Mar 25, 2022 - World

Russia claims focus now on seizing eastern Ukraine, not Kyiv

Russian military officials

Russian military officials hold a briefing in Moscow today. Photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

Top Russian military officials said Friday the operation in Ukraine was entering a new phase focused on the "complete liberation" of the eastern Donbas region, claiming Russia's assault on cities like Kyiv was part of a strategy to distract Ukrainian forces.

Why it matters: Russia's advance has stalled across most of the country after four weeks of war. The public briefing, which was riddled with false statements, could signal a pivot away from what U.S. officials believed were Russia's original objectives of regime change and long-term control of Ukraine.

Russian forces have lost full control of Kherson, the first city to fall to Russia earlier this month, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday.

  • Outside of Kyiv, a Ukrainian counteroffensive has repelled Russian forces by several miles and forced them to assume a "defensive crouch."
  • "Clearly, they overestimated their ability to take Kyiv. Frankly, they overestimated their ability to take any population center," the U.S. official said.
  • Only in the Donbas are Russian forces shifting the front lines in their favor.

The big picture: Putin launched his "special military operation" on Feb. 24 after failing to reach a political settlement on ending the low-level war in Donbas that began in 2014.

  • A Russian military official claimed Friday that the purpose of the full-scale invasion was to "tie down" Ukraine's forces and destroy enough military infrastructure to allow Russian-backed separatists to take full control of the territory they claim in the east.
  • The official did not rule out additional offensives on Ukrainian cities, but said the "liberation" of Donbas would be the main focus.
  • "The liberation of Mariupol continues," the official said, referring to one key city in Donbas where Russian strikes have destroyed 80% of all housing and killed hundreds of civilians, while leaving the others without heating, running water or sufficient food.

Between the lines: Vladimir Putin may be able to sell a seizure of all of Donbas as a victory at home, but it's no straightforward escape hatch.

  • Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, repeatedly told Axios' Barak Ravid in an interview that Ukraine will not make any territorial concessions in Donbas or Crimea to secure a peace deal.
  • And even if Putin decides to focus on a smaller chunk of Ukraine, the international sanctions triggered by his full-scale assault are unlikely to be lifted.

Meanwhile, the costs for Russia are climbing.

  • The Russian defense ministry updated the Russian death toll to 1,351 killed and 3,825 wounded.
  • A senior NATO official briefed reporters Thursday that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers had actually been killed.

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