With Russian forces yet to make a remarkable advance in the Donbas, Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA in Washington DC, has said that the battle is “the last major offensive the Russian military can attempt given the current state and availability of forces”. Britain’s Defence Intelligence, meanwhile, reported “Ukrainian resistance has been strong across all axes and inflicted significant cost on Russian forces”.
The battle for the Donbas, a critical part of what the Kremlin dubbed “the second phase of the war”, was launched by Moscow early last week after the Kremlin announced on March 25 the first phase of its “military operation” in Ukraine was mostly complete.
It would now focus on completely “liberating” the region home to rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk, it claimed.
The launch of the offensive, widely labelled a turning point in the conflict, followed a month of failed attempts by Russia to envelop the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and other major cities.
On Friday, in one of the most detailed statements about Moscow’s ambitions in Ukraine, Rustam Minnekayev, the Russian deputy commander, said the country planned to take full control of Donbas and southern Ukraine during this stage.
In a hint Vladimir Putin’s forces have no intention to wind down their activity there anytime soon, Russian news agencies cited Minnekayev as saying: “Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to (Moldova’s) Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed.”
The pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniestria, which borders Ukraine, is a former Soviet state and non-NATO member in Eastern Europe.
Kyiv fears it could be used as a launchpad for new attacks, and officials have warned Putin could be looking at expanding his invasion from the Donbas region into neighbouring Moldova.
Minnekayev was also quoted as saying Russia plans to establish a land corridor between the Donbas and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula seized and annexed in 2014.
It added: “Ukraine’s defence of Mariupol has also exhausted many Russian units and reduced their combat effectiveness.”
But Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych on Sunday painted a bleak picture of the area.
He wrote on Facebook that “Russian troops are trying to finish off the defenders of Azovstal and more than 1,000 civilians who are hiding at the plant”.
Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine brigade forces in Mariupol echoed the reports, saying Russian forces were firing and performing “offensive operations” in the Azovstal complex, as well as conducting airstrikes on civilian infrastructure.
Speaking from his location at the plant in a YouTube video, he said: “We are taking casualties, the situation is critical… we have very many wounded men, (some) are dying, it’s a difficult (situation) with guns, ammunition, food, medicines… the situation is rapidly worsening.”
The alleged attacks come after Putin last Thursday declared Mariupol had been “liberated” and publicly told his defence minister to call off the storming of the Azovstal plant and to “block it off” instead so as to save the lives of Russian soldiers.
Konstantin Ivaschenko, the official designated mayor of Mariupol by Moscow but not recognised as such by Kyiv, denied any fighting was taking place in the city.