The Kremlin has claimed it has finally “liberated” half of the entire Donbas after more than four months of bloody fighting that has destroyed the region’s key towns.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, told the “Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin” that he could declare victory in Luhansk the day after the capture of Lysychansk, the region’s last Ukrainian-held town.
Luhansk makes up half of Donbas, which Mr Putin made a priority target after his armies retreated from outside Kyiv in March, and its capture will be used as propaganda to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
Russian media accompanied the news of the “liberation” of Luhansk with videos of small crowds cheering Russian soldiers driving down dirt roads in Lysychansk. The town lies across the Seversky Donets River from Severodonetsk which Russian forces captured days earlier after a battle lasting several weeks.
Ukrainian forces had been expected to put up stiff resistance in Lysychansk but military analysts said that they may have withdrawn quickly before they were surrounded by Russian forces.
“The Ukrainians have withdrawn in good order as the Russians never cut their communications,” said Prof Phillips O’Brien, who teaches strategic studies at St Andrews University.
Russian army incapable of ‘basic tasks’ of modern war
And despite the Kremlin celebrating victory in Luhansk, Prof O’Brien was scathing of the Russian army’s performance.
“The Russian army is incapable of fulfilling the basic tasks of modern war. Instead it does incremental, slow advances, a kilometre at a time,” he said. “It can’t breakthrough, it can’t exploit, it can’t encircle. This is not a sign of an advanced military.”
Ukrainian forces have said that they have been outgunned by the Russian army by a factor of 10-to-1 in Donbas. British intelligence has also said that the Russian army has been firing missiles designed to destroy aircraft carriers at Ukraine’s forces.
The pro-Russia rebel Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics broke away from Ukraine’s central government in a war in 2014, establishing control over roughly half of their regions.
In February, Mr Putin said that defending the breakaway regions was a core reason for his invasion of Ukraine and now, with their conquest of the entire Luhansk region, Russian forces can concentrate on capturing the handful of towns in Donetsk still under Ukrainian control.
The West derides Russian military tactics as crude and limited but senior Russian commanders have appeared far more confident over the past few months compared to March and April, when the Russian army failed to capture Kyiv and the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet was sunk.
Over the past week, Mr Shoigu and his deputy have both made their first trips to Ukraine to inspect Russian soldiers and last month Mr Putin gave one of his most bombastic speeches since the war began on February 24.