World

Russia appears to scale back war ambition to 'liberating' Donbas

In a scaled-back formulation of its war goals, Russia said on Friday that the first phase of its military operation was mostly complete and it would focus on completely "liberating" Ukraine's breakaway eastern Donbas region.

Moscow has met fierce resistance in Ukraine invasion

In a scaled-back formulation of its war goals, Russia said on Friday that the first phase of its military operation was mostly complete and it would focus on completely "liberating" Ukraine's breakaway eastern Donbas region.

The announcement appeared to indicate that Moscow may be switching to more limited objectives after running into fierce Ukrainian resistance in a month of war. Russian troops have failed to capture any major city and have been halted at the gates of the capital, Kyiv.

The Defence Ministry said Russian-backed separatists now controlled 93 per cent of Ukraine's Luhansk region and 54 per cent of the Donetsk region. They jointly make up the Donbas.

"The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished," Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff's Main Operational Directorate, said in a speech.

"The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which ... makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas."

Donbas, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine without evidence of waging "genocide" against ethnic Russians, has long occupied a prominent place in Moscow's litany of grievances against Ukraine.

But if capturing the whole of Donbas had been the objective from the start, Moscow could have mounted a much more limited offensive and spared itself the effort and losses involved in invading Ukraine from the north, east and south.

"Obviously they have completely failed in everything they've set out to do and so now they are redefining what the purpose is so they can declare victory," said Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. army forces in Europe who now works for the Centre for European Policy Analysis.

"Clearly they do not have the ability to continue sustained large-scale offensive operations.... Their logistics problems 
have been apparent to everybody, they've got serious manpower issues and the resistance has been way beyond anything they could have possibly imagined."

A senior diplomatic source in Moscow described it as a face-saving move and possible prelude to a climb-down by Russia. Its forces have become bogged down and failed to take any major city since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.

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"Their war aims are/were much wider than Donbas, leaving their force divided with poorly co-ordinated attacks on multiple fronts by unprepared troops," the source said.

"I'd anticipated the possibility of a refocusing of effort back on Donbas, but while Putin rhetoric remains maximalist, we need to see more evidence on the ground." 

Putin says Russian forces are on a special operation to demilitarize and "denazify" Ukraine.

The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext to invade a democracy, saying his true goal was to topple the government.

Russia has also said it will insist that Ukraine accept the loss of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, and recognize as independent the Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army for the past eight years.

Ukraine says it is willing to negotiate an end to the war but will not surrender or bow to ultimatums.

A rescue worker stands on the roof of the regional administration building that was hit by Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Friday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Rudskoi said Russia's military had considered confining its operation just to Donbas but opted for extending across Ukraine to damage its military infrastructure and tie down forces so as to prevent them reinforcing the east.

Russia did not rule out storming cities, he said, but as its military completed tasks, "our forces and resources will be concentrated on the main thing — the complete liberation of Donbas."

Rudskoi said 1,351 Russian soldiers had died in the operation and 3,825 had been injured. Ukraine's military has said some 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in combat.

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