Russia scales back Ukraine campaign, focuses on Donbass

Russian soldiers in Ukraine

Russian soldiers in Ukraine

Moscow signalled on Friday it was scaling back its ambitions in Ukraine to focus on Donbass, a territory claimed by Russian-backed separatists.

The downscaling comes as Ukrainian forces went on the offensive, recapturing towns on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv.

A month after they launched their invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops have failed to capture any major city.

Their assault has met stiff resistance from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s forces and been halted at the gates of Kyiv.

The Russians instead have been bombarding and encircling cities, laying waste to residential areas and driving around a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes.

More than 3.7 million of them have fled abroad, half to Poland, which U.S. President Joe Biden was visiting on Friday.

Battle-lines near Kyiv have been frozen for weeks with two main Russian armoured columns stuck northwest 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, has allowed Ukraine to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 km east of Kyiv,” the report said.

Britain has provided Ukraine with weapons and military training.

In an announcement that appeared to indicate more limited goals, the Russian Defence Ministry said a first phase of its operation was complete and it would now focus on two eastern regions claimed by Russian-backed separatists.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” said Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate.

“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.”

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Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, an eastern suburb where Kyiv’s main airport is located, said 20,000 civilians had evacuated the area, answering a call to clear out so Ukrainian troops could counter-attack.

Ukrainian forces recaptured a nearby village the previous day and would have pushed on but halted to avoid putting civilians in danger, he said.

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

In Bucha, 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Kyiv, a small group of Ukrainian troops armed with anti-tank missiles was digging foxholes.

Moscow calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

Unable to capture cities, Russia has resorted to pounding them with artillery and air strikes.

Worst hit has been the eastern port of Mariupol, a city of 400,000 under siege since the war’s early days. It is the biggest Ukrainian-held city in the territory Russia demands be ceded to the separatists.

Tens of thousands of people are still believed trapped inside with scant access to food, power or heat, while the city around them has been reduced to ruins.

Mariupol’s city council for the first time gave an estimated death toll for the bombing of the main theatre on March 16, saying witnesses now said 300 people had been killed among many hundreds sheltering in the basement. Russia denies blame.

The United Nations said it was looking into reports of mass graves inside Mariupol, including one with at least 200 corpses.

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

In Kharkiv, officials said six people had been killed by the shelling of an aid distribution site at a supermarket. Video posted on the internet showed a blast striking a car park where scores of people were queuing. People fled in terror after the explosion.

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