Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that the first phase of its military operation in Ukraine was mostly complete and that it would focus on completely “liberating” eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The announcement appeared to indicate that Russia may be switching to more limited goals after running into fierce Ukrainian resistance in the first month of the war.
Russian news agencies quoted the defence ministry as saying that Russian-backed separatists now controlled 93 percent of Ukraine’s Luhansk region and 54 percent of the Donetsk region – the two areas that jointly make up the Donbass.
The ministry said it did not rule out storming Ukrainian cities that had been blockaded and that Russia would react immediately to any attempt to close the airspace over Ukraine – something Kyiv has asked NATO to do, but NATO has resisted.
Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on February 24 in what it called a “special operation” to weaken its southern neighbour’s military capabilities and root out people it called dangerous nationalists.
Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance to the invasion and the West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia in an effort to force it to withdraw its forces.
The defence ministry said on Friday that the operation would continue until Russian forces had completed the tasks that had been set, without elaborating.
Russia’s military had considered two options for its operation in Ukraine, one confined to the Donbass and the other on the whole territory of Ukraine, the defence ministry added.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities said Friday that about 300 people were killed in the Russian airstrike last week that blasted open a Mariupol theatre where civilians were sheltering.
For days, the government in the besieged and ruined city of Mariupol was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 attack. In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel Friday, it cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theater or how witnesses arrived at the figure.
The reported death toll came a day after Biden and allied leaders promised that more military aid for Ukraine is on the way. But they stopped short of providing some of the heavy weaponry that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said is urgently needed. Zelensky has pleaded for planes, tanks and no-fly patrols over Ukraine.
The US and the European Union on Friday did announce a move to further squeeze Russia economically: a partnership to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and dry up the billions of dollars the Kremlin gets from the sale of fuel.