Russia said on Friday that the first phase of its military operation in Ukraine was mostly complete and that it would focus on completely “liberating” eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The announcement appeared to indicate that Russia may be switching to more limited goals after running into fierce Ukrainian resistance in the first month of the war.
The defence ministry said Russian-backed separatists now controlled 93% of Ukraine’s Luhansk region and 54% of the Donetsk region – the two areas that 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.
“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.”
Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on 24 February in what it called a “special operation” to weaken its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and root out people it called dangerous nationalists.
The West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces.
Rudskoi said 1 351 Russian soldiers had died in the operation and 3 825 had been injured. Russia’s military had not given an official casualty figure since 2 March, when it said 498 soldiers had been killed.
Ukraine’s military has said some 15 000 Russian soldiers have been killed in combat.
Russia’s military said on Friday that it did not rule out storming Ukrainian cities that it had blockaded and that Russia would react immediately to any attempt to close the airspace over Ukraine — something Kyiv has asked NATO to do, but the military alliance has resisted for fear of direct confrontation between Russian and NATO forces.
Russia’s General Staff said its military operation in Ukraine would continue until Russian forces had completed the tasks that had been set, without saying what those tasks were.
Russia’s military had considered two options for its operation in Ukraine, one confined to the Donbass and the other on the whole territory of Ukraine, before opting for the latter, Rudskoi said.
Britain said on Friday that Ukrainian troops were recapturing towns east of Kyiv and Russian forces who had been trying to seize the capital were falling back on overextended supply lines, an indication of a shift in momentum in the fighting.