Ukrainian troops will have to withdraw from the largely-Russian controlled city of Sievierdonetsk in the Luhansk Oblast (province), Governor Serhiy Gaidai said in a TV interview Friday as the Russian invasion of Ukraine stretches into its 121st day.
"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense," Gaidai said.
"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense."Serhiy Gaidai
The city is one of the last major remaining Ukrainian-controlled holdouts in Luhansk, in the Donbas region, and Russia has made considerable, albeit slow, advances there over the past several weeks.
According to Gaidai, over 90% of the city has been damaged and the defenders will have to withdraw to more fortified positions.
He said that 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.
Earlier, Gaidai wrote on his Telegram that Ukrainian troops repelled a Russian attack on the southern outskirts of Lysychansk, the last fully Ukrainian-controlled city in Luhansk.
However, he added that Russia had taken control of the village of Mykolaivka, located near a key highway to Lysychansk, which has been the focus of heavy fighting.
Further, Gaidai said that Russian forces from helicopters have destroyed roads and bridges at the entrance of Lysychansk, with one bridge being severely damaged to the point that only lighter vehicles can pass over it, not trucks.
A Ukrainian army medic stationed in Lysychansk further said that an order to retreat "could come at any moment," according to The New York Times.
In addition, a district south of the city of Lysychansk in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region was "fully occupied" by Russian forces as of Friday morning, a local Ukrainian official said on television.
"Unfortunately, as of today... the entire Hirske district is occupied," Hirske's municipal head Oleksiy Babchenko said on a television broadcast. "There are some insignificant, local battles going on at the outskirts, but the enemy has entered."
The loss of Hirske and several other settlements around it leaves Lysychansk in danger of being enveloped from three sides by advancing Russian forces.
Russia's defense ministry said on Friday it had encircled about 2,000 Ukrainian troops, including 80 foreign fighters, at Hirske. Reuters could not independently verify the claim.
If it goes ahead, the withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk would mark the biggest reversal for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.
The latest Russian advances appeared to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow's stated war objectives, and set the stage for Sievierodonetsk's twin city of Lysychansk to become the next main focus of fighting.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said troops in Sievierodonetsk had already received the order to move to new positions.
"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense," Gaidai said on Ukrainian television.
'Red flag flying'
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance bolstered by Western arms.
Since then Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbor Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since World War Two.
Ukrainian forces had held out for weeks in Sievierodonetsk, trying to wear down Russian troops through attrition and buy time for the arrival of heavy weapons supplies.
"Our forces had to withdraw and conduct a tactical retreat because there was essentially nothing left there to defend. There was no city left there and, secondly, we could not allow them to be encircled," Oleksander Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said.
Ukraine on Friday again pressed for more arms, with its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling his counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed "fire parity" with Moscow to stabilize the situation in Luhansk.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said the Russians were trying to surround Lysychansk and mounting assaults on Sievierodonetsk to win full control. But spokesperson Oleksandr Motuzyanyk declined to comment on Gaidai's remarks about a withdrawal.
Further south, Russian troops had entered the town of Hirske and fully occupied the surrounding district on Friday, municipal head Oleksiy Babchenko said.
"There is a red flag flying over the municipal administration (in Hirske)," a spokesperson for the regional administration told Reuters by telephone.
Russia's defense ministry said it had taken Hirske and the nearby town of Zolote after what it described as a "rout" of Ukrainian soldiers. It earlier said it had encircled up to 2,000 Ukrainian troops, including 80 foreign fighters, at Hirske.
Vitaly Kiselev, an official in the Interior Ministry of the separatist Luhansk People's Republic - recognized only by Russia - told Russia's TASS news agency that there were about 4,500 Ukrainian servicemen in the area taken over by Russian and separatist forces in Hirske, but did not say what had happened to them.
Kiselev said it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk and that an unknown number of people remained holed up and did not want to leave the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk.
The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said its troops had some success in the southern Kherson region, forcing the Russians back from defensive positions near the village of Olhine, the latest of several Ukrainian counter-assaults.
Ukrainian media showed footage of a school smoldering and gutted by Russian shelling in Avdiivka -- a town in Donetsk region just inside Ukrainian-held territory. Reports said the school had been used as a first aid center and the attack destroyed medicine and other supplies.
