Locals look at destroyed buildings in Lysychansk after heavy fighting in the Luhansk province of Ukraine on June 18. File Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak/EPA-EFE
July 3 (UPI) -- Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Sunday that Russian forces had captured the city of Lysychansk, the last major city that had been under Ukrainian control in the Donbas region of Ukraine, as cities in Russia allegedly came under fire from Ukrainian missiles.
Shoigu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Luhansk province, which together with the Donetsk province makes up the larger Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, had been "liberated," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement to Telegram.
The Donbas region has been largely held by pro-Russian separatists since Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014. Putin recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics before the start of the invasion on Feb. 24.
Experts have said that Putin will try to annex the Donbas region into Russia in coming months. By seizing Lysychansk, Russia is one step closer to sectioning off Luhansk.
"The successful operations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces in coordination with the units of People's Militia of the Luhansk People's Republic, have resulted in establishing the total control in Lysychansk and various nearby settlements," the Russian Defense Ministry said in its statement.
Serhiy Haidai, the military governor for the Luhansk province, said in a statement to Telegram that Russian forces were "entrenched" in Lysychansk.
"Settlements are still burning, the raiders finish off the survivors with artillery," Haidai said, though he did not say whether Russia had seized complete control of the city.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., said in an analysis Saturday night that Ukrainian forces "likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk."
"Geolocated footage showed Russian forces casually walking around northern and southeastern neighborhoods in Lysychansk in a way that suggests that there are few or no remaining Ukrainian forces in the city as of July 2," the think tank said in its analysis.
The British Defense Ministry, which has been providing intelligence updates throughout the course of the war in Ukraine, said Saturday that Ukrainian forces "probably continue to block Russian forces in the southeastern outskirts of Lysychansk."
Seizing Lysychansk gives Russia a strategic base to continue its assault on key cities in the Donetsk province to the southwest. However, Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Vadym Denysenko has said Russian forces will have a hard time advancing in Donetsk past the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
"Russian forces will likely establish control over the remaining territory of Luhansk Oblast in coming days and will likely then prioritize drives on Ukrainian positions in Siversk before turning to Slovyansk and Bakhmut," the Institute for the Study of War said in its analysis.
The news came as the Russian Defense Ministry claimed in a statement to Telegram that Ukrainian forces had fired five missiles at residential areas in the Russian cities of Belgorod and Kursk.
Russian officials claimed that Russian defense systems destroyed three Tochka-U ballistic missiles fired at Belgorod but that the fragments of one of the destroyed missiles fell onto residential buildings in the city causing the explosions.
Four people were killed in the explosion which damaged 11 apartment buildings and 39 houses, Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Russia's Belgorod region, said in a statement to Telegram.
The British Defense Ministry noted in its intelligence update that some of the deadliest missile strikes for civilians in Ukraine since the start of the invasion have occurred in the last couple of weeks as Russia uses anti-ship missiles mean for naval warfare.
"Russia continues to employ air-launched anti-ship missiles in a secondary land-attack role, likely because of dwindling stockpiles of more accurate modern weapons," the British Defense Ministry said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that Russian forces have fired more than 3,000 missiles at Ukraine throughout the war.