Russia changes focus of Ukraine war to ‘liberation of Donbas’

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March 25 (UPI) — The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday appeared to change the focus of the war in Ukraine to the “liberation of Donbas,” having previously said the mission of the “special operation” was the denazification of the country.

Sergei Rudskoi, the head of the Russian general staff’s main operational directorate, said during a briefing that “the main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” according to The Guardian.

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“The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas,” he said.

Donbas is the easternmost region of Ukraine comprising the provinces Luhansk and Donetsk, which have largely been held by pro-Russian separatists since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics on Feb. 21, the day he ordered “peacekeeping” troops to invade the two Ukrainian provinces.

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Putin has said during the monthlong invasion that the mission of the war was to rid Ukraine of its “Nazi” leadership while trying and failing to take control of Kyiv, the nation’s capital.

“The fact is we know what needs to be done next, how it needs to be done, and at what cost — and we will fulfill all these plans, absolutely,” Putin said during a speech March 18.

“These decisions are not even as important as the fact that the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol made the right choice when they put up a firm barrier against neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists.”

The shift in language on Friday marks a significant change as Russia suffers losses at the hands of Ukrainians fighting against Russian forces.

At least 1,351 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said Friday. However, the United States and Ukraine estimate that the true number of Russian troops killed is much higher.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday that the United States believes Russia is “trying to cut off the Donbas area.”

“They are putting their priorities and their efforts in the east of Ukraine, and that’s where still there remains a lot of heavy fighting,” the official said.

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The Institute for the Study of War said in a report last week that Russian forces make limited advances “but are very unlikely to be able to seize their objectives in this way.”

“The doctrinally sound Russian response to this situation would be to end this campaign, accept a possibly lengthy operational pause, develop the plan for a new campaign, build up resources for that new campaign, and launch it when the resources and other conditions are ready,” the report reads.

“The Russian military has not yet adopted this approach. It is instead continuing to feed small collections of reinforcements into an ongoing effort to keep the current campaign alive. We assess that that effort will fail.”

If Putin continues the invasion of Ukraine, it will likely lead to a “very violent and bloody” stalemate “causing enormous casualties” from both sides, according to the think tank.