Russia wants to use the 2nd phase of the war in Ukraine to seize more land as bargaining chips, European official says

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use Moscow’s new offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to seize land as a bargaining tool for future negotiations, a European official said, according to multiple media outlets.

Following Russia’s inability to take Kyiv, the Kremlin has now shifted its attention to capturing all of the Donbas, the official told reporters in a briefing on condition of anonymity, Agence France Presse reported on Tuesday.

Its three other main goals for the war’s second phase are to secure a land bridge to Crimea through the besieged city of Mariupol, take complete control of the Kherson region to secure freshwater supplies for Crimea, and capture more territory that could be used as a buffer or bargaining chips in future negotiations, the official said, per Politico. 

Since late March, Russia has been signaling a shift in the war goals it had initially declared when it invaded Ukraine. Putin had originally said that he sought the “demilitarization” — but not the occupation — of Ukraine.

However, after weeks of heavy Ukrainian resistance, Russian General Sergei Rudskoi said on March 25 that his army’s main goal for the first month of the war was to have Ukraine’s armed forces “reduced” — a goal he claimed Moscow had accomplished. Assaulting the Donbas would be the Kremlin’s next step, Rudskoi added.

Military analysts have also previously said that Russia would likely pivot to seizing Ukrainian territories and establishing them as a buffer zone. Ukraine’s chief intelligence officer, General Kyrylo Budanov, said last month that Putin now likely seeks to create a situation in Ukraine similar to the current divide between North and South Korea.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has scoffed at giving up his country’s eastern territories to end the war, telling CNN that his nation had no guarantee that Russia would not try to take Kyiv again after taking the Donbas.

As for future negotiations, peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have largely stalled since evidence of mass killings was discovered in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha after Russian troops left the area. Before the massacre, Kyiv and Moscow had agreed to several diplomatic concessions that suggested they were reaching common ground, though diplomats from both sides downplayed hopes of any significant progress.

The other two objectives recently highlighted have been Russia’s known goals for some time but now lie at the center of the war.

Establishing a land bridge to Crimea is thought to be a chief reason for Russia’s assault on Mariupol, a city in Ukraine’s south that has endured weeks of bombardment and heavy fighting. 

If Mariupol — the biggest Ukrainian-held city in the Donbas — falls, it would allow Russian forces from its southern and eastern fronts to link up for a larger offensive elsewhere. The city’s last defenders are low on supplies and ammunition and have been cornered into a steelworks plant that Russian forces are reportedly trying to storm.

“We do expect the complete destruction of the city and many civilian casualties,” the European official said, per Politico. “My fear is that it is going to be worse than Bucha.”

Meanwhile, gaining full control of Kherson — a Black seaport city captured by Russia in early March — would allow Moscow to restore the main canal that once fed water from Ukraine’s Dnieper River to Crimea. However, Ukrainian forces have begun taking back some villages in a series of counterattacks within Kherson, per The Washington Post.

On April 1, the head of Ukraine’s Security Service in the Kherson region was one of two generals to be stripped of their rank by Zelenskyy, who referred to them as officers “who have not decided where their homeland

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