Russian forces in Ukraine seem to have shifted their focus from a ground offensive aimed at Kyiv, the capital, to instead prioritizing what Moscow calls liberation of the contested Donbas region in the country’s industrial east, officials said riday, suggesting a new phase of the war.
It appears too early to know where this will lead. Has President Vladimir Putin scaled back his ambitions in search of a way out of the war? The dug-in defensive positions taken recently by some Russian forces near Kyiv indicate a recognition of the surprisingly stout Ukrainian resistance.
On the other hand, Russian forces might be aiming to continue the war with a narrower focus, not necessarily as an endgame but as a way of regrouping from early failures and using the Donbas as a new starting point, one US analyst said.
Putin’s forces are under great strain in many parts of the country, and the United States and other countries are accelerating their transfer of arms and supplies to Ukraine. In recent days, US officials have said they see evidence of Ukrainian defenders going on the offensive in a limited way in some areas. Earlier this week they managed to attack a large Russian ship in port on the Black Sea coast.
Putting a positive face on it all, the deputy chief of the Russian general staff said his forces had largely achieved the “main objectives” of the first phase of what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russian forces had “considerably reduced” the combat power of the Ukrainian military, and as a result Russian troops could “focus on the main efforts to achieve the main goal, liberation of Donbas.”
In apparent response to Rudskoi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed anew to Russia to negotiate an end to the war but pointedly said Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed,” he said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”
A month of fighting has left Russian forces stalled in much of the country, including on their paths toward Kyiv. A senior US defense official said Russian ground forces in the past few days have shown little interest in moving on Kyiv, though they are keeping up airstrikes on the capital. “At least for the moment, they don’t appear to want to pursue Kyiv as aggressively, or frankly at all. They are focused on the Donbas,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments of the war.