A senior Russian military commander said Russia aimed to seize the whole of Ukraine’s Donbas region and capture territory linking it to the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Russian troops began a “second phase” of the war “two days ago” and “one of the Russian army’s tasks is establishing total control of the Donbas and southern Ukraine”, Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of Russia’s central military district, was quoted as saying on Friday by Interfax.
Minnekayev added that controlling southern Ukraine would open “another way to Transnistria”, a separatist enclave in Moldova where a small Russian contingent is based and where he claimed “there are also instances of oppressing the Russian-speaking population”.
The comments appeared to indicate that Russian president Vladimir Putin has more ambitious targets for the latest offensive than previously outlined.
Russia has claimed all along that its main goal was to “liberate” the Donbas region, an eastern Ukrainian border territory mostly controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. Russian troops started a major offensive to capture the region this week after attempts to seize Kyiv and other central Ukrainian cities failed.
Capturing southern Ukraine would “allow us to set up a land corridor to Crimea and affect vital parts of the Ukrainian economy”, Minnekayev said.
The Moldovan government said in a response to Minnekayev that “such statements are not only unfounded but also unacceptable, as they lead to increased tension and mistrust in society”.
Moldovan officials told the Financial Times earlier this month that they were becoming increasingly concerned by statements by both Ukrainian and Russian authorities about the potential for a provocation staged in Transnistria that could drag the separatist region into the war.
There had been no signs that the Russian soldiers and pro-Kremlin proxy troops there were mobilising, the Moldovan officials added.
Russia captured territory north of the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, in the early days of the war, but has failed to make further gains or link it with the broader front.
Capturing the port city of Mariupol, which Putin claimed to have “liberated” on Thursday even as fighting persisted there, would be a significant step in connecting the Donbas region to Russia’s forces in the south, analysts say.
The two-month siege has almost completely destroyed Mariupol, which is a major hub for Ukraine’s exports and the last significant city not already under Russian control in the region.
About 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are thought to be holding out at Mariupol’s Azovstal’s steelworks, which Russia has bombed heavily throughout this week after Ukraine’s remaining forces rejected their demands to surrender.
On Friday morning, a senior Ukrainian official said Russia was refusing to allow civilians to evacuate safely from the steelworks.
About 1,000 civilians, including children, are at the plant, according to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
“There is a corridor for the military to surrender,” Vereshchuk said in a post on Telegram. “The Russians have provided one, but we don’t need it, as our military don’t want to surrender.”
“There is also a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the civilians out of the combat zone. We need such a corridor from Azovstal to evacuate women, children and the elderly.”