Ukrainian officials acknowledged on Friday that Russian forces captured more than three dozen small towns in their initial campaign this week to seize eastern Ukraine, offering the first glimpse of what promises to be a bitter Kremlin brawl for wider territorial gains in a new phase. of the two-month war.
The fighting in the east – along increasingly fortified lines that stretch more than 300 miles – intensified as a Russian commander signaled even broader ambitions, warning that Kremlin forces were aiming to take “total control” from southern Ukraine to Moldova, Ukraine. southwestern neighbor.
While it seemed unlikely that the commander, General Rustam Minnekayev, had misspoken, his warning was still met with skepticism, due to Russia’s likely difficulty in launching another large offensive and the relatively obscure role of the general in the hierarchy. But his threat could not be dismissed.
The larger war goals he laid out at a defense industry meeting in a Russian town more than 1,000 miles from the fighting would be far more ambitious than the narrow goals set by President Vladimir V. Putin in recent weeks, which have focused on gaining control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
Some political and military experts have suggested that the general’s statement may have been part of Russia’s ongoing efforts to distract or confuse Ukraine and its allies. General Minnekayev’s official work involves political propaganda work and does not usually cover military strategy.
On Friday, heavy fighting was underway in a swath of southeastern Ukraine, engulfing communities on the banks of the Dnipro. While Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Russia had taken control of 42 small towns and villages in recent days, they said those same places could be back in Ukrainian hands before long.
Western analysts said Russian forces, both in the slow but largely successful struggle for the southern city of Mariupol and in the unsuccessful battle for Kyiv, had been beaten and weakened. But rather than resting, reinforcing and re-equipping forces, Moscow is advancing east.
The Russian military appears to be trying to secure battlefield gains – including capturing all regions or oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – by May 9, when Moscow holds its annual victory celebration in the Second World War.
“They’re not taking the break that would be necessary to rebuild those forces, take a week or two to stop and prepare for a larger offensive,” said Mason Clark, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “They will probably be able to take territory. We don’t think they’ll be able to capture all of the oblasts in the next three weeks.
In his remarks on Friday, General Minnekayev claimed that one of Russia’s goals was “full control of Donbass and southern Ukraine”.
He said this would allow Russia to control Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, “through which agricultural and metallurgical products are delivered” to other countries. Yet despite repeated attacks, Russia has failed to capture these ports, including Odessa, a fortified city of one million.
“I want to remind you that many Kremlin plans were destroyed by our army and our people,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on social media in response to General Minnekayev’s remarks.
General Minnekayev also issued a veiled warning to Moldova, where Moscow-backed separatists seized control of a 250-mile strip of land known as Transnistria in 1992.
“Control of southern Ukraine is another link with Transnistria, where there is also evidence of oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” the general said, echoing false claims of “genocide” against the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine that Mr. Putin used to help justify the February 24 invasion.
Transnistria has never been recognized internationally, not even by Russia. But Russia maintains 1,500 troops there, nominally to keep the peace and guard a large cache of Soviet-era munitions.
Moldova did not have an immediate response to the general’s statement. A poor country of 2.6 million inhabitants, Moldova is considered vulnerable to new Russian incursions. It is not a member of NATO or the European Union, but it hastily applied for EU membership last month.
Yuri Fyodorov, a Russian military analyst, said the broader goals detailed by General Minnekayev “from a military point of view are unattainable”.
“All combat-ready Russian units are now concentrated in Donbass, where Russia has failed to make any significant advances over the past five days,” Fyodorov said in an interview. General Minnekayev’s rank, he said, would generally not allow him to make such sweeping political statements that also contradict what has been said by the country’s top leaders.
Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, declined to comment on General Minnekayev’s remarks.
As Western allies rush to arm Ukraine with increasingly heavy and long-range weapons, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, during a visit to India on Friday, said his country was considering sending tanks to Poland so that Warsaw can then send its own tanks to Ukraine. The Biden administration said this month it would also help transfer Soviet-made tanks to Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in its first statement on the victims of the April 14 sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, said one crew member died, 27 were missing and 396 had been evacuated. Relatives of at least 10 Moskva crew members had expressed frustration at the Kremlin’s silence, which was turning into a test of its strong grip on the information Russians were receiving about the war.
Ukraine said it sank the Moskva with two missiles – a claim corroborated by US officials – while Russia said a fire on board caused an explosion of munitions that doomed the vessel.
As Russia tightened its crackdown on any domestic opposition to the war, it opened a criminal case against Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian pro-democracy activist and Washington Post columnist, for spreading “false information”, it said on Friday. his lawyer. .
Mr. Kara-Murza, 40, arrested earlier this month, faces 10 years in prison, according to the official decree against him post online by his lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov.
He said he was under investigation for remarks he made to Arizona lawmakers on March 15. Mr. Kara-Murza told a local press briefing in Phoenix that month that Russia was committing “war crimes” in Ukraine, but that “Russia and Putin’s regime are not one and the same”.
“Americans should be infuriated by Putin’s escalating campaign to silence Kara-Murza,” Fred Ryan, The Post’s editor, said in a press release.
Mr Putin, who has become increasingly reviled in the West over the course of the war, has not completely rejected diplomatic engagement. Friday he agreed to meet with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in Moscow next week, a stark departure from his refusal to even take Mr. Guterres’ phone calls. Still, the meeting did not signal a softening of Mr Putin’s views on Ukraine, a former Soviet republic which he said should not even be a sovereign country.
The Ukrainian government has said the fighting has made it too dangerous to organize evacuations from a war that Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called a “horror story of violations perpetrated against civilians”.
After another attack on the northeastern city of Kharkiv on Friday, residents saw smoke rising above shops. In the crumbling port of Mariupol, hundreds of civilians and the last organized Ukrainian fighters remained trapped in a sprawling steelworks, issuing urgent calls for help from underground bunkers. Recently released satellite images of the city showed hundreds of hastily dug graves, lending credence to Ukrainian claims that Russia was trying to cover up the atrocities.
And in the Zaporizhzhya region of south-central Ukraine, Ukrainian troops were dug in about three kilometers from Russian forces trying to push north in an attempt to fortify a land bridge linking Russian territory with the Crimean peninsula, which Mr Putin annexed in 2014.
The Ukrainian army’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, armed with American- and British-supplied anti-tank missiles and other advanced weapon systems, claimed to have destroyed two Russian T-72 tanks which were too close to his positions.
“We are on our own land,” said Captain Vitaliy Nevinsky, commander of the brigade. “We defend ourselves and knock out this horde, this invasion of our territory.”
Anton Troyanovsky reported from Hamburg, Germany, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, Michael Schwirtz from Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, Tyler Hicks from Kharkov, Ukraine, Nick Cumming – Bruce from Geneva, Julian E. Barnes from washington, Farnaz Fassihi of New York and Samir Yasir from New Delhi.