Russia is refocusing on eastern Ukraine after months of heavy losses

Russia said it was shifting its mission in Ukraine to the east of the country, a postponement from its first attempt to seize the capital Kyiv and parts of the country after encountering relentless resistance and suffering heavy casualties.

The military pivot came as Moscow more than doubled the number of military personnel it had killed since its invasion and President Biden traveled to Poland to signal US support for Ukraine in the form of high-tech weapons. Mr. Biden also met with troops and with Poland’s president, a day after a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit at which members pledged continued military support to Ukraine.

As Russia launched its assault on its smaller neighbor, it attacked on multiple fronts and rushed to take Kyiv in an airstrike that quickly stalled. A push towards Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, also stalled.

President Biden traveled to Poland on Friday and met with US troops stationed near the Ukrainian border; While Russian strikes in Ukraine continued, officials in Mariupol said about 300 people were killed in a theater bombing last week. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Forces pushing north from Russian-held Crimea managed to gain ground in the south and east. But there was fierce fighting there too. Russia has been shelling the city of Mariupol with artillery for weeks but has not taken control.

Ukrainian troops have since pushed back Russian forces around Mykolaiv and halted attempts to encircle Kyiv. They are now fighting the Russians in Kherson, the only regional capital the Russians had occupied, a senior US defense official said Friday.

Announcing the change in plans, Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Main Operations Department of the Russian General Staff, said: “Our forces and resources will be focused on the main goal: the complete liberation of Donbas.” controlled by pro-Moscow separatists who have voiced broader territorial ambitions in the region.

“Russia clearly had more ambitious goals, but I think attrition and greater than expected resistance made it unlikely that Russian forces could capture or encircle Kyiv or Odessa,” said Rob Lee, a retired Marine and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute . “It seems that Russia has lowered its targets.”

Ukrainian soldiers on Friday in Mykolayiv, where Russian troops were being pushed back.


Sedat Suna/EPA/Shutterstock

US officials said on Friday they were observing a shift in Russia’s military strategy. The Russian military’s move to focus its ground offensive on the Donbass region is part of an attempt to secure and expand one of its strongholds in Ukraine, the senior US defense official said. The US interpretation is that Russia may seek to secure its hold over the region before talks are held to end the combat advance.

Ukraine partially repelled Russian attacks with weapons provided by Western countries. President Biden on Friday traveled to Rzeszów, a Polish town near Ukraine’s border that has become a major hub for such military assistance, including anti-tank weapons and air defense missiles, to the embattled neighboring country.

In a hangar at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, where anti-aircraft missiles were placed near the runway, Mr Biden addressed the humanitarian consequences of the fighting while there meeting his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda. The war has caused more than 3.7 million people to flee Ukraine and more than 2.2 million to Poland, according to the United Nations.

Russia on Friday increased the number of its military personnel killed in the conflict to 1,351 from 498 earlier this month. Moscow also reported 3,825 injured.


Mariupol is a key element in achieving the more limited goals Russia set out on Friday.


Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

Recent US estimates of Russian casualties were far higher, putting the number at up to 7,000 Russian soldiers killed. A senior NATO official said this week that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers had died in fighting in Ukraine and a total of up to 40,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded, captured or reported missing. Ukraine said more than 16,000 Russian soldiers had died.

The lower NATO estimate of Russian troop deaths would exceed the total number of American troops killed in more than 20 years of military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Russia has also suffered a relatively high number of deaths among its general officers.

The scale of Russian casualties has increased Western concerns that Russia may resort to using chemical weapons in Ukraine. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said US and NATO allies have been working to find a consensus on how to respond in the event. Mr Biden said after a NATO summit in Brussels Russia’s use of chemical weapons would prompt a response from the US and its allies.

A key element to meeting even the more limited targets Russia set out on Friday is the city of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov. Control of the port city would give Russia a land corridor to Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Mariupol has suffered weeks of intense shelling and bombing of civilian areas as Moscow tried to break the city’s resistance. The struggle has escalated into a street-to-street war. A large part of the urban area is already controlled by Russian troops.

Residents have fled the fighting by the thousands and those who remain are living in dire conditions, without water, food, electricity or internet access to contact friends and relatives who could help them escape.

Western officials said Russia was pausing operations around Kyiv. “They don’t seem to want to pursue Kyiv aggressively or openly at all. They are focused on Donbass,” said the senior US defense official. However, Russia continues to shell the capital from the air, he said.

“It looks like they’re settling on one focus because they can’t achieve other goals,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at CNA.

But, he added, “That does not preclude pursuing these goals at another stage of the war.”

write to Matthew Luxmoore at

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