Vladimir Putin congratulates troops for 'liberating' Luhansk and tells them to rest

Last bastion of Ukrainian control in eastern region fell to Russian forces at the weekend

President Vladimir Putin has praised Russian troops for taking control of the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. Reuters
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has congratulated his troops on “liberating” Luhansk, after forces loyal to Kyiv withdrew from their last bastion in the eastern Ukrainian region.

The capture of Luhansk, which together with the neighbouring Donetsk province forms part of the Donbas, comes nearly three months after Moscow began its battle to take control of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of coal mines and factories. The Kremlin decided to concentrate troops in the east after failing to gain control of Kyiv and other major cities in the early weeks of the invasion.

In a televised meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Mr Putin said the soldiers involved in the operation to capture Luhansk should rest but that other military units must keep up the fight.

Mr Shoigu told Mr Putin that “the operation” had been completed on Sunday.

Mr Putin, in turn, said the military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victory” in Luhansk, “should rest, increase their combat capabilities”.

Emboldened by the victory, the Russian leader ordered him to press ahead with the Donbas offensive.

"Military units, including the East group and the West group, must carry out their tasks according to previously approved plans," Mr Putin told Mr Shoigu.

His comments came a day after Ukrainian troops pulled out of Lysychansk after heavy shelling on Saturday. The loss prompted Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to step up calls for an increased supply of weapons from the West for Kyiv to maintain the resistance and regain lost territories.

Footage broadcast by French TV channel France 24 showed men in military uniform waving a Russian flag from a hospital in Lysychansk, a city with a prewar population of about 100,000. In a bid to win the support of the residents, fighters loyal to Moscow handed out food to locals.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's Telegram channel shows forces loyal to Russia waving national flags against a backdrop of destroyed buildings in Lysychansk. AP

Ukrainian troops’ retreat from Lysychansk comes a week after Russia took control of the neighbouring city of Severodonetsk.

Announcing its retreat on Sunday, the Ukrainian army said: "The continuation of the defence of the city [Lysychansk] would lead to fatal consequences" in the face of Russia's superiority in numbers and equipment. "In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw."

Luhansk region governor Sergiy Gayday said on Telegram that fighting continued in the town of Bilogorivka outside Lysychansk. "We keep defending a small part of the Luhansk region so that our army could build protective redoubts," he said.

He said that Ukrainian forces had retreated from the city to avoid being surrounded.

“There was a risk of Lysychansk encirclement,” Mr Gayday said, adding that fighters could have held out for a few more weeks but would have potentially paid too high a price. "We managed to do centralised withdrawal and evacuate all injured," he said. "We took back all the equipment, so from this point withdrawal was organised well.”

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed troops had withdrawn from Luhansk but he vowed his military would regain control of the Donbas.

“We care about the lives of our soldiers,” he said. “We can rebuild the walls, we will win back the territory but people must be taken care of above all. Ukraine does not give anything up."

Highlighting the progress of Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, Mr Zelenskyy said "there will be a day when we will say the same about Donbas".

He vowed Kyiv would fight on and ensure Ukraine's military had "the most modern weapons".

"Ukraine will reach the level when the fire superiority of the occupiers will be levelled," the president said.

Kyiv renews plea for weapons after loss of Luhansk

After urging G7 and Nato leaders last week to donate more weapons, Mr Zelenskyy will this week extend his call to delegates at a meeting in Lugano, Switzerland.

On Monday, leaders from dozens of countries and international organisations gathered for the two-day Ukraine Recovery Conference with the aim of drawing up a road map for the rebuilding of the nation — expected to run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

Lugano is not a pledging conference but will instead attempt to lay out the principles and priorities for a recovery process expected to begin even as the war continues.

Ukraine will also be encouraged to usher in broad reforms, especially in tackling corruption after Brussels recently granted Kyiv candidate status in its push to join the 27-member European Union.

While Mr Zelenskyy will address the conference via video link, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal will travel to the meeting in a rare trip outside the country.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will pledge further humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, as well as access to British financial and economic expertise, the UK Foreign Office said.

She will tell delegates that Ukraine's recovery "will be a symbol of the power of democracy over autocracy", it said in a statement.

Ukraine war in pictures

Updated: July 04, 2022, 12:55 PM