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Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank through the town of Trostyanets. Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Ukraine says it has retaken Kyiv suburb and town, as Russia appears to switch focus to the east

The mayor of Irpin said the suburb had been liberated, while a US official said the town of Trostyanets had also been reclaimed.

WITH ITS ASPIRATIONS for a quick victory dashed by a stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia has increasingly focused on grinding down Ukraine’s military in the east in the hope of forcing Kyiv into surrendering part of the country’s territory to possibly end the war.

The bulk of the Ukrainian army is concentrated in eastern Ukraine, where it has been locked up in fighting with Moscow-backed separatists in a nearly eight-year conflict.

If Russia succeeds in encircling and destroying the Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland, Donbas, it could try to dictate its terms to Kyiv and, possibly, attempt to split the country in two.

It comes as the UN called for a humanitarian ceasefire in Ukraine, as the civilian toll continues to rise a month after Russia’s invasion. In-person peace talks are continuing between the two sides until Wednesday in Turkey – though the first day of talks coincided with reports that at least two Ukrainian peace negotiators and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich are reported to have suffered symptoms of suspected poisoning following a meeting in Kyiv earlier this month.

On Friday, the Russian military declared that the “first stage of the operation” had been largely accomplished, allowing Russian troops to concentrate on their “top goal — the liberation of Donbas”.

Many observers say the shift in strategy could reflect President Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgment that his plan for a blitz in Ukraine has failed, forcing him to narrow his goals and change tactics amid a disastrous war that has turned Russia into a pariah and decimated its economy.

US and British officials also have noted that Moscow has increasingly focused on fighting the Ukrainian forces in the east while digging in around Kyiv and other big cities and pummelling them with rockets and artillery.

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The chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, said the change of focus could reflect Putin’s hope to break Ukraine in two, like North and South Korea, and enforce “a line of separation between the occupied and unoccupied regions”.

“He can’t swallow the entire country,” Budanov said, adding that Russia appears to be trying “to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine”.

The battle for Kyiv

Putin and his generals have not revealed specific military goals or a planned timeline, but the Kremlin clearly expected a quick victory when Russian troops rolled into Ukraine from the north, east and south on 24 February.

But the Russian attempts to swiftly capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and other big cities in the north east have been thwarted by well-organised Ukrainian defences and logistical challenges that stalled the Russian offensive.

Russian forces have pounded the outskirts of Kyiv with artillery and air raids from a distance while putting their ground offensive on hold, tactics they also have used in attacking Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in the north east.

In some sectors, including the city of Makariv that sits near a strategic highway west of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops have pushed the Russians back.

The mayor of Irpin, a north-western Kyiv suburb that has been the site some of the heaviest fighting near the capital, said today that the city has been “liberated” from Russian troops. A senior US defence official said Washington believes the Ukrainians have also retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in the east.

The official said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near Kyiv, and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

The official said Moscow appeared to be de-emphasising ground operations near Kyiv and concentrating more on the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for the past eight years.

In the nearby village of Yasnohorodka, the AP witnessed positions abandoned by Ukrainian soldiers, who moved farther west, but no sign of Russian troops’ presence.

Mykola Sunhurovskyi, a military analyst at the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank, said Russia has abandoned attempts to storm Kyiv and other big Ukrainian cities for now and is laying siege to them to try to weaken Ukraine and win time.

“Russia has shifted tactics – to redistribute its forces and prepare for the next active stage of the war,” Sunhurovskyi said.

The importance of Mariupol

An analysis published on Saturday by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington said the degree to which the Russians can push an accelerated move to cut off Donbas will depend in part on how soon their forces can gain full control of Mariupol and how badly damaged they emerge from that fight.

While the Russian military has focused increasingly on bleeding the Ukrainian troops in the east, it has continued to use its arsenal of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles to methodically target fuel depots, military arsenals and weapons plants across the country.

Philips P O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, described Saturday’s cruise missile strikes on Lviv near the border with Poland as part of the Russian strategy to cut off supplies to the Ukrainian forces fighting in the east.

If the Russian forces succeed in encircling Mykolaiv, Odesa and several other Black Sea ports, it will have completely cut Ukraine’s access to its coast in a devastating blow to its economy. The seizure of Odesa will also allow Moscow to establish a link to the separatist Trans-Dniester region of Moldova that hosts a Russian military base.

Despite Ukrainian and Western fears, the Russian army so far has not pursued efforts to bypass Mykolaiv and march on Odesa. Ukrainian authorities have noted that Russia’s failure to press its offensive along the coast could be explained by the fact that most of its troops in the south have remained locked in the battle for Mariupol where they have suffered heavy losses.

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