By Mark Trevelyan and Alexander Winning
LONDON – 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 Donbass 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.
The defence ministry said Russian-backed separatists now controlled 93% of Ukraine’s Luhansk region and 54% of the Donetsk region. They jointly make up the Donbass.
“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 Donbass.”
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 from the north, east and south on Feb. 24.
“Their war aims are/were much wider than Donbass, leaving their force divided with poorly coordinated attacks on multiple fronts by unprepared troops,” the source said.
“I’d anticipated the possibility of a refocusing of effort back on Donbass, but while Putin rhetoric remains maximalist we need to see more evidence on the ground.”
President Vladimir Putin says Russian forces are on a special operation to demilitarise 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 recognise as independent the Donbass, 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.
Rudskoi said Russia’s military had considered confining its operation just to Donbass 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 Donbass.”
Rudskoi said 1,351 Russian soldiers had died in the operation and 3,825 been injured. Ukraine’s military has said some 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in combat.