Russia said it was refocusing its month-long military offensive in Ukraine on the country’s eastern Donbas region, in comments that suggested Moscow could scale back attacks in other parts of the country.
Speaking at a defence ministry briefing in Moscow on Friday, Sergei Rudskoy, a high-ranking official in the Russian army, said what the Kremlin has labelled a “special operation” in Ukraine was entering a new phase designed to fully “liberate” Donbas.
He described the targeting of other cities, including the capital Kyiv, as part of a strategy to distract the Ukrainian army.
Ukrainian authorities and western officials reacted cautiously to the claim of a change of military strategy, which came after Russian advances on Kyiv and other towns stalled or were hindered by fiercer than expected Ukrainian defences.
A US official accompanying Joe Biden during a trip to Belgium and Poland said that the US was not treating the Russian statements as new and that it would have to see if anything changed tactically.
“The main aims of the first phase of the operation have been fulfilled,” said Rudskoy, head of the Russian army’s main operations directorate of the general staff. “The military capacities of Ukraine’s armed forces have been significantly decreased, which allows efforts to be focused on achieving our main aim: liberating Donbas.”
Russian troops had succeeded in blocking Kyiv, as well as Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in the north-east, and Mykolayiv in the south-west, he said, as well as taking control of parts of the south. Doing so had distracted the Ukrainian army and limited its ability to respond in Donbas.
Rudskoy said that Moscow’s goal was always to “liberate” Donbas and it chose to target Ukrainian military capacities across the country first.
“We never planned to storm them,” Rudskoy said in reference to Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and other besieged towns.
Although Russia “does not exclude the possibility” of still targeting these cities, “our forces and resources will be focused on their main aim — the complete liberation of the Donbas”, he added.
This appeared to scale back from Vladimir Putin’s speech on the day of the invasion, when Russia’s president seemed determined to overthrow “the regime ruling on Ukrainian territory” and encouraged would-be Russian sympathisers in Ukraine’s armed forces to depose Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, in a coup.
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Early on Saturday, the Ukrainian army said its forces in Kyiv continued “to repel the enemy’s offensive . . . and maintain the previously defined defensive lines”.
It said Russia “continues to regroup and build up forces to resume offensive operations” while maintaining assault operations, air raids and other attacks.
The army added that Moscow had deployed “almost all Russian” units stationed in Crimea, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014, and in some districts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, “to suppress resistance from residents” of Kherson, Henichesk, Berdyansk and some districts of the besieged city of Mariupol. Ukrainian and Russian military claims cannot immediately be verified.
A UK intelligence update on Saturday said Russia continued to pound Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol, adding that its forces were “proving reluctant” to engage in large urban infantry operations.
President Biden, who on Saturday morning was in Warsaw on the third and last full day of his visit to Europe, was expected to “drop by” a meeting between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin with their Ukrainian counterparts Dmytro Kuleba and Oleksii Reznikov.
Russia-backed separatists have been fighting a proxy war in the Donbas against Kyiv’s government since 2014, after Moscow annexed the Crimea. Putin backed the separatists’ claims to the whole of the region shortly before Moscow sent its troops and tanks into Ukraine on February 24.
US and European intelligence assesses that Russia’s plan for a swift victory has largely failed amid tactical mistakes, logistical errors and unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance.
A senior US defence official said on Friday that Russian forces were prioritising fighting in Donbas and were in a “defensive crouch” around Kyiv and no longer pursuing a ground offensive towards the capital. It was, however, too early to say whether their “strategic” goals had shifted, the official said.
Ukrainian forces have regained some ground in the southern city of Kherson, which had been under Russian control and was now contested territory, the official added. This would make it much harder for Russia to launch an assault on the strategic port of Odesa.
Another western official cited signs of low morale among Russian soldiers after a brigade commander had been deliberately run over and killed by his own troops. A seventh Russian general had been killed, indicating high losses of senior Russian soldiers, the person added.
Rudskoy cited what he said were the achievements of the Russian invasion and repeated claims, denied by Kyiv and its allies, that Ukraine was planning an offensive on Donbas as a justification for launching a pre-emptive assault.
The UN said on Friday that more than 1,000 civilians had been killed in the month since Russia invaded, a probable underestimate because “intense fighting” limited the “full picture”.
Authorities in the southern port of Mariupol, which has suffered heavy Russian shelling for weeks, said that an estimated 300 civilians had been killed by a Russian bomb strike on a theatre used as a shelter.
One of the western officials said Moscow had “clearly failed” in its initial objective of quickly seizing Kyiv, adding that “it is not guaranteed that Russia will succeed in these [new] operations”.
But a new focus could give Russia a chance to gain more territory in eastern Ukraine by concentrating its firepower on a smaller area and “correct[ing] some of the [logistical and tactical] mistakes they have made”.
The official cited intelligence assessments that Russia was sending 10 new battalion tactical groups to Ukraine. Such groups typically have about 700 troops as well as tanks, artillery and other vehicles.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Zelensky, treated with caution the notion that Russia could abandon a full-scale invasion.
“It’s a big danger before war is finished to make a public prognosis, especially when you are fighting against one of the biggest armies in the world,” Yermak said.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga and Andres Schipani in Lviv