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ABC News
ABC News
Europe bureau chief Steve Cannane

Ukrainian forces to withdraw from eastern city of Sievierodonetsk

Ukrainian soldiers patrol in Sievierodonetsk earlier this week. (Reuters: Oleksandr Ratushniak)

The last Ukrainian troops holding out in a desperate battle for the city of Sievierodonetsk have been ordered to withdraw, after weeks of intense, street-to-street fighting and aerial bombardment.

The governor of Luhansk province, Serhiy Haidai, told Ukrainian television that it was no longer practical to try to hang on to the city.

"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense, because every day the number of casualties at the unfortified positions increases," he said.

Russia has been throwing everything at Sievierodonetsk as part of its mission to take the region of Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

A man rides a bicycle past a building damaged by Russian shelling in Bakhmut, Donetsk. (AP: Efrem Lukatsky)

To achieve that, Russian forces need to control all of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

Once Sievierodonetsk falls, Lysychansk will be the only remaining city in the Luhansk region that is not under Russian control.

However, even if both cities are taken by Russia, the battle for Donbas will not be over.

Donetsk's regional military administration claims that 45 per cent of its province remains under the control of Ukrainian forces.

So, if Russia takes both these cities in Luhansk in the coming days or weeks, will it mark a significant victory?

A Ukrainian analyst says Moscow has lost more troops than Kyiv in Sievierodonetsk. (Reuters: Oleksandr Ratushniak)

The US think tank the Institute of the Study of War says that the loss of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk "will not represent a major turning point in the war".

In a recent assessment, it said: "Ukrainian troops have succeeded for weeks in drawing substantial quantities of Russian personnel, weapons and equipment into the area.

Many Ukrainians decide to remain to help win war.

'Limits' on the amount of territory Russia can take

Emeritus professor of war studies at King's College London Sir Lawrence Freedman told the ABC that Russia's progress in the Donbas had been incremental.

Sir Lawrence Freedman says Russian troops are facing morale issues. (Supplied: Chatham House/File)

"This obviously will be trumpeted in Moscow as a sort of victory. But this is glacial progress.

"They announced their focus on the Donbas on the 25th of March. So, we're three months on and they've taken a small amount of territory.

"I think that's the problem they've got going forward. If this is the cost of every bit of territory, there's limits on how much more they can take."

Alexander Khara is a former Ukrainian diplomat and a fellow at the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian think tank.

From Kyiv, he told the ABC that the retreat from Sievierodonetsk was a strategic move that does not signify any sort of victory for Russia.

Alexander Khara says Ukrainian commanders have decided to move to a more fortified position. (ABC News: Taras Shumeyko/File)

"I believe it was a wise decision to retreat at the moment when there is a possibility to get our forces out of the dangerous area," Mr Khara said.

"We conducted a tactical retreat and it gives us a more favourable position with secure supply lines to our forces and with more enforcement from our partners.

Mr Khara said that Russia had lost far more troops in the battle for Sievierodonetsk than the Ukrainian side had.

"If you are talking about ratio, I believe it's several times more than Ukrainian losses," he said.

"Sievierodonetsk was pretty well located and gave us the opportunity to draw down Russian forces."

Professor Freedman said that Ukraine had to make the "hard decision" about how long it hung on in Sievierodonetsk.

He said that, despite the casualties they have endured, there were advantages in withdrawing late in the battle.

"Secondly, it's very attritional. We know the Ukrainians suffered high casualties, but so too have the Russians.

"And it's the Russians who are running out of infantry, who are clearly facing morale issues with the troops there.

"Thirdly, because the Russians had made this such a priority, they diverted activity from other areas, such as Kharkiv and Kherson, in particular, where the Ukrainians have started in a limited way on counter attacks."

EU agrees to make Ukraine a candidate for membership.
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