As Ukraine forces counter near Kyiv, Russia scales back goals

The announcement appeared to indicate that Russia may be switching to more limited goals. PHOTO: REUTERS

LVIV (REUTERS) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed for further talks with Russia as Moscow signalled it was scaling back its ambitions to focus on territory claimed by Russian-backed separatists in the east after attacks elsewhere stalled.  

In an announcement on Friday (March 25)appearing to indicate more limited goals, the Russian Defence Ministry said a first phase of its operation was mostly complete and it would now focus on the Donbass region bordering Russia, which has pro-Moscow separatist enclaves.

“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,” said Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate.  

Breakaway Russian-backed forces have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Donbass and the adjoining Luhansk region since 2014.  

They declared independence with Moscow’s blessing – but not recognised by the West – soon before the Feb 24 invasion.

Reframing Russia’s goals may make it easier for President Vladimir Putin to claim a face-saving victory, military analysts said.

Moscow had said the goals for what it calls its “special operation” include demilitarising and “denazifying” its neighbour. Western officials say the invasion is unjustified and illegal, aimed at toppling Zelensky’s pro-Nato government.

Facing stiff resistance, Russian troops have failed to capture any major city in the month since invading Ukraine. Instead, they have bombarded cities, laid waste to urban areas and driven a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes.  

Weeks of on-and-off peace talks have failed to make significant progress.

In a video address late Friday, Zelensky said his troops’ resistance had dealt Russia “powerful blows”.  

“Our defenders are leading the Russian leadership to a simple and logical idea: we must talk, talk meaningfully, urgently and fairly,” Zelensky said.

In what officials billed as a major address in Poland US President Joe Biden on Saturday “will deliver remarks on the united efforts of the free world to support the people of Ukraine, hold Russia accountable for its brutal war, and defend a future that is rooted in democratic principles,” the White House said in a statement.

The United Nations has confirmed 1,081 civilian deaths and 1,707 injuries in Ukraine since the invasion but says the real toll is likely higher. 

Some 136 children have been killed so far been during the invasion, Ukraine’s prosecutor general office said on Saturday. 

Russia’s defence ministry said 1,351 Russian soldiers had been killed and 3,825 wounded, the Interfax news agency reported. Ukraine says 15,000 Russian soldiers have died.  Reuters could not independently verify the claims.

Laid waste 

Battlelines near Kyiv have been frozen for weeks with two main Russian armoured columns stuck north-west and east of the capital. A British intelligence report described a Ukrainian counter-offensive that had pushed Russians back in the east.  

“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, have allowed Ukraine to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 km east of Kyiv,” the report said. Both the United States and Britain have given Ukraine arms.    

Ukrainian forces recaptured a nearby village the previous day and would have pushed on but halted to avoid putting civilians in danger, said Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, an eastern suburb where Kyiv’s main airport is located.

On the other main front outside Kyiv, to the capital’s north-west, Ukrainian forces have been trying to encircle Russian troops in the suburbs of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, reduced to ruins by heavy fighting.

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In Bucha, 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Kyiv, a small group of Ukrainian troops armed with anti-tank missiles was digging foxholes. A Ukrainian soldier who identified himself only as Andriy told Reuters he enlisted as soon as the invasion began.  

“I told my wife to grab the children and to hide in the basement, and I went to the drafting station and joined my unit straight away,” he said. 

In the Vinnytsia area west of Kyiv, the Ukrainian Air Force said Russian cruise missiles hit several buildings while attempting to strike the Air Force’s command in the area.  

Mariupol, a city of 400,000 before the war, has been among the worst hit by the Russian bombardment. Tens of thousands of people are still believed to be trapped with little access to food, power or heat. 

Local officials, citing witness accounts, said they estimated that 300 people were killed in the bombing of a theatre in Mariupol on March 16. The city council had not previously provided a toll and made clear it was not possible to determine an exact figure after the incident. Russia has denied bombing the theatre.  

The governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Ukrainian forces still controlled Mariupol. Around 65,000 people had fled but efforts to organise mass evacuations under ceasefires had mostly failed.  

The cities of Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy in the east have also endured devastating bombardment. Chernihiv was effectively surrounded by Russian forces, its governor said. 

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Culture war?

Weeks of on-and-off peace talks have failed to make significant progress. In a video address late Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his troops’ resistance had dealt Russia “powerful blows”.  

“Our defenders are leading the Russian leadership to a simple and logical idea: we must talk, talk meaningfully, urgently and fairly,” Mr Zelenskiy said. Western sanctions have isolated Russia from global trade.  

President Vladimir Putin accused the West of trying to “cancel” Russian culture, including composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov, comparing it to actions by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  

China is the biggest power not to have condemned the Russian invasion and has repeatedly voiced opposition to the sanctions. 

But in the first big sign that Western sanctions on Moscow were hurting investment from China, sources said state-run Sinopec Group, Asia’s biggest oil refiner, halted talks on a petrochemical investment and a venture to market Russian gas.  

“Companies will rigidly follow Beijing’s foreign policy in this crisis,” said an executive at a Chinese state oil company.“There’s no room whatsoever for companies to take any initiatives in terms of new investment.”

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