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Russia takes control of a key eastern province, sets stage for war's next phase

With the fall of Lysychansk, Moscow controls half of the eastern industrial heartland where its war has been focused for months.

The last Ukrainian bastion in a key eastern province is now in Russian hands

Seizing full control of the Luhansk region Sunday may represent not just a major public relations boost for President Vladimir Putin but also a significant battlefield development that could set the stage for decisive battles to come.

Ukraine has acknowledged that its troops pulled out from the city of Lysychansk, just over a week after they withdrew from its twin city, Sievierodonetsk. Kyiv said the retreat was an effort to preserve manpower as it stares down a long war of attrition, while Moscow heralded what it said was a major victory.

The fall of Lysychansk dominated Russian state media headlines Monday, as Putin held a rare televised face-to-face meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to thank the troops and Ukrainian separatist forces for the capture of Luhansk. It was celebrated in propaganda videos from the battlefield and in photos taken by Russian cosmonauts in space. 

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Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's report during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday. Mikhail Klimentyev / AP

The Kremlin’s forces were already looking to advance farther in neighboring Donetsk, which with Luhansk makes up the industrial region known as the Donbas, so attention was turning toward what the capture might mean for the future of the Russian invasion.

“The loss of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk is significant, but the Ukrainian decision to retreat buys Kyiv some time and avoids human losses that would be more critical than the loss of two cities,” said geopolitical and security analyst Michael A. Horowitz, the head of intelligence at the consultancy Le Beck. 

“On the ground, the war is still far from being won,” he added. 

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=A Ukrainian serviceman stands in front of a burning vehicle during an artillery duel between Ukrainian and Russian troops in the city of Lysychansk on June 11.Aris Messinis / AFP via Getty Images

The fall of Lysychansk hands Russia control of half of the eastern industrial heartland where its war has been focused for months. 

But while Moscow may treat it as such, Ukraine’s withdrawal does not yet amount to a strategic breakthrough for Russia, said Neil Melvin, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. 

There would need to be evidence of collapsing Ukrainian defenses and Russia’s quickly pushing deeper into Ukraine, Melvin added, for such a claim to have veracity. It also comes as Ukraine has been making progress elsewhere, slowly building toward a counteroffensive in the occupied south and forcing Russians from a key outpost in the Black Sea last week. 

“But Ukraine has lost some territory and will need to ensure that Russia is not able to build significant momentum,” he said. 

What could happen next?

Taking the whole of the Donbas, a mineral-rich region that Moscow-backed separatists partly controlled before the invasion, has been the Kremlin’s focus for months.

Until recent weeks, its forces have been making incremental gains behind an artillery barrage that has devastated the region’s villages and towns. But Putin has now secured perhaps his most significant military accomplishments in Ukraine to date — after a series of embarrassing setbacks early in the war.

It is a victory that Putin can “sell” domestically to show that what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine is making progress despite reports of heavy battlefield casualties, Horowitz said. It also gives Putin some breathing room to decide what to do next and to determine whether he wants to settle on seizing all of the Donbas or pursue a long, drawn-out war with broader aims. 

Observers say the capture of Luhansk will give Moscow a more solid base from which to launch deeper attacks into neighboring Donetsk province.

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Russian troops, including soldiers of Chechen regiment, wave flags in front of a destroyed building in Lysychansk on Saturday. AP

“Luhansk has gone, but Russia doesn’t get the Donbas until it takes the rest of Donetsk,” said Michael Clarke, a professor of war studies at King’s College London. 

Ukrainian troops are likely to withdraw toward the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk, where the next battle will occur, Clarke said, as they strike deeper behind Russian lines with Western-supplied weapons to attack Russian fuel and ammunition stores. 

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, said Russian forces will likely next advance on the city of Siversk, just 15 miles west of Lysychansk. It also said the Russians could launch more significant attacks on the cities of Slovyansk or Bakhmut. 

On Sunday, heavy shelling in Slovyansk killed six people, perhaps indicating Russia's next target.

However, Putin suggested troops who fought in Lysychansk might take a strategic pause to rest and “increase their combat capabilities,” the state news agency Tass reported.

But capturing the rest of Donetsk will be more daunting, Horowitz said. 

“In mid-March, Russia already controlled up to 85% of Luhansk, whereas it controls only about half of Donetsk today — and capturing the last 15% of Luhansk took months.”

That means supplies of Western arms will be key. 

“Kyiv needs a constant stream of weapons and ammunition to both be able to stop the Russian advance and take the initiative,” Horowitz said. “This has become an artillery-centric war, as both sides can’t afford to launch any kind of offensive without barrages of artillery first.”