Ukraine says its forces have forced Russian troops off Snake Island in the Black Sea, a claim Russia denied with Moscow calling it a withdrawal of its forces as a "gesture of goodwill" to show the country isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products.
The report came on June 30 as fighting raged in Lysychansk and as a Moscow-appointed official in the Zaporizhzhya region said a shipment of grain had left the Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk, which is under Russian control.
Control of Snake Island, located about 40 kilometers from Ukraine’s coast, had enabled Russia to threaten the sea lanes leading to and from Odesa, Ukraine’s main port for shipping grain to the world.
The island became symbol of resistance for Ukraine when border guards stationed on it refused Russian demands that they surrender or die and its return is seen as a major victory.
"KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job," Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office, wrote on Twitter along with a a photo showing plumes of smoke rising from several parts of the small outpost that was captured by Russia in the early days of its invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the return of Snake Island to Ukrainian control significantly changes the situation in the Black Sea.
Zelenskiy said in a video address late on June 30 that the development does not guarantee security or that Russia will not return, but it significantly limits Russia's actions.
"Undoubtedly, the main word today is snake," he said, thanking Ukraine's intelligence service, soldiers, and pilots for their role in freeing the island and again vowing to take back territory that Russian forces occupy.
"Step by step, we will push them out of our sea, out of our land, out of our sky," he said in the video message.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed its troops had left the island, which it had been using as an outpost to supply anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles as well as radar systems to its forces, saying the withdrawal came after soldiers stationed there had carried out all of the duties they were tasked with.
It also called the move a "gesture of goodwill" to show Russian isn't impeding efforts to allow the export of agricultural products on a day when Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Moscow-appointed administration in the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Telegram that a merchant ship with 7,000 tons of grain had left Berdyansk for "friendly countries." He did not elaborate.
Mason Clark, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said Ukraine’s expulsion of Russian forces from Snake Island is a significant accomplishment for Kyiv and an important defeat for Russia.
He noted that Russia has not lifted a blockade on Ukraine's Black Sea ports while its Black Sea Fleet and land-based anti-ship systems in Crimea and the Kherson region can still threaten ships sailing to Odesa.
"If Putin’s spin that the Russian retreat was a 'goodwill gesture' were real, he would lift the blockade and guarantee the safety of neutral ships to and from Odesa," Clark said. "If he does not, then the world must confront the reality that Putin is still holding an important part of the world’s food supply hostage.”
Meanwhile, Lysychansk continued to be targeted by heavy Russian artillery fire, with regional officials saying the last major Ukrainian holdout in the east was subjected to "enormous" bombardment, while Russian forces also shelled civilian settlements in the Dnipropetrovsk region.
The head of the military administration of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said Lysychansk "is constantly being shelled" by Russian forces attempting to encircle the strategic hilltop city -- a key battleground in Moscow's attempt to conquer Ukraine's industrial heartland known as the Donbas.
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After weeks of fighting that killed hundreds of civilians and turned the city into rubble, Moscow took control of neighboring Syevyerodonetsk and is now setting its sights on Lysychansk.
"The fighting is continuing at the outskirts of the city. The Russian Army is trying to attack constantly," Hayday told Ukrainian television, later posting the video on his Telegram channel.
"Now there is a peak of fighting. The frequency of shelling is enormous," Hayday said, adding that there are still about 15,000 civilians remaining in the city, which had a prewar population of nearly 100,000.
The Russians "brought in large numbers of vehicles, an enormous number of people. Shelling and attacks do not stop," Hayday said.
Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 30 that the fighting in Lysychansk is likely focused around the city's oil refinery, some 10 kilometers southwest of the center, adding that Ukrainian forces continue to hold their positions in the city following their withdrawal from Syevyerodonetsk.
In the Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian forces shelled the villages of Zelenodolsk and Velyka Kostromka, the head of the regional military administration, Valentyn Reznichenko, said.
"The enemy continues to terrorize the towns and villages of the Kryvyi Rih district.... In Zelenodolsk, the enemy destroyed a warehouse containing 40 tons of grain. The explosion caused a fire," Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
A push by Ukraine's Western allies to send weapons to Ukraine got a boost on June 30 when the United States said it would provide a further $800 million in weapons and military aid.
Speaking after a NATO summit in Madrid, U.S. President Joe Biden said the war would not end with Russia defeating Ukraine, adding, "We are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes."
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, CNN, and the BBC