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Russia’s Kyiv offensive stalls, as Ukrainians counterattack in the south

Russian forces are shifting their focus away from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as they prepare to undertake a renewed effort to consolidate control on Donbas in the east, Russian and U.S. officials said Friday.

For weeks, Western analysts and government officials have said they expect Russian forces to adjust their tactics and strategy in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance around the capital, but Friday’s admission by a top Russian official that the Kremlin was scaling back its war aims marks a significant moment in the monthlong conflict.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” said Sergei Rudskoi, first deputy of Russia’s General Staff.

It’s not clear what those objectives were, but he added that it “makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”

With the fight in the north at a standstill, the recasting of the war as primarily a struggle for the Donbas region — much of which was already under the control of Russian-backed separatists since Moscow first invaded in 2014 — is a major recalibration from the maximalist regime change goals of President Vladimir Putin in the first days of the conflict.

“We think they’re trying to cut off the Donbas area,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon Friday, “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 fighting in Donbas in the country’s east and south has been fierce, with tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops holding out against attacks from multiple fronts. Those forces, known as the Joint Forces Operation, are slowly being encircled by Russian forces who have clawed small but steady gains during days of fierce combat.

But the stalled Russian offensive in the north and west of Kyiv has been a major headache for the Kremlin, and has led to Russian troops digging into defensive positions as they sit and wait for resupply and support, a potential sign of a longer campaign than had likely been envisioned by the Kremlin.

The Russian Ministry of Defense noted on Friday that 1,351 soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, along with 3,825 wounded.

Some of that support may come from Russian troops stationed in Georgia, which Russia also invaded in 2008 and maintains a militarized presence in in two secessionist areas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The U.S. official confirmed reports of Russian troops on the move in Georgia.

It would mark the first time Russia had deployed more troops to Ukraine outside of the 150,000 it had amassed around the country’s borders before invading on Feb. 24, yet another indication that the Kremlin is rethinking how it is fighting and reinforcing the war effort.

While Russian commanders are looking for ways to reinforce its troops on the ground, and are focusing on Donbas and clearing out resistance in the besieged port city of Mariupol, reports indicate that the Ukrainians have launched a fresh counterattack in the southern port city of Kherson, one of the urban areas first to be encircled by Russian forces in the early days of the war.

It’s not clear how large the offensive is, but it may just create a new problem for the already stretched Russian forces on the ground, who are struggling to consolidate their gains.

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