Ukraine has ordered its troops to withdraw from the embattled city of Severodonetsk, the main focus of Russia’s assault in the east of the country, after withstanding months of relentless attack and artillery bombardment.

Serhiy Hayday, regional governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said Ukrainian forces had received “a command to withdraw to new positions, to new fortified regions, and from there to conduct normal battle operations”. In televised comments on Friday, he added: “Unfortunately . . . it will be necessary to withdraw.”

Senior officials had no immediate comment on the decision to pull back from Severodonetsk, the provincial capital of Luhansk region, which is already more than 90 per cent occupied by Russian forces. Alongside the nearby town Lysychansk, it is the only remaining city in the province not yet controlled by Russian troops.

The setback contrasts with Kyiv’s progress off the battlefield. On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated “victory” after the EU gave Ukraine membership candidate status. The US also announced another $450mm of military aid, taking its total security assistance to Ukraine this year to more than $6bn.

The fall of Severodonetsk caps months of heavy artillery-led fighting and underlines Russia’s slow but steady advance in the eastern Donbas region where Moscow has refocused its military efforts following a near routing of its troops in their attempt to take the capital in the early days of the war.

Outgunned by Russian artillery at a ratio of 10:1, according to Kyiv, Ukrainian troops in the Donbas were taking heavy casualties, with about 100 troops killed in action daily, and morale was suffering as they were encircled and pounded by Russian shells.

Still, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War commented that while the loss of Severodonetsk represented a loss of terrain for Ukraine, it was not a “major turning point in the war” nor a “decisive Russian victory”.

“Ukrainian troops have succeeded for weeks in drawing substantial quantities of Russian personnel, weapons and equipment into the area and have likely degraded Russian forces’ overall capabilities,” they said.

Russian forces, which analysts say have improved on early tactical mistakes with better combined arms operations and air defence, now control about a fifth of Ukrainian territory in total, with the Kremlin believing it can grind down the country and that western political support will also eventually fade.

Western defence officials and analysts concur, however, that Russia lacks sufficient troops to mount a sustained offensive and will soon have to pause even as Ukraine is reinforced by hefty supplies of long-range western heavy weaponry that could tilt the military balance in its favour.

Mobilising more Russian troops remains a problem, while Ukraine has also recently launched a daring series of behind-the-lines attacks on Russian infrastructure, including a drone strike this week on an oil refinery. There are also unconfirmed reports of growing activity by Ukrainian insurgents in Russian-occupied areas, such as the southern city of Kherson.

Hayday, the regional governor, did not say whether Ukrainian forces would retreat to Lysychansk, a move that has been anticipated given the city’s higher ground and the dividing Siversky Donets river. He said Russian troops were gaining territory from the south towards their positions.

“Nobody will abandon our boys. Nobody will let them get surrounded,” Hayday said.

“We now have a situation where holding on to destroyed positions for many months just to be there makes no sense. Because with each passing day, the number of deaths in unsecured positions can grow proportionally,” he added.

Describing the scene in Severodonetsk, from where most civilians have been evacuated, Hayday said more than 90 per cent of buildings had been bombed out after months of battles and “all infrastructure is completely destroyed”. Before the war, it had a population of about 100,000.

Yuriy Butusov, a reporter embedded with the Ukrainian military in the city, said the unit he was with withdrew from the industrial zone of the city on Thursday night. Most of the defenders were holed up in the Azot industrial plant.

In an intelligence update on Thursday, the UK defence ministry said Russian forces had been putting the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk pocket “under increasing pressure . . . However, its efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take western Donetsk Oblast remain stalled.”

The Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been fought over since 2014 when Russia fomented a proxy separatist war after occupying Crimea.

Ukrainian forces have since then battled Russia-backed separatists who controlled swaths of the region in a smouldering conflict that claimed about 14,000 lives. Ukraine continues four months into Russia’s full-scale invasion to control large cities in western regions of Donbas including Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

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