Russia says Ukraine offensive focused on Donbas in new ‘phase’

Russia said it was refocusing its month-long military offensive in Ukraine on the country’s eastern Donbas region, in comments suggesting Moscow could scale back attacks in other regions. of the country.

Speaking at a Defense Ministry briefing in Moscow on Friday, Sergei Rudskoy, a senior official in the Russian military, said what the Kremlin has labeled as “special operations” in Ukraine is being entered a new phase designed to “completely liberate” the east. Donbas region. He described targeting other cities including the capital Kyiv as part of a strategy to distract the Ukrainian military.

Ukrainian authorities and Western officials have reacted cautiously to the announcement of a change in military strategy, which comes as Russian advances into Kyiv and other towns have stalled or been hampered by force. Ukraine’s defenses were more intense than expected. A US official who accompanied Joe Biden on a tour of Belgium and Poland on Friday said they do not consider the Russian claims to be new and that they will have to see if anything changes tactically.

“The main objectives of the first phase of the operation have been completed,” said Rudskoy, head of the main staff of Russian military operations. “The military capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces have been significantly reduced, which allows efforts to focus on achieving our main goal: the liberation of Donbas.”

The Russian military, he said, succeeded in stopping Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in the northeast and Mykolayiv in the southwest, as well as gaining control of the southern regions. In doing so, Russian forces distracted the Ukrainian military and limited its ability to respond to Russian actions in the Donbas.

Rudskoy said Moscow’s goal has always been to “liberate” the Donbas and it has chosen to first target Ukraine’s military capabilities across the country.

“We never planned to attack them,” Rudskoy said, referring to Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and other besieged towns.

While Russia “doesn’t rule out the possibility” of still targeting these cities, “our forces and resources will be focused on their main goal – the complete liberation of Donbas,” he added.

Russian-backed separatists in Donbas have been waging a proxy war against Kyiv’s central government since 2014, after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Vladimir Putin backed separatist claims to the entire region just before Moscow sent its troops and tanks into Ukraine from Russia and Belarus on 24 February.

U.S. and European intelligence assessed that Russia’s plan for a quick victory had largely failed amid tactical mistakes, logistical flaws, and unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance.

A Western official on Friday said a Russian brigade commander in Ukraine appeared to have been deliberately run over and killed by his own troops, a sign of low morale among Russian soldiers. . The official added that a seventh Russian general had been killed, indicating the high loss of senior Russian soldiers during the invasion.

Severely damaged residential buildings in the town of Volnovakha © Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

Rudskoy recounts what he considers to be the fruit of the Russian invasion, focusing on the extent to which the separatist “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas expanded their territory during the war. He repeated the claim – denied by Kyiv and its US and European allies – that Ukraine is planning to regain full control of Donbas by spring as a justification for launching a government offensive. head.

The United Nations on Friday said more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine in the month since Russia’s invasion, a number that could be underestimated as “intense fighting” in a limited number of cities “Panorama”.

Authorities in the southern Ukraine port of Mariupol, which has been under intense Russian shelling for weeks, said on Friday that an estimated 300 people were killed in a Russian bombing in a theater being used as a shelter.

The Western official said Moscow had “clearly failed” in its initial goal of quickly capturing Kyiv, adding that “there is no guarantee that Russia will succeed in this.” [new] work. ”

A destroyed tank lies among the rubble north of Mariupol. © Maximilian Clarke / SOPA Image / dpa

A new focus, however, could give Russia the opportunity to gain more territory in eastern Ukraine, the official said, given Moscow’s ability to concentrate significantly greater firepower on a smaller area.

“By focusing down, they have a better chance of fixing some [logistical and tactical] mistakes they made,” the official said. “They can also direct their air force and limit [firepower] on more concentrated areas. ”

The official cited intelligence assessments that Russia will send 10 new battalion-level combat groups to Ukraine. Such groups are the main organizational structure of the Russian military, and typically have around 700 troops as well as tanks, artillery and other vehicles.

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, cautiously treated the notion that Russia could give up a full-blown invasion.

Yermak said during a conference call with the Washington-based Atlantic Council Advisory Group, there’s a big danger before the war is over, especially when you’re fighting against one of the teams. largest army in the world.

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