Russia signals less ambitious goals in Ukraine war

March 26, 2022 People's Journal 116 views

AFP — Russia signaled Friday it may dial back its war aims to focus on eastern Ukraine after failing to break the nation’s resistance in a month of fighting and attacks on civilians, including up to 300 feared killed in the bombing of a theatre being used as a bunker.

The possible shift came as President Joe Biden visited elite US troops serving with NATO just across the border in Poland and France’s Emmanuel Macron proposed an internationally backed evacuation of civilians trapped in the bombarded city of Mariupol.

Back in February, President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion to destroy Ukraine’s military and topple pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelensky, bringing the country under Russia’s sway.

However, Sergei Rudskoi, a senior general, suggested a considerably reduced “main goal” of controlling the Donbas, an eastern region already partly held by Russian proxies. His surprise statement came as a Western official reported that a seventh Russian general had died in Ukraine and claimed that a colonel had been “deliberately” killed by his own demoralized men.

Visiting Rzeszow, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Ukraine, Biden praised Ukraine’s “incredible” resistance, comparing the conflict to a bigger version of communist China’s 1989 crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square.

Biden told soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division that the struggle in eastern Europe represents a historic “inflection point.”

“Are democracies going to prevail…, or are autocracies going to prevail? And that’s really what’s at stake,” Biden said.

Biden was briefed on the humanitarian situation, with more than 3.7 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, most of them into Poland.

Earlier, he ended a trip to Brussels for meetings with Western allies by announcing new measures to help the European Union shed dependence on imported Russian energy. The plan is part of a sea change in the West, which for years has shrunk from direct confrontation with the Kremlin, but now seeks to make Putin a pariah.

‘Children’ written clearly

Russia’s far bigger military continued to combat determined Ukrainian defenders using Western-supplied weapons, from near the capital Kyiv to Kharkiv, the Donbas region and the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.

Authorities said they fear some 300 civilians in Mariupol may have died in a Russian air strike on a theatre being used as a bomb shelter last week. The theatre was targeted despite the word “children” being written in large Russian letters on the ground outside, so as to be visible to pilots.

Russian forces hammering Mariupol’s out-gunned defenders consider the city a lynchpin in their attempt to create a land corridor between the Crimea region Moscow already seized in 2014 and the Donbas.

Macron announced a bold plan with Turkey and Greece to evacuate “all those who wish to leave Mariupol.” He said he’d discuss this with Putin soon.

One Mariupol resident who has already got out, Osksana Vynokurova, 33, described leaving behind a hellscape.

“I have escaped, but I have lost all my family. I have lost my house. I am desperate,” she told AFP after reaching the western city of Lviv by train.

“My mum is dead. I left my mother in the yard like a dog, because everybody’s shooting.”

Counter-attacks

Russia’s army was predicted by some to roll across Ukraine with little resistance. However, Putin’s military has exhibited poor discipline and morale, faulty equipment and tactics, and brutality toward civilians.

Amid heavy censorship, Russian authorities Friday gave only their second official military death toll since the start, at 1,351. This is far below Western estimates, with one senior NATO official saying between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have died.

Rudskoi’s announcement of a pivot to the battle for eastern Ukraine was accompanied by claims of success.

He said Ukraine’s military has been severely degraded and that Russia hadn’t seized cities in order to “prevent destruction and minimize losses among personnel and civilians.”

But his reference to plans for a “liberation” of the Donbas region could lay the groundwork for the Kremlin to focus on an easier campaign that can be sold to Russians as a victory.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians are mounting an increasingly aggressive defense and in places even taking back ground.

Britain’s defense ministry said Ukrainian counter-attacks are underway near Kyiv and a Pentagon official said Ukrainian forces were also attempting to recapture Kherson, so far the only major city held by Russian invasion troops.

Ambulances rushed more people out of the devastated commuter town of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv on Friday, AFP journalists said, as Ukrainian forces tried to push back Russian troops.

A giant pall of black smoke rose from the direction of Irpin, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the war, while the booms of shell explosions echoed off nearby apartment blocks.

Paramedics took one elderly woman with a waxen face out of an ambulance on a bloodstained stretcher, as the sound of blasts and air raid sirens could be heard late into the night across the capital.

Chemical weapons warning

As the Russian war machine stumbles, Western officials are warning Putin could resort to chemical weapons.

In Brussels on Thursday for NATO, EU and G7 summits, Biden said the NATO alliance, would “respond” if Putin does use chemical warfare — though a top advisor stressed the United States itself “has no intention of using chemical weapons.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Biden of seeking to “divert attention.”

And Putin, whom Biden again branded a “war criminal,” gave a speech Friday saying that Russia was the victim, comparing Western boycotts to “Nazis in Germany.”

Energy strategy

Earlier Friday, Biden and EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced a joint energy task force seeking to map a way for Europe to break its energy dependence on Russia.

Germany, Moscow’s biggest customer in Europe, said it would halve Russian oil imports by June and end all coal deliveries by the autumn.

The effort to reorientate Europe’s energy supplies will take time and, together with sweeping sanctions aimed at isolating Russia’s currency and industries, is already inflicting shocks on Western economies.

However, von der Leyen said the campaign is working, and “draining Putin’s resources to finance this atrocious war”. By Danny Kemp with Brendan Smialowski in Rzeszów

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