Russia is shifting focus to victory in eastern Ukraine by early May, US officials say

A column of tanks marked with the Z symbol stretches into the distance as it heads north along the Mariupol-Donetsk highway on March 23. (Maximilian Clarke/SOPA/Sipa/Reuters)

Russia has revised its war strategy in Ukraine to focus on seizing control of Donbass and other regions in eastern Ukraine with a target date of early May, according to several US officials familiar with the latest US intelligence assessments are.

More than a month into the war, Russian ground forces were unable to maintain control of the areas where they fought.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to demonstrate he can boast of victory, and it is in eastern Ukraine that he is most likely to do so, officials say. Wiretapped US intelligence services suggest Putin is focused on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day,” according to a US official.

May 9 is a prominent holiday on the Russian calendar, a day on which the country marks the Nazi surrender in World War II with a huge parade of troops and weapons across Red Square in front of the Kremlin. Officials say Putin wants to celebrate a victory in his war on the day.

But other officials note that even if there is a Russian celebration, an actual victory may be further away.

“Putin will hold a victory parade on May 9, regardless of the status of the war or peace talks,” a European defense official said. “On the other hand: a victory parade with which troops and vehicles?”

Still, US and European officials say any deadlines Moscow might set rhetorically won’t change reality as Russia appears to be bracing for the prospect of a widespread conflict.

A European diplomat, as the Kremlin speaks optimistically, said Putin is preparing for a “long, protracted Chechnya-style war because, to some extent, he has nowhere else to go”.

There are several reasons for the May timeframe, officials say. As the winter frosts end and the ground softens, Russian heavy ground units will find it more difficult to maneuver, meaning it’s vital for these forces to get on the spot as soon as possible, US intelligence estimates .

Russian-backed fighters have also been in the region for years. The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine is where Russian separatists seized control of the territory in 2014.

Ukrainian officials have also publicly hinted at the date. “Before May 9, Putin set the goal of a victory parade for this war,” Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said Thursday.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Friday that Ukrainians believe they face a “very complex and difficult month” as Putin tries to meet a deadline.

“His ultimate goal is, was and will be to take over Ukraine, but he failed. It failed due to a very strong determination of the Ukrainian military and a very strong unity of Ukraine and the western world, as well as the sanctions imposed by the United States and G7 and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “As far as I can see, Putin has now switched to Plan B. In my opinion, this Plan B has some kind of deadline.”

The US also understands that Putin is now, for the first time, preparing to appoint a commander-in-chief of the war to secure greater Russian gains, two US officials said. The US believes that Putin is likely to appoint a general who was in the southern part of Ukraine because this is a place where the Russians achieved their goals.

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