Russian forces in Ukraine apparently have shifted their focus from a ground offensive aimed at the capital, Kyiv, to instead prioritising what Moscow calls “liberation” of the contested Donbas region, suggesting a new phase of the war.
It appears too early to know where this will lead. Has President Vladimir Putin scaled back his ambitions in search of a way out of the war? The dug-in defensive positions taken recently by some Russian forces near Kyiv indicate a recognition of the surprisingly stout Ukrainian resistance.
On the other hand, Russian forces might be aiming to continue the war with a narrower focus, not necessarily as an endgame but as a way of regrouping from early failures and using the Donbas as a new starting point, analysts say.
Putin’s forces are under great strain in many parts of the country, and the United States and other countries are accelerating their transfer of arms and supplies to Ukraine. In recent days, American officials have said they see evidence of Ukrainian defenders going on the offensive in some areas. Earlier this week they managed to attack a large Russian ship in port on the Black Sea coast.
Putting a positive face on it all, the deputy chief of the Russian general staff said his forces had largely achieved the “main objectives” of the first phase of what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi said Russian forces had “considerably reduced” the combat power of the Ukrainian military, and as a result Russian troops could “focus on the main efforts to achieve the main goal, liberation of Donbas”.
In apparent response to Rudskoi, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed anew to Russia to negotiate an end to the war but pointedly said Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed,” he said in his nighttime video address to the nation. “That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”
‘This is a pause’
A month of fighting has left Russian forces stalled in much of the country, including on their paths towards Kyiv.
From the start of the invasion on February 24, Putin has been vague in publicly describing his military goals in Ukraine. He said the purpose was to “demilitarise” and “de-Nazify” the government as well as “liberate” the Donbas, a portion of which has been under Russian-backed separatist control since 2014.
Putin arrayed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and then pushed them on numerous approaches towards diverse objectives, rather than concentrating on a single strategic goal such as Kyiv or the Donbas.
In the four weeks since, Ukrainians have put up a far tougher resistance than Putin likely expected, and Russian forces have been slowed by numerous problems, including weak logistics and perhaps flagging morale.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, said the coming spring weather and resulting conditions on the ground may explain Russia’s “pause” on attempts to seize Kyiv and other major cities in the north and west.
“The winter campaign is basically over. There’s going to be flooding and more dirt. Come May, it will all dry up and then comes the summer campaign, which most likely will be decisive,” Felgenhauer told Al Jazeera.
“Right now there is going to be a pause with the Russian military explaining to the populace that ‘everything is OK, everything is under control, this is a pause’. But everything continues and the objectives will be achieved eventually.”
‘Failed regime change’
Omar Ashour, chair of critical conflict studies at the Doha Institute, said the comments by the Russian military indicate seizing Kyiv may no longer be on the agenda.
“I think it’s another way to say regime change in Kyiv has failed. The attempt to encircle and storm Kyiv has failed, and the effort is now focused on the east,” Ashour told Al Jazeera.
He said Russia originally had a three-pronged military strategy: to encircle and then seize the capital, to capture Ukraine’s south, and take the key city of Mariupol. “I’m not sure how successful that will be,” Ashour said.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Kyiv, said Ukrainians were reacting to the Russian military statement with “derision and one of complete disbelief” as explosions continued to ring out in the capital.
“If this operation is now to be concentrated on the Donbas, well the war is still ongoing here. Military analysts in Ukraine see this as a way for Vladimir Putin to claim success. It may be a way for Putin to manage expectations of a war that most observers say really hasn’t gone as planned,” Khan said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking in Brussels, said “it’s too soon to say” whether the Russians have changed their approach.
“It shows very clearly that in any case, an [Russian] operation led simultaneously on all sides was thwarted by the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people. That’s what we see for several days,” said Macron.
Stephen Biddle – a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who has studied US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – said it is difficult to decipher Moscow’s intent from Friday’s military statement.
“It’s plausible that they’re basically trying to ratchet their perceived war aims down to something they’ve already accomplished,” he said, referring to the existing hold on parts of the Donbas. It’s also possible, he said, the Russians decided they began the war with the wrong approach, with combat forces spread too thinly across too many parts of the country. In that case, they might now try to regroup with a central focus on the Donbas, and make that the new starting point for an offensive they could later broaden.
Loren Thompson, a defence analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington think-tank, said Putin might be recalibrating.
“Moscow may be looking for a way out of its Ukraine quagmire,” he said. “Focusing its military goals on control of the Donbas could be a way of scaling back without admitting defeat.”
Denied the quick victory he apparently had expected before launching the invasion, Putin is left with stark choices — how and where to replenish his spent ground forces and whether to attack the flow of Western arms to Ukrainian defenders. A big question concerning that second choice: at what cost if he should escalate or widen the war?
Russian shortcomings in Ukraine might be the biggest shock of the war so far. After two decades of modernisation and professionalisation, Putin’s forces have proved to be ill-prepared, poorly coordinated, and surprisingly stoppable. The extent of Russian troop losses is not known in detail, although NATO estimates 7,000 to 15,000 have died in the first four weeks.
Robert Gates, a former CIA director and US defence secretary, said Putin “has got to be stunningly disappointed” in his military’s performance.
“Here we are in Ukraine seeing conscripts not knowing why they’re there, not being very well trained, and just huge problems with command and control, and incredibly lousy tactics,” Gates said on Wednesday at a forum sponsored by The OSS Society.
Battlefield trends are difficult to reliably discern from the outside, but some Western officials say they see potentially significant shifts. Air Vice-Marshal Mick Smeath, London’s defence attaché in Washington, said British intelligence assesses that Ukrainian forces probably have retaken two towns west of Kyiv.
“It is likely that successful counterattacks by Ukraine will disrupt the ability of Russian forces to reorganise and resume their own offensive towards Kyiv,” Smeath said.
Not long before Putin kicked off his war, some military officials suggested he could capture Kyiv in short order — perhaps just a few days — and he might break the Ukrainian military within a couple of weeks.