A senior Russian official has said the “first stage” of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine is complete and that forces would now focus on the “liberation” of the eastern Donbass region.
The comments on Friday by Sergei Rudskoi, the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, were seen as a signal that after one month of war the Kremlin could be scaling back its ambitions.
“By and large, the basic tasks of the first stage of the operation have been fulfilled,” Rudskoi said, according to the Interfax news agency.
“The combat potential of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been significantly reduced, which allows, I stress this once again, to focus the core efforts on achieving the main goal – the liberation of the Donbass,” he said.
Western military experts say that Russia’s invasion – which began on February 24 with attacks from the north, south, and east – has been stalled for days and that its forces have not made much progress in their attempts to take major cities such as Kiev, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv.
If followed through, Rudskoi’s announcement would mean that Russia would now focus primarily on the two eastern areas that have been claimed by Moscow-backed separatists for nearly eight years: Luhansk and Donetsk, known collectively as Donbass.
Rudskoi claimed that 93% of Luhansk Oblast and 54% of Donetsk Oblast are no longer under Ukrainian control. The Ukrainian armed forces had lost a quarter of their initially almost 60,000 soldiers in the area, he alleged.
Rudskoi did not say how many operational phases are envisaged.
The “special military operation,” as Russia calls the war, will continue until the tasks set by President Vladimir Putin are fully completed, he said.
The battle will continue for the strategic port city Mariupol, the scene of some of the worst devastation of the war, Rudskoi said.
Meanwhile, the General Staff said on Friday that 1,351 Russian troops have died and another 3,825 have been injured so far in Ukraine, where fierce resistance by soldiers and non-professional fighters have frustrated Moscow’s hopes for a swift victory.
The figures are the first official casualty tolls issued by Moscow since the beginning of March when the number of Russian dead was given as 498.
The latest claim could not be independently verified and does not appear to include Moscow-backed separatists.
Analysts believe that the Russian military has in reality lost thousands of troops in the month-old conflict. A senior NATO official told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that the Western alliance estimates between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed.
Kiev said on Friday that 135 children had been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, with a further 180 children having been injured, mostly in the Kiev, Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office also announced on Friday that over 560 Ukrainian educational institutions had been damaged in Russian strikes, over 70 of which were totally destroyed, it said.
As attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure continued, the CEO Of the country’s largest energy supplier Naftogaz, Yuriy Vitrenko, told Germany’s Zeit newspaper that there were now around 300,000 households in Ukraine without gas and heating.
Despite the devastation, Britain’s Ministry of Defence reported that Ukrainian forces had been able to re-occupy towns up to 35 kilometres east of Kiev, adding that Ukrainian forces were “likely to continue to attempt to push Russian forces back” towards Hostomel Airfield northwest of Kiev.
The ministry said that “logistic issues and Ukrainian resistance” were also slowing down Russian attempts to circumvent the southern city of Mykolaiv as they attempted to push towards the key port city of Odessa.
Russian military units elsewhere in Ukraine were reported to have begun withdrawing from some areas after suffering heavy losses, the Ukrainian military said in a situation report released early on Friday.
Some Russian units even withdrew behind the Russian border after losing more than half of their personnel, the Ukrainian General Staff said.
Ukraine still considers a large-scale attack by Russian troops on Kiev possible, despite the advance having long-stalled, Oleksandr Gruzevich of the army chief staff said.
The Pentagon said Kherson, a key southern Ukrainian city on the Black Sea, appears to have become contested territory again and could be retaken by Ukrainians.
The Ukrainian Air Force said several Russian cruise missiles struck its headquarters, causing “considerable damage” to the infrastructure. A picture shared on Facebook showed significant destruction.
The United Nations said that it was still investigating alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, but that it was not yet ready to make a final assessment. Among the claims being investigated by the UN are the deployment of illegal phosphate bombs and cluster munitions.