Russian troops have stopped ground advances toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as they appear refocused on regions in eastern Ukraine, according to a senior U.S. Defense official.
“They clearly are not moving on Kyiv anymore,” said the official, who spoke to reporters Monday on condition of anonymity. “What we are seeing is this continued reprioritization on the Donbas.”
Moscow’s latest military shift appears to be an effort to cut off Ukrainian forces in the eastern region, according to the official, adding that the move “could be an attempt by the Russians to gain negotiating leverage” in peace talks with Ukrainian representatives trying to end the war.
Russia has been backing separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine since 2014, when Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian forces have stopped Russian troops from taking most major cities.
Nearly 5,000 people, including more than 200 children, have been killed in the southern city of Mariupol, which has been pounded by Russia with heavy bombardment since the Russian invasion started last month, according to the mayor’s office.
Mariupol’s mayor on Monday called for evacuation of the remaining 160,000 residents. However, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said no humanitarian corridors would open due to intelligence reports of potential Russian assaults on the routes.
“We’ve seen the Russians announce humanitarian corridors and then promptly shell them, or mortar them, or strike them,” the senior U.S. Defense official said Monday in response to a question from VOA, without speaking to Ukraine’s recent assertions.
Near Kyiv, the large suburb of Irpin has been liberated from Russian forces, according to Mayor Alexander Markushin.
“We understand that our city will be attacked more. We will protect it,” he said.
Last week, the deputy chief of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff said Russia’s “main tasks” of the invasion of Ukraine were complete.
“The combat capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces have been substantially reduced, which allows us to concentrate our main efforts on achieving the main goal – the liberation of Donbas,” Sergei Rudskoi said.
However, last week a senior U.S. Defense official said Ukrainians still have more than 90% of their combat power, in part because the U.S. and other allies have replenished them “in real time.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” are a priority as Ukraine and Russia head into a new round of peace talks.
“We are looking for peace, really, without delay,” Zelenskyy said in a video address late Sunday. “There is an opportunity and a need for a face-to-face meeting in Turkey. This is not bad. Let’s see the outcome.”
Earlier Sunday, in call with Russian journalists, Zelenskyy said Ukraine was open to adopting neutral status as part of a peace deal, if it came with third-party guarantees and was put to a referendum.
Turkey is set to host the latest talks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Erdogan’s office saying he stressed the need for a cease-fire and more humanitarian aid in the region.
The United Nations says the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed 10 million people to leave their homes, with more than 3.8 million fleeing the country.
In response to the invasion, the NATO alliance has increased defenses on its eastern flank, announcing four new battlegroups to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia last week. Individual NATO members have also unilaterally sent troops and equipment to allied countries including Poland and the Baltic states, which neighbor Russia and have hosted NATO battlegroups since 2017.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced that six U.S. Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft and about 250 air crew would arrive in Germany on Monday to bolster NATO’s defenses.
“These Growlers … specialize in conducting electronic warfare missions, using a suite of jamming sensors to confuse enemy radars,” Kirby told reporters.
“They are there to reinforce deterrence capabilities of the alliance on the eastern flank. They’re not there to engage Russian assets. That is not the goal,” a senior U.S. Defense official added.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.