Reuters could not confirm the details of the fighting.
Arms and defense
Ukraine's foreign minister played down the significance of the possible loss of more territory in the Donbas.
"Putin wanted to occupy the Donbas by May 9. We are (there) on June 24 and still fighting. Retreating from a few battles does not mean losing the war at all," Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
Russia says it sent troops into Ukraine to degrade its southern neighbor's military capabilities and root out people it called dangerous nationalists.
Ukraine, which says Russia has launched an imperial-style land grab, this week won new support from the West.
European leaders approved Ukraine's formal candidature to join the European Union - a decision that Russia said on Friday would have negative consequences and amounted to the EU's "enslaving" neighboring countries.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed in an interview with NBC News that he would fight for the release of two American veterans captured – according to Russian state media – by Russian-backed forces, saying he was honored that the men had come to fight for Ukraine.
The war has had a massive impact on the global economy and European security arrangements, driving up gas, oil and food prices, pushing the EU to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy and prompting Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership.
The UN nuclear watchdog said it was is increasingly concerned about the welfare of Ukrainian staff at the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, Europe's largest.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has for months said that Zaporizhzhia, where Ukrainian staff are operating the plant under the order of Russian troops, poses a safety risk and that it wants to send a mission there.
Going against the grain
Russia has launched numerous attacks on the vital port city of Mykolaiv in central Ukraine throughout the invasion, including on Ukrainian grain terminals.
This was confirmed in newly declassified intelligence revealed over social media by US State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
Newly declassified intelligence sheds light on Russian forces' attacks on Ukrainian grain terminals – including an attack on the Nika-Terra Grain Terminal in Mykolaiv on or around June 4. The world must hold Russia accountable for its actions that undermine global food security. pic.twitter.com/QQ7BH6LLpG— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) June 23, 2022
"Newly declassified intelligence sheds light on Russian forces' attacks on Ukrainian grain terminals – including an attack on the Nika-Terra Grain Terminal in Mykolaiv on or around June 4," Price tweeted alongside images of the area. "The world must hold Russia accountable for its actions that undermine global food security."
This comes amid a global food security crisis due to grain shortages as a result of the war.
Ukraine and Russia are two of the world's biggest grain suppliers and the war has caused significant shortages, with many condemning Russian aggression as the cause.
The fighting continues
Overnight, Russian forces fired rockets at localities in Kryvyi Rih raion (district) in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in central Ukraine, Ukrainian state media outlet Ukrinform reported, citing Dnipropetrovsk Regional State Administration head Valentyn Reznichenko.
Russian fire also struck at infrastructure in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, Interfax reported, citing the Zaporizhzhia Regional State Administration.
In addition, an illegal phosphorous shell was reportedly fired at a locality in the Sumy Oblast, resulting in a child being injured along with damage to infrastructure, Interfax reported, citing Sumy Regional Military Administration head Dmytro Zhyvytskyi.
Russian forces also fired on localities in the Chernihiv Oblast, Interfax reported, citing Chernihiv Regional State Administration head Vyacheslav Chaus.
Foreign Minister Kuleba, in an interview with Corriere della Sera, sounded pessimistic about the prospects of any peace talks soon.
"Only our military victory will convince Russia to engage in serious peace negotiations. Weapons will secure the diplomatic route," Kuleba said. Kyiv was still open to the idea of a meeting between Zelinsky and Putin in which "every point would be subject to dialog," he said. But Ukraine was engaged in an existential struggle, he said.
"This is a war between dictatorship and democracy not chosen by us."
He also reiterated Kyiv's appeals for more weapons from the West, particularly rocket launchers and cannon as well as more ammunition.
"The weapons are coming, and it would have been almost impossible without them. But they are not enough, they are not even enough to stabilize the Donbas front. Russia is stronger."
Russian forces have suffered considerable casualties over the course of the invasion.
According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Russia has so far lost 34,530 soldiers, 759 artillery pieces, 241 MLRSs, 99 anti-aircraft systems, 216 aircraft, 183 helicopters, 622 drones, 14 ships, 1,507 tanks, 3,637 armored vehicles and 2,553 fuel tanks and other vehicles.
However, due to the nature of the war, accurate numbers of casualties on both sides are impossible to ascertain.
This is a developing story.