Russia said it had taken full control of the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk today after capturing the final Ukrainian bastion of the city of Lysychansk, where Kyiv said it had withdrawn to save the lives of its troops.
The region's capture, a major Russian war aim, is a political victory for the Kremlin after weeks of grinding advances and shifts the battlefield focus to neighbouring Donetsk region, where Kyiv still controls swathes of territory.
Since abandoning an assault on the capital Kyiv, Russia has concentrated its military operation on the industrial Donbas heartland that comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, where Moscow-backed separatist proxies have been fighting Ukraine since 2014.
Russia says it is capturing Luhansk region in order to give it to the Russian-backed Luhansk People's Republic whose independence it recognised on the eve of the war.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been "liberated", the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
Ukraine's military command said its forces had been forced to retreat from the city.
"The continuation of the defence of the city would lead to fatal consequences. In order to preserve the lives of Ukrainian defenders, a decision was made to withdraw," it said in a statement on social media.
Ukrainian officials, who say references to "liberating" Ukrainian territory are Russian propaganda, had reported intense artillery barrages on residential areas.
"Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on 2 July," analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a briefing note.
They based their assessment on footage showing Russia forces walking casually in northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Lysychansk, saying it suggested few or no Ukrainian forces remained.
It said the footage included images posted on social media and geolocated to confirm where it was filmed.
West of Lysychansk in Donetsk region, at least six people were killed when the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk was hit by powerful shelling from multiple rocket launchers today, local officials said.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded on 24 February, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists.
Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
While Russia would try to frame its advance in Luhansk as a significant moment in the war, it came at a high cost to Russia's military, said Neil Melvin of the London-based thinktank RUSI.
"Ukraine's position was never that they could defend all of this. What they've been trying to do is to slow down the Russian assault and cause maximum damage, while they build up for a counteroffensive," he said.
Russia's defence ministry also said it had struck military infrastructure of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city in the northeast, where a Reuters reporter said Ukrainian forces had been building fortifications after nightly shelling.
Outside a school in Kharkiv, some residents threw debris into a large crater created by an early morning rocket strike while others got help repairing damaged houses.
"The wife was lucky that she woke up early in the morning because the roof fell exactly where she had been sleeping," one resident, Oleksii Mihulin, told Reuters.
About 70 km from Kharkiv on the Russian side of the border, Russia also reported explosions today in Belgorod, which it said killed at least three people and destroyed homes.
"The sound was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming," a Belgorod resident told Reuters, adding the blasts occurred around 3am Ukrainian time.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine.
Previously, Kyiv has said such incidents as payback for Russia pounding Ukrainian urban areas into rubble.
Military base hit in Russian-occupied city
Ukraine said its air force had flown some 15 sorties "in virtually all directions of hostilities", destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military logistics base with more than 30 strikes today, the city's exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said.
A Russian-installed official confirmed that strikes had hit the city.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Ukraine has repeatedly appealed for an acceleration in weapons supplies from the West, saying its forces are heavily outgunned.
Speaking on a visit to Kyiv, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government would provide Ukraine with additional armoured vehicles, as well as tightening sanctions against Russia.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told broadcaster ARD that Germany was discussing with its allies security guarantees for Ukraine after the war, though it was clear these would "not be the same as if someone were a member of NATO".
Tomorrow, leaders from dozens of countries and international organisations are set to gather in the Swiss city of Lugano for a conference on Ukraine's reconstruction with the aim of providing a roadmap for the war-ravaged country's recovery.
Mr Zelensky said "colossal investments" would be needed and that 10 regions of Ukraine had been affected in the war, with many towns and villages needing to be "rebuilt from scratch".
Ukraine will also face demands for broad reforms, especially in cracking down on corruption after Brussels recently granted Kyiv candidate status in its push to join the 27-member bloc.
In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia's invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine's ports seized, razed or blockaded - sparking concerns about food shortages, particularly in poor countries.
Farmer Sergiy Lyubarsky, whose fields are close to the frontline, warned time was running out to harvest this year's crop.
"We can wait until 10 August at the latest, but after that, the grains are going to dry out and fall to the ground," he said.
Western powers have accused Mr Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.