Severodonetsk retreat ‘tactical’, Ukraine military spy chief says

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Ukraine’s retreat from Severodonetsk after weeks of fighting against Russian forces in the eastern city was a “tactical” move to avoid a repeat of the fateful Azovstal siege in Mariupol, according to the country’s military intelligence chief.

Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov said Friday’s pullout was ordered because weeks of Russian heavy artillery had “levelled” Severodonetsk “to the ground”. The devastation mirrored the fate of the port of Mariupol where Ukrainian soldiers sheltering in the Azovstal steel mill became trapped for weeks before surrendering.

Ukrainian troops had therefore “moved to higher ground” westward across the Siversky Donetsk river to the sister city Lysychansk and its surroundings. This retreat would make it “very difficult” for Russian forces positioned on the eastern banks of the river to cross and advance, particularly uphill, towards Lysychansk, he said.

“This was absolutely the right decision . . . a tactical regrouping,” he insisted.

Ukrainian forces have successfully bombed Russian convoys trying to cross the river on army pontoons. But Russian forces advancing from the south-east of Lysychansk, who do not face the river, did pose a threat, Budanov cautioned.

Both cities were, until recently, the last big government-controlled cities in the Luhansk region. Russian forces are pushing westward to Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Bakhmut.

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A former special forces soldier with combat experience in Donbas, the 36-year-old Budanov spoke at the weekend in his Kyiv office, as Russia stepped up missile strikes on the capital and elsewhere.

Sandbags were stacked along windows and combat gear was piled up on the floor. Outside lay a crater from a missile strike in the early phase of Russia’s invasion — a testament to the failed attempt by Vladimir Putin to topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Kyiv has now received the heaviest and longest-range weaponry from the west thus far in the form of a first batch of four Himars (high-mobility artillery rocket systems). The US and UK have each pledged several more. Germany last week provided a dozen Panzerhaubitzen 2000 mobile howitzers, while France has pledged to send six more Ceasar howitzers artillery systems, in addition to 12 already delivered.

But Ukraine is pleading for more weaponry as well as missiles because the Russian advance now covers about 20 per cent of the country’s territory. In Donbas, where Moscow is concentrating its efforts, Ukrainian forces are outgunned by 10:1 and shelling duels are killing about 100 troops per day, according to western assessment. Tens of thousands Ukrainians are estimated to have died since February.

To win, increased weapons supplies were needed “more than . . . yesterday or the day before yesterday”, Budanov said.

Budanov said the frontline stretched 2,400km, or the same as what the USSR had to face in the second world war against Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union back then, he said, had received far more military support from the west.

The west needed to provide help “more seriously” or else the war would stretch longer, with higher costs to Ukraine and the world, Budanov said. The “first signs of famine in Africa” were evident because of Russia’s naval blockade of Black Sea ports that was preventing the shipping of grain to vulnerable importers.

Partisan activities in Russian-occupied territories were emerging, Budanov said, citing two car bombings in the Kherson region that killed a regional official appointed by Russian occupying forces.

Drone and missile strikes of refineries, fuel depots and military installations inside Russian territory have also been reported in the past weeks.

These attacks and sabotage operations “are held everywhere, and they were and will be held in Russia and many other places”, Budanov said, refusing however to say whether Ukrainian authorities were behind them.

Despite the risks, civilians were providing geolocation of Russian forces through messaging apps which was “very helpful” to guide artillery strikes, he said.

Budanov said he believed Putin was ill — “cancer” he said — and that it helped explain the timing of the invasion. “We have all of his diagnoses,” he said, without disclosing them. The Kremlin says Putin is healthy and has dismissed previous claims that the Russian president has cancer. These date back to 2014 and most recently emerged in April.

Budanov said that, while he agreed with the western assessment that Russia’s forces were degraded and demoralised, he had little hope this would lead to a withdrawal from the east and southern coastal regions.

“If Russia now admits that it has not been able to defeat Ukraine . . . this is not the collapse of the system, this is the collapse of statehood. Therefore, they will fight as much as they can,” Budanov said.

“The Russian army will be forced to fight to the end. They have no other option.”

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