KYIV, Ukraine—Russia’s decision to change its Ukraine war plan underscores how Moscow is trying to secure territory closest to its own border that it has coveted for years and sets the stage for brutal fighting in an area already devastated by more than a month of war.
With Russia’s assault now stretching into a second month, Moscow doesn’t have full control over the Donbas region that spans the border between the two countries. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Saturday that the country’s forces were fighting to take two villages around Donetsk, a major city held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.
Moscow on Friday said it was nearing the end of the first phase of its military operation in Ukraine. “Our forces and resources will focus on the primary objective: full liberation of the Donbas,” said Sergei Rudskoy, head of the Russian general staff’s main operational department.
Ukraine’s military overnight said Russian forces were regrouping in what appeared to be preparations for a renewed offensive in the contested area that stretches from Luhansk along Russia’s southern border with Ukraine to west of the southern port city of Mariupol that has seen street-by-street warfare as Russia troops try to capture the city.
The region is seen as strategically important to the Kremlin. After seizing both Crimea and much of the region of Donbas in 2014, Russia has been aiming to secure a “land bridge” between western Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and to expand Russian control of Donbas.
The industrial Donbas region runs across Ukraine’s entire eastern border with Russia. Moscow has long occupied swaths of the region, since fomenting a rebellion there in the spring of 2014. Russian-backed separatists briefly held parts of Mariupol during the early fighting before Ukrainian forces beat them back. Intermittent fighting persisted for eight years and cost more than 14,000 lives before Russia launched its full-scale invasion last month.
Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk regional military-state administration, said Russian forces were targeting food warehouses in Severodonetsk.
Russian troops shelled multiple locations in the Luhansk region on Friday, damaging residential buildings, Mr. Haidai said. Three people were killed and seven were rescued from beneath the rubble.
Mr. Haidai said food supplies and essentials were being delivered to people sheltering in basements and bomb shelters across the region. Efforts are being made to evacuate civilians to safety and restore communications where possible.
Moscow’s intensified focus on Donbas comes as Ukrainian forces have had success regaining ground in that area where Russian troops had some of their early success after fighting kicked off on Feb. 24. Ukrainian troops, in recent days, have pushed back Russian forces around Mykolaiv and are now fighting the Russians in Kherson, the one regional capital that the Russians had occupied, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday.
Ukrainian troops deployed to that region are among its most battle-hardened after serving on the front lines against the Russian-led separatists.
The fighting has taken a heavy toll on the local population. Thousands of residents of Mariupol have fled the city with scant possessions. Those left behind are having to endure constant shelling and survive without adequate food, water or medical supplies.
President Biden is in Poland Saturday to meet with his Polish counterpart and visit some of the more than 3.7 million refugees that have fled the fighting in Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday said he was working with Greece and Turkey to organize a mass evacuation of people from Mariupol. Mr. Macron said he hopes to raise the issue with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s shifting war plan highlights how the Kremlin’s broader effort to take over most or all of Ukraine has stalled. When Moscow launched its attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, it attacked along multiple fronts, aiming to take the capital Kyiv and vast swaths of territory. In the opening days of fighting, Ukrainian troops were able to fend off an airborne assault to take Kyiv, halt tank columns heading to the city, and forestall Russian advances in other areas.
Armed, in part, with weapons such as antitank weapons and air-defense missiles supplied by the U.S. and other western countries, Ukrainian troops have imposed heavy operational costs on Russia. Moscow on Friday more than doubled its count of troops killed since the fighting began, though its 1,351 figure is far lower than the many thousands fatalities that Western defense officials believe Russia has suffered.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in his first public appearance in about two weeks, met with defense officials to discuss weapons replenishment. “It is necessary to maintain the set pace for the supply of advanced weapons to the troops,” he said Saturday in a video released by the ministry.
—Alan Cullison and Sam Schechner contributed to this article.
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