrounding area as Russian troops seek to move westward toward the resource-rich, industrial interior of Ukraine, the Donbas region.
On Friday, the Russian defense ministry said that soldiers had seized 10 Ukrainian villages in the Luhansk region over the previous five days and claimed to have encircled up to 2,000 Ukrainian troops. The ministry’s claims could not be independently confirmed. A spokesman for the Ukrainian defense ministry said the Russian report was categorically false.
Yuri Butusov, a Ukrainian correspondent embedded with soldiers in Severodonetsk, said on social media that the military had already evacuated the city during the night. He said the Russians attacked the retreating troops, but there were no casualties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the “liberation of Donbas” as his primary goal in the war after initially trying and failing to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and establish a pro-Russian government there.
While Russia retreated from northern Ukraine in April, troops continued to occupy most of the southern cities of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The capture of the region would provide a link between Russian soil and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.