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Russia occupies all of Luhansk, advances in Donbas grow

The Kremlin's next target is the neighboring region of Donetsk where the fight is already raging.

(CN) — Having pushed Ukrainian troops out of the eastern city of Lysychansk, Russian forces were in control Tuesday of the entire eastern region of Luhansk and were continuing their assaults with the objective of seizing the rest of Donbas.

Luhansk had been one of two regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin had vowed to “liberate” when he launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. On Monday, he declared victory.

The military units “that took part in active hostilities and achieved success, victory,” in Luhansk “should rest, increase their combat capabilities," Putin urged.

Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces are now focusing their attack on the neighboring region of Donetsk, in particular on the urban centers of Sloviansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk. Reports from the front lines describe intense fighting. Russia already controls about half of Donetsk.

“The loss of the Luhansk region is painful because it is the territory of Ukraine,” Sergey Haidai, Ukraine's governor of Luhansk, told Reuters. “For me personally, this is special. This is the homeland where I was born, and I am also the head of the region.”

Haidai said the loss of Luhansk is “not losing the war” and that Ukrainian forces retreated to save lives and avoid being surrounded.

Despite suffering tremendous losses and losing ground under fierce Russian artillery and air attacks, Ukraine is vowing to retake areas it has lost to Russia and says it can still turn the tide of the war with the steady supply of heavy weapons from the West.

Together the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk make up an area commonly called Donbas, which is nearly the size of West Virginia. Under the Soviet Union, these regions were turned into Ukraine's mining and industrial heartland, and they became home to many ethnic Russians.

War erupted in these two regions in 2014 following the violent overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president in the so-called “Maidan Revolution.” The ousting of Viktor Yanukovych plunged the country into civil unrest and war after Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and backed the armed uprising of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The Maidan uprising caused deep internal divides in Ukraine. Those supporting the insurrection wanted to embrace Western institutions, most importantly the European Union and NATO. But large segments of the population, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, were opposed to this Western-oriented future and advocated for closer relations with Russia or keeping Ukraine neutral.

Following the Maidan uprising and the installation of an anti-Russian government in Kyiv, the Donbas regions declared themselves independent from Ukraine. Putin recognized their status as independent people's republics on the eve of the invasion.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the Donetsk People's Republic, said Russian forces were focused on Donetsk following the fall of Lysychansk and that Ukrainian forces must be pushed back all the way to Kyiv, the capital, to prevent them from shelling Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine.

Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a run-of-river power plant on the Dnieper River in Kherson region, south Ukraine, on May 20, 2022. The Kherson region has been under control of the Russian forces since the early days of the Russian military action in Ukraine. This photo was taken during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. (AP Photo, File)

Putin's war aims do not seem limited to seizing Donbas, despite already heavy losses on the battlefield and his country becoming a pariah in the eyes of the West. He appears eager to order his army to continue fighting for more areas of Ukraine.

Initially, Putin ordered a major assault on Kyiv, but that assault was repelled. Putin likely hoped his forces could quickly overwhelm Ukraine's military and force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to capitulate. After that did not happen, Russian forces regrouped and focused their firepower on Donbas.

Besides Donbas, Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, and Odesa, the country's third largest city, are in Putin's sights. Both cities have large Russian-speaking populations.

Kharkiv is located near Russia's border in northeastern Ukraine, and it has come under attack since the start of the invasion. War reports say fighting is taking place in the vicinity of Kharkiv.

So far, Russian forces have not attempted an assault on Odesa, which lies on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. The city has deep historical significance for Russia and it is home to many ethnic Russians.

On Monday, Zelenskyy put the price tag of rebuilding Ukraine at $750 billion, though that estimate includes areas now under control of Russia, which are also the most heavily damaged, such as the city of Mariupol. Russia is moving to rebuild areas it has seized.

At a conference on rebuilding Ukraine in Lugano, Switzerland, Zelenskyy urged the EU and Western powers to help his country recover from Russia's onslaught.

“Russia’s aggression is still underway, and about 80,000 objects have already been ruined, which is dozens of millions of square meters,” Zelenskyy said. “Looking at such losses, we must see not simply the walls broken, the church destroyed, the halls or rooms burnt down, but millions of human lives that will never be the same as they were before.”

Ukraine, one of Europe's poorest and also one of its most corrupt countries before the war, is asking European leaders to help turn it into a modern state fit for entry into the EU bloc.

Last month, the EU formally opened the door for Ukraine to become a member, but it could take years before it is accepted into the EU club because Ukraine needs to implement deep reforms to come into line with EU laws, rules and standards.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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