The army yesterday posted videos on social media of a red “victory banner” being placed in the centre of Lysychansk at the Memorial of the Fallen.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader whose soldiers are among those fighting there, said it was now a mopping-up operation, adding: “The trap has closed and Lysychansk is now completely surrounded by our united forces.” Although he has previously proved an unreliable witness, his claim was echoed by pro-Russian separatist officials in the region.
“Today, the Luhansk popular militia and Russian forces occupied the last strategic heights, which allows us to confirm that Lysychansk is completely encircled,” said Andrei Marotchko, a spokesman for the separatist forces.
The Kyiv government denied their troops were surrounded, however, and said the battle was ongoing. “Fighting rages around Lysychansk... The city has not been encircled and is under control of the Ukrainian army,” Ruslan Muzytchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, said.
Britain said fighting continued in one part of Lysychansk but it was likely to be a rearguard action to cover the withdrawal of the main Ukrainian forces.
The Ministry of Defence said: “Ukrainian forces probably continue to block Russian forces in the south-eastern outskirts of Lysychansk.”
Following the fall of the nearby city of Severodonetsk last month, analysts had largely expected Lysychansk would eventually follow suit.
Taking Luhansk, which makes up half of Donbas, has become Mr Putin’s priority target since his forces retreated from outside Kyiv in March.
Ukrainian forces have said they are outgunned 10-to-one in the battle for Donbas and have begged for more heavy weapons from the West.
Sergiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, said that Russian attackers had nearly destroyed Lysychansk, which used to house 95,000 people, using “scorched earth” tactics.
“The Russians are storming Lysychansk from different sides, using a large number of forces,” he said.
Last week, Ukrainian soldiers said that they had retreated from Severodonetsk to higher ground in Lysychansk to prepare for the battle. They had clearly hoped to hold the city for longer to give their forces in other industrial towns in Donbas more time to organise their defences.
Russian forces have deployed similar tactics across Donbas. Massing outside each town and city, they pound Ukrainian forces with artillery before sending in soldiers to claim victory.
If Lysychansk falls, it would mark the end of the battle for Luhansk and the start of the fight for Donetsk, the other half of the Donbas. There has been fighting in the Donbas since separatists in the two regions broke away from Kyiv in 2014. Mr Putin made defending these regions one of his reasons for invading Ukraine on February 24.
Donbas has an outsized place in the Russian psyche because of its rich coal mines and fertile soil, celebrated as far back as Tsarist Russia.
© Telegraph Media Group 2022 Ltd
Telegraph Media Group Limited