KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces are strengthening their positions in a fierce fight to capture the last stronghold of resistance in Luhansk province in eastern Ukraine, the region’s governor said on Sunday.
Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks trying to defend the city of Lysychansk and prevent it from falling to Russia, as its neighbor Sievierodonetsk did a week ago. A presidential adviser predicted that his fate could be determined within days.
“The occupiers threw all their forces at Lysychansk. They attacked the city with tactics of incomprehensible cruelty,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app. “They take heavy losses, but stubbornly advance. They gain a foothold in the city.”
A river separates Lysychansk from Sievierodonetsk. Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in an online interview on Saturday evening that Russian forces had managed to cross the river from the north for the first time, creating a “threatening” situation.
Arestovitch said they had not reached the center of the city but the course of the fighting indicated that the Battle of Lysychansk would be decided by Monday. In May, Ukrainian and British officials reported that Russia had lost almost an entire battalion in an attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River and establish a bridgehead.
Taking Lysychansk would bring Moscow closer to its stated goal of seizing all of Ukraine’s Donbass region. Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbass, where Russia has focused its offensive since pulling out of northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, in the spring.
Pro-Russian separatists have held parts of the two eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. The Syrian government said on Wednesday it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two regions.
The leader of neighboring Belarus, an ally of Russia, claimed on Saturday that Ukraine fired missiles several days ago at military targets in Belarusian territory but all were intercepted by an air defense system. President Alexander Lukashenko called the alleged strike a provocation and noted that no Belarusian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine.
There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian military.
Belarus hosts Russian military units and was used as a base for the Russian invasion. Last week, just hours before Lukashenko was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian long-range bombers fired missiles at Ukraine for the first time from Belarusian airspace.
Lukashenko has so far resisted efforts to drag his army into war. But during their meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko that his government was dependent on economic support from Russia.