KYIV, Ukraine — With its aspirations for a quick victory dashed by a stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia has increasingly focused on grinding down Ukraine’s military in the east in the hope of forcing Kyiv into surrendering part of the country’s territory to possibly end the war.
The majority of Ukraine’s army are concentrated in the eastern Ukraine. They have been fighting against Moscow-backed separatists for almost eight years. If Russia succeeds in encircling and destroying the Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland called Donbas, it could try to dictate its terms to Kyiv and, possibly, attempt to split the country in two.
The Russian military declared Friday that the “first stage of the operation” had been largely accomplished, allowing Russian troops to concentrate on their “top goal — the liberation of Donbas.”
Many observers say the shift in strategy could reflect President Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgment that his plan for a blitz in Ukraine has failed, forcing him to narrow his goals and change tactics amid a disastrous war that has turned Russia into a pariah and decimated its economy.
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British and American officials have also noted that Moscow is increasingly focusing on the fight against the Ukrainian forces to the east, while digging around Kyiv city and the other major cities and destroying them with rockets.
The chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said Sunday the change of focus could reflect Putin’s hope to break Ukraine in two, like North and South Korea, and enforce “a line of separation between the occupied and unoccupied regions.”
“He can’t swallow the entire country,” Budanov said, adding that Russia appears to be trying “to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine.”
Putin and his generals haven’t revealed specific military goals or a planned timeline, but the Kremlin clearly expected a quick victory when Russian troops rolled into Ukraine from the north, east and south on Feb. 24.
But the Russian attempts to swiftly capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and other big cities in the northeast have been thwarted by well-organized Ukrainian defenses and logistical challenges that stalled the Russian offensive.
Russian forces have attacked the Kyiv suburbs with artillery, air attacks, and ground troops, while simultaneously putting an end to their offensive. This is the same strategy they used against Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv in the northeast.
Ukrainian troops are pushing back the Russians in some areas, such as Makariv, which is located near Kyiv’s strategic highway.
Associated Press journalists saw the remains of a Russian rocket launcher and a burnt Russian truck. They also witnessed the bodies of a soldier, a tank that was destroyed by the Ukrainian army after fighting there a few weeks ago. In the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, the AP witnessed positions abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers, who moved farther west, but no sign of Russian troops’ presence.
Mykola Southurovskyi (military analyst, Kyiv-based Razumkov Center thinktank) said Russia is abandoning attempts to invade Kyiv or other major Ukrainian cities. Instead, Russia is trying to subdue them in order to win the war against Ukraine.
“Russia has shifted tactics … to redistribute its forces and prepare for the next active stage of the war,” Sunhurovskyi said.
On Mar. 9, a Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces soldier holds an NLAW Anti-Tank Weapon, just outside of Kyiv. 9, 2022.
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky
Russian forces invaded the strategic port of Mariupol, besieging it for several weeks. They also used rockets and artillery to wreak havoc on civilians. Russian forces could be released from Mariupol, and they would then have the opportunity to join forces with another contingent of troops coming from Kharkiv (northeast) to attempt to capture the Ukrainian army in the east.
“Russian forces appear to be concentrating their effort to attempt the encirclement of Ukrainian forces directly facing the separatist regions in the east of the country, advancing from the direction of Kharkiv in the north and Mariupol in the south,” the British Ministry of Defense said Sunday.
An American defense official noted that Russia’s latest focus was on Donbas. The official said Putin may now hope to take full control of the east while keeping other Ukrainian forces occupied with the defense of Kyiv and other areas and then try to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to formally surrender control over Donbas and recognize Russia’s ownership of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.
The Institute for the Study of War in Washington published a Saturday analysis that said the Russians’ ability to push an accelerated effort to end Donbas depends on the speed at which their forces take control of Mariupol, and the damage they suffer from this fight. It also noted that a halt in the Russian offensive on Kyiv could reflect “the incapacity of Russian forces rather than any shift in Russian objectives or efforts at this time.”
While Russia’s military is focusing more on the Ukrainian soldiers in the east and has been concentrating its efforts to kill them, the Russian military continues to use their arsenal of sea- and air-launched cruise rockets to target fuel depots, military weapons, and weapon plants throughout the country.
Philips P. Obrien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, described Saturday’s cruise missile strikes on Lviv near the border with Poland as part of the Russian strategy to cut off supplies to the Ukrainian forces fighting in the east.
“They will still want to disrupt as much as possible the flow of goods and supplies from west to east, much of which starts their journey around Lviv,” Obrien observed.
Russians quickly captured the port at Kherson, Black Sea Coast. They then advanced towards the outer reaches of Mykolaiv’s key shipbuilding facility. Their offensive was stopped.
If the Russian forces succeed in encircling Mykolaiv, Odesa and several other Black Sea ports, it will have completely cut Ukraine’s access to its coast in a devastating blow to its economy. Moscow will be able to link with the Trans-Dniester, a separatist region in Moldova that houses a Russian military base, by seizing Odesa.
Despite Ukrainian and Western fears, the Russian army so far hasn’t pursued efforts to bypass Mykolaiv and march on Odesa. Ukrainian authorities have noted that Russia’s failure to press its offensive along the coast could be explained by the fact that most of its troops in the south have remained locked in the battle for Mariupol where they have suffered heavy losses.
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On Friday, the Russian military reported it had lost 1,351 soldiers killed and 3,825 wounded since the start of the campaign, but NATO estimates 7,000 to 15,000 have been killed — potentially as many as the Soviet Union lost in the entire 10-year war in Afghanistan.
Putin may have had to accept that the Russian offensive suffered big losses and was slowing down because of this.
Volodymyr Fesenko, the head of the independent Kyiv-based Penta Center, said Russia’s declared shift to the east could be an attempt to put a good face on its failed blitz and regroup before the next stage of fighting.
“Both sides need a break now for various reasons, and the Kremlin is using it to regroup its forces and search for new tactics without changing its strategic goal of subduing Ukraine,” Fesenko told the AP.
“Tactics could change from a blitz to laying siege to cities, destroying the economy and the infrastructure with bombardment, blockading ports and doing other things. Putin has a broad arsenal of means of pressure.”
“The stiff Ukrainian resistance could turn the war into a protracted conflict, and then the issue of financial and military resources, including warplanes and tanks Zelenskyy is urging the West to provide will be of primary importance,” he said.
Karmanau reported in Lviv (Ukraine). This report was contributed by Robert Burns, Matthew Lee and Danica Kirka both in Washington DC and London.
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