Russia announces that it wants to concentrate its forces on the “liberation of Donbass”

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The scope and underlying reasons for the declaration are still difficult to establish. Russia announced on Friday March 25 that it now wanted to focus its efforts on the “liberation” from eastern Ukraine, thirty days after it began its military attack on the country.

“The main objectives of the first phase of the operation have been met. The combat capabilities of the Ukrainian forces have been significantly reduced, which allows (…) to concentrate the bulk of the efforts on the main objective: the liberation of the Donbass”said Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff Sergei Rudskoy.

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The announcement of this refocusing of Moscow’s military objectives comes as the front lines have hardly moved for days. Russia’s main advances were in eastern and southern Ukraine, but it did not conquer major cities.

The Ukrainian Donbass has been partly controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists. Just before the February 24 offensive, Russia had recognized their independence, and launched its military intervention with the official aim of protecting them from a supposed “genocide” orchestrated by the Ukrainian authorities.

“See more evidence on the ground”

A diplomatic source in Moscow said the defense ministry announcement was a face-saving move and could be a prelude to a reduction in Russian operations. “Their war objectives were much broader than Donbass, and left their forces divided with poorly coordinated attacks on multiple fronts by ill-prepared troops”did she say. “We need to see more evidence on the ground,” add this source.

Asked about the subject at a press conference after the Brussels European Council, Emmanuel Macron was cautious. Conclude that “it’s the beginning of a withdrawal or a defeat, it would be counterproductive (…), it’s too early to tell”advanced the French president. “This indicates very clearly in any case that an operation carried out on all sides simultaneously was thwarted by the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, this is what we have been seeing for several days”he noted.

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Sergei Rudskoy explained that Russia had initially considered limiting its operation to the Donbass region but chose to extend it to all of Ukraine in order to weaken its military capabilities and prevent kyiv from sending reinforcements to the east of the country.

In Washington, a senior Pentagon official estimated that this new priority displayed by Moscow could be a way of weighing on its talks with kyiv and cutting off the Ukrainian forces concentrated on the Donbass front from the rest of the country.

In the evening, without referring to it, Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to respond to the Russian announcement. Ukrainian sovereignty must be guaranteed,” the Ukrainian president said in his daily video address. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be guaranteed”, he insists, referring in particular to the talks with Moscow. A few days ago, however, he opened the door to possible discussions on Crimea and Donbass.

Negotiations that skate

Because, at the same time, the negotiations seem to be skating. “The positions converge on the secondary points. But on the main [questions] politicians, we are treading water”, thus released Vladimir Medinski, the chief Russian negotiator. The talks are “very difficult”added the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, denying all “consensus” at the moment with Moscow.

Furthermore, the Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff stated that “1,351 soldiers were killed and 3,825 wounded” in the Russian ranks. The previous official report from Moscow, dated March 2, announced the death of 498 soldiers in Ukraine. kyiv, for its part, reports much heavier losses from the Moscow army. In his video message for the evening on Friday, Volodymyr Zelensky advanced the number of 16,000 dead, without it being possible to verify the words of the Ukrainian president.

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In addition, Mr Rudskoy described as ” big mistake “ delivery of arms to kyiv by Western countries. “This prolongs the conflict, increases the number of victims and will have no influence on the outcome of the operation” did he declare. He added that Russia “would respond accordingly” if NATO set up a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which kyiv has been asking for several weeks, in vain.

“The Russian army will continue to carry out this special military operation until all objectives are achieved”for his part affirmed the spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, echoing the remarks of the Vice-President of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, who, using the rhetoric dear to Vladimir Putin, had underlined that the current military operation was to “continue until it achieves its goal of demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine”.

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Le Monde with AFP and Reuters

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