kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are seeking to engulf the last remaining Ukrainian resistance bastion in the eastern Luhansk region, even as they pick up pace following the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the charred ruins of Sievierodonetsk.
The army reported on Saturday that Moscow-backed separatists were now in full control of the chemical plant that was the last Ukrainian stronghold in the city.
Russia also fired dozens of missiles at various parts of the country, far from the heart of the eastern battles. Some of the missiles were fired from Russian Tu-22 long-range bombers deployed to Belarus for the first time, the Ukrainian air command said.
The bombardment preceded a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, during which Putin announced that Russia planned to send the Iskander-M missile system to Belarus.
Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, reported that Russian and separatist forces now fully control Sievierodonetsk and the towns around it. He claimed that the Ukrainian forces’ attempt to turn the Azot plant into a “stubborn center of resistance” had been thwarted.
Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk province, confirmed that Russian and Moscow-backed separatist fighters were trying to blockade Lisichansk from the south.
The city lies across a river, just west of Sievierodonetsk, which has suffered weeks of shelling and house-to-house fighting.
Capturing Lisychansk would give Russian forces control of all major settlements in the province, marking an important step in Russia’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas region. The Russians and separatists also control about half of Donetsk, the second province of Donbas.
A spokesman for the separatist forces, Andrei Marochko, was quoted by Russia’s Interfax news agency as saying Russian troops and separatist fighters had entered Lysychansk and fighting was taking place in the heart of the city. There were no comments from the Ukrainian side at the moment.
Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk have been the focal point of a Russian offensive aimed at capturing all of Donbas and defeating the defending Ukrainian army, the most capable and battle-hardened segment of the country’s armed forces.
Russian bombing has reduced most of Sievierodonetsk to rubble and its population has grown from 100,000 to 10,000.
The last Ukrainian troops had taken refuge in the huge Azot chemical plant, located on the outskirts of the city, along with hundreds of civilians. A representative of the separatists, Ivan Filiponenko, said on Saturday that his forces evacuated 800 civilians from the plant overnight, Interfax reported.
After Haidai declared on Friday that Ukrainian forces had started to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk, military analyst Oleg Zhdanov said some troops were headed for Lisychansk. However, Russian maneuvers to cut off Lysychansk will give retreating soldiers little respite.
Some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west, four Russian cruise missiles fired from the Black Sea hit a “military object” in Yaroviv, Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy said.
He did not elaborate on the target, but Yaroviv has a sizable military base used for training fighters, including foreign volunteers to fight for Ukraine.
In March, Russian missiles hit the Yaroviv base, killing 35 people. Lviv, though far from the front lines, has come under fire at various points in the war as the Russian military worked to destroy fuel storage sites.