As Russian forces slowly and systematically advance through the industrial heart of Ukraine, Ukrainian troops retreated from a besieged city in eastern Ukraine in what a senior defense official described as a tactical move to protect their forces.
In an effort to avoid encirclement after weeks of fighting, a regional governor said Friday that Ukrainian forces would retreat from the city of Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region and one of Russia's last hurdles in its quest to control the region.
Russia currently controls about 95% of the Luhansk region, which along with Dontesk, makes up the Donbas, the resource-rich and industrial engine of the country. Russia appears focused on controlling the Donbas, making incremental gains in recent weeks toward that goal, said the official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.
The drive to take Donbas represents a recalibration of Russian aims after its overly ambitious aims and mismanaged invasion that began four months ago, the official said. Friday’s retreat will allow Ukrainian troops to protect themselves while allowing Russia a small, costly gain, the official said.
For weeks, Russian artillery has relentlessly pounded Sievierodonetsk. Ukrainian forces in the city retreated to the underground structures of a chemical factory, where Russian troops, gaining ground in Sievierodonetsk and neighboring Lysychansk, attempted to encircle Ukrainian forces.
"We will have to pull back our guys," Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said. "It makes no sense to stay at the destroyed positions, because the number of casualties in poorly fortified areas will grow every day."
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►European Union leadership approved Ukraine's candidacy for membership Thursday, starting the embattled nation on a yearslong path toward cementing a closer relationship with the West as it attempts to distance itself from its Russian invaders.
►The U.S. will send $450 million more in military aid to Ukraine, including more medium-range rocket systems, officials said Thursday.
►Thousands of Russian troops have been killed, and tens of thousands wounded in Ukraine, a senior administration official has told USA TODAY.
►Dmitry Savlyuchenko, an official of the pro-Moscow administration in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, was killed in a vehicle explosion Friday. Savlyuchenko was captured by Russian troops early in the invasion. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion.
'Heavyweights that are just slugging it out': How the war is entering a new phase
After its early military humiliation, Russia has regrouped in Ukraine and focused its wrath in the east with relentless shelling — giving Moscow momentum as the war moves into a bleak new phase.
With its vast supply of artillery, armor and troops, Russia now has an edge, experts say. Combat in Ukraine has shifted to the eastern part of the country, its mineral-rich, industrial heartland. Russian-backed separatists have fought for control of the region, known as the Donbas, since 2014.
"About 20% of Ukrainian territory has de facto been annexed," said Seth Jones, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They’ve replaced currency with ruble in many areas, replaced the educational curriculum, including Russian history. The hand-picked local authorities are Russian."
But Ukraine still holds potent advantages, including a fierce will to fight and new Western weapons. Read more here.
— Tom Vanden Brook
UN head warns of 'unprecedented global hunger crisis' fueled by war in Ukraine
The head of the United Nations warned Friday that the world is facing a "catastrophe" due to an "unprecedented global hunger crisis" fueled by the war in Ukraine adding to the effects of climate change and the pandemic. He said the growing food shortage is already affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a video message to officials gathered in Berlin. "And 2023 could be even worse."
UN negotiators are working on a deal that both allows Ukraine to export food despite many ports being blockaded and that allows Russia to export food and fertilizer without restrictions, Guterres said. He added that he wants to see debt relief for poorer countries to help with food access.
But German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Russia's claim that Western sanctions on the country following its invasion of Ukraine are at fault for food shortages is "completely untenable," adding that Russia exported just as much wheat in May and June this year compared to last year.
Contributing: Tom, Vanden Brook, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine live updates: Ukrainian forces retreat from Sievierodonetsk