By Barbara Starr, Jim Sciutto, Alex Marquardt, Jeremy Herb, and Katie Bo Lillis CNN
Russia has revised its Ukraine war strategy to focus on trying to take control of the Donbas and other regions in 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 been unable to keep control of areas where they have been fighting. Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to demonstrate he can show a victory, and eastern Ukraine is the place where he is most likely to be able to quickly do that, officials say. US intelligence intercepts suggest Putin is focused on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day,” according to one of the officials.
May 9 is a prominent holiday on the Russian calendