Ukrainian forces withdraw from Severodonetsk amid widespread Russian shelling

Russian missiles rained down across Ukraine on Saturday, hitting military facilities in the west and the north as well as a southern city as the biggest land conflict in Europe since the Second World War entered its fifth month.

Russian artillery and airstrikes pounded the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the eastern Luhansk region on Friday, smashing into a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official said on Saturday.

Ukraine said on Friday its troops had been ordered to retreat from Severodonetsk, as there was very little left to defend after weeks of intense fighting, marking the biggest reversal for Ukraine since losing the port of Mariupol in May.

News of the withdrawal came four months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions, and disrupted the global economy.

“Forty-eight cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic, and make people be afraid.”

Lysychansk at risk

The latest Russian advances appeared to bring Moscow closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Putin’s objectives and sets the stage for Lysychansk to become the next main focus.

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 it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk.

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Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked Severodonetsk’s industrial zone and also attempted to enter and blockade Lysychansk on Saturday.

“There was an airstrike at Lysychansk. Severodonetsk was hit by artillery,” Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd and others had been shelled.

He made no mention of casualties at the Azot plant and Reuters could not immediately verify the information. Gaidai said police officers, rescuers and volunteers helped 17 people to leave Lysychansk on Friday.

WATCH | Ukraine concedes the city of Severodonetsk to Russia:

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Keratin Starsky, the press officer of a Ukrainian National Guard brigade, said on television on Saturday that the flow of information about the withdrawal from Severodonetsk had been delayed to protect troops on the ground.

“During the last [several] days, an operation was conducted to withdraw our troops,” Starsky said.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a “special military operation,” but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance by Ukrainian fighters with the help of Western weapons.

Pressure to reach a ‘bad’ peace deal

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.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday that he feared Ukraine could face pressure to agree to a peace deal with Russia that would not be in Kyiv’s interests, due to the economic consequences of the war in Europe.

“I know that the cost of food has gone up, the cost of fuel. Everybody is looking at this, I mean, too many countries are looking at this thing now and saying, this is a European war that is unnecessary; it’s an economic problem that we don’t need.

“And so the pressure will grow to try to encourage, coerce maybe, the Ukrainians to a bad peace,” Johnson said, speaking from the Rwandan capital Kigali, where he is attending a Commonwealth summit.

Johnson said the consequences of Putin getting his way in Ukraine would be dangerous to international security and “a long-term economic disaster.”

Shelling towns across Ukraine

On Saturday, Russia again fired missiles at military and civilian infrastructure in the north near Ukraine’s second-biggest city Kharkiv through to Severodonetsk in the east, said the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

Several regional governors reported shelling attacks on towns across Ukraine on Saturday.

Workers stand in front of the destroyed farm of 62-year-old Lyubov Zlobina in the village of Mala Rohan, near Kharkiv on June 23. (Anatoli Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

While Russia denies targeting civilians, Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.

The governor of the Lviv region in western Ukraine, Maxim Kozytskyi, said in a video posted online that six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at the Yavoriv base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target but two were destroyed.

Vitaliy Bunechko, governor of the Zhytomyr region in the north of the country, said strikes on a military target killed at least one soldier.

“Nearly 30 missiles were launched at one military infrastructure facility very near to the city of Zhytomyr,” said Bunechko.  Nearly 10 missiles had been intercepted and destroyed, he said.

In the south, Oleksandr Senkevych, mayor of Mykolaiv near the Black Sea, said five cruise missiles hit the city and nearby areas on Saturday. The number of casualties is still being determined.

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