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Russian forces leave Snake Island but press their offensive in eastern Ukraine

War-damaged concert hall in Ukraine
Russian ordnance sits on the ground at a concert hall damaged by strikes in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region.
(Nariman El-Mofty / Associated Press)
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Russia on Thursday pulled back its forces from a strategically placed Black Sea island where they have faced relentless Ukrainian attacks, but kept up its push to encircle the last bulwark of Ukraine’s resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

Russia’s Defense Ministry portrayed the pullout from Snake Island off Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa as a “goodwill gesture.” Ukraine’s military said the Russians fled the island in two speedboats after a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov contended that the withdrawal was intended to demonstrate that “the Russian Federation wasn’t hampering the United Nations’ efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for taking agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine.”

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Ukraine and the West have accused Russian of blockading Ukrainian ports to prevent exports of grain, contributing to a global food crisis. Russia has denied the accusations and said that Ukraine needs to remove sea mines from the Black Sea to allow safe navigation.

Satellite image of Ukraine's Snake Island
Russian forces have left Ukraine’s Snake Island in the Black Sea, which they had taken early in the war.
(Maxar Technologies)

Turkey has sought to broker a deal on unblocking grain exports from Ukraine, but the talks have dragged on without any sign of quick progress, with Kyiv voicing concern that Moscow could use the deal to launch an attack on Odesa.

Russia took control of the island, which lies in a busy shipping lane, in the opening days of the war in the apparent hope of using it to control the area and as a staging ground for an attack on Odesa.

Relentless Russian artillery barrages have battered Ukraine’s powerful coal industry and endangered miners working underground. “No one wants to risk getting trapped down there,” said one.

June 30, 2022

The island came to epitomize Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukrainian troops there received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or face bombardment. “Russian warship,” the answer came back, “go f— yourself.”

Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration. The Ukrainian defenders of the island — who were first widely reported to have been massacred — were captured by the Russians but later freed as part of a prisoner exchange.

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Since the island was taken, the Ukrainian military has relentlessly bombarded the small Russian garrison and air-defense assets stationed there.

At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the Russian pullout as a sign that Ukraine would prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In the end, it will prove impossible for Putin to hold down a country that will not accept” occupation, Johnson said.

NATO has declared Russia the ‘most significant and direct threat’ to its members’ peace and security.

June 29, 2022

In eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Russian troops kept up their push to take control of the entire Donbas region, made up of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The offensive is focused on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk. Russia and its separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk.

The Ukrainian military’s general staff said that Russian troops were shelling Lysychansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on the edge of the city.

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units tried to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday but were repelled by Ukrainian forces. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway vital for supply deliveries and to fully encircle the city.

“The Russians have thrown practically all their forces to seize the city,” Haidai said.

Mourners comforting each other
People lay flowers in tribute to those who died in a Russian missile attack on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, Ukraine.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)
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Speaking during a visit to Turkmenistan early Thursday, Putin said his goals in Ukraine haven’t changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of the Donbas, the protection of these people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself.” He made no mention of his original stated goals to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine.

He denied that Russia had adjusted its strategy after failing to take Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in the early stage of the conflict.

“As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the marks that were set for them for a certain stage of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said.

A senior Russian official warned that Moscow could interpret Western sanctions as a cause for war. “Under certain circumstances, such hostile measures could be perceived as an act of international aggression, or even as a casus belli,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said in a speech at a legal forum.

In central Ukraine, funerals were to be held Thursday for some of the 18 people confirmed killed by Monday’s Russian missile strike on a busy shopping mall in Kremenchuk. Crews continued to search through the rubble for an additional 20 people who remain missing.

Ukrainian State Emergency Services press officer Svitlana Rybalko told the Associated Press that along with the 18 bodies, investigators found fragments of eight more bodies. It was not immediately clear whether that meant there were more victims. A number of survivors suffered severed limbs.

After the attack on the mall, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of becoming a “terrorist” state. On Wednesday, he reproached the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for not embracing or equipping his embattled country more fully.

He asked for more modern artillery systems and other weapons and warned the NATO leaders that they either had to provide Ukraine with the help it needed to defeat Russia or “face a delayed war between Russia and yourself.”

KyivPride moved to Poland this year and was a platform to keep international attention focused on Ukraine’s struggle against Russia.

June 27, 2022

On Thursday, Sweden — newly invited to join NATO — announced plans to send more military support to Ukraine, including antitank weapons, support weapons and de-mining equipment that it says Kyiv had requested. “It is important that the support to Ukraine from the democratic countries in Europe is continuous and long-term,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said, according to the Swedish news agency TT.

In southern Ukraine, the death toll from Wednesday’s Russian missile strike on an apartment building in Mykolaiv rose to six, according to Gov. Vitaliy Kim. Six other people were wounded. Mykolaiv is a major port, and seizing it — as well as Odesa farther west — would be key to Russia’s objective of cutting off Ukraine from its Black Sea coast.

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