Russia has revised its war strategy in Ukraine to focus on taking over Donbass and other parts of eastern Ukraine with a target date of early May, according to several US officials familiar with the latest assessments of US intelligence services.
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 show victory, and eastern Ukraine is where he is most likely to do so, officials say. US intelligence intercepts suggest Putin is focusing on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day”, according to a US official.
May 9 is an important holiday on the Russian calendar, a day when the country marks the Nazi surrender in World War II with a huge parade of troops and weapons in Red Square in front of the Kremlin. Officials say Putin wants to celebrate some victory in his war on this day.
But other officials note that while there is a Russian celebration, an actual victory may be further away.
“Putin will hold a victory parade on May 9 regardless of the state of the war or peace talks,” a European defense official said. “On the other hand: a victory parade with which troops and which vehicles?”
Yet U.S. and European officials say any deadlines Moscow might rhetorically set don’t change reality on the grounds that Russia appears to be preparing for the prospect of a protracted conflict.
A European diplomat said as the Kremlin spoke optimistically, Putin was preparing for a “long and interminable war in Chechnya, because he has, to some extent, nowhere to go about it”.
There are several reasons behind the May schedule, according to officials. As the winter freeze ends and the ground softens, it will be more difficult for heavy Russian ground units to maneuver, meaning it’s vital these forces get into position as soon as possible, services assess. American intelligence.
Russian-backed fighters have also already been present in this region for years. The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine is where Russian separatist forces seized territory in 2014.
Ukrainian officials have also publicly stated the date. “Before May 9, Putin set himself the goal of a victory parade for this war,” Ukrainian 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 control of Ukraine, but he failed. He failed because of very strong determination of the Ukrainian army and very strong unity of Ukraine and the western world, and the sanctions that have been imposed by the United States, the G7 and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “So now, as far as I know, Putin has gone to plan B. My point view is that this plan B has some sort of deadline.”
The United States also assesses that Putin is now preparing, for the first time, to appoint an overall war commander to secure greater Russian successes, two US officials said. The United States thinks Putin is likely to appoint a general who has been to southern Ukraine because that is where the Russians have achieved their goals.