Russia has revised its war strategy for Ukraine to focus on taking over the Donbas and other regions of eastern Ukraine with a target date of early May, according to several US officials familiar with the latest US intelligence assessments.
More than a month into the war, Russian ground forces have failed to maintain control of the areas where they have been fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to show he can show victory, and eastern Ukraine is most likely to achieve that, officials say. US intelligence suggests 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 when the country marks the surrender of the Nazis in World War II with a huge parade of troops and weapons across Red Square in front of the Kremlin. The officials say Putin wants to celebrate some victory in his war that day.
But other officials note that even if there is a Russian celebration, a real victory may be further away.
“Putin will hold a victory parade on May 9, regardless of the status of the war or peace talks,” said a European defense official. “On the other hand, a victory parade with which troops and vehicles?”
Still, US and European officials say any deadlines Moscow rhetorically sets won’t change reality, as Russia appears to be preparing for the prospect of a protracted conflict.
A European diplomat, while the Kremlin talks 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 behind the May time frame, officials say. As the winter frost ends and the ground softens, it will be harder for heavy Russian ground units to maneuver, meaning it’s vital those troops get to the scene as soon as possible, US intelligence estimates.
Russian-backed fighters have also been in that region for years. In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Russian separatist forces took control of the territory in 2014.
Ukrainian officials have also publicly pointed to the date. “Before May 9, Putin set the goal of a victory parade for this war,” Ukraine’s Security Council secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on Thursday.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told DailyExpertNews’s Wolf Blitzer on Friday that Ukrainians believe they are in for 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. He failed because of a very strong determination of the Ukrainian army and a very strong unity of Ukraine and the western world, and the sanctions imposed by the United States and the G7 and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “So now, as far as I can see, Putin has switched to Plan B. My view is that this Plan B has some sort of deadline.”
The US also believes Putin is now preparing, for the first time, to appoint a general commander of the war to achieve greater Russian success, two US officials said. The US thinks Putin is likely to name a general who has been to the southern part of Ukraine because that is a place where the Russians succeeded in their objectives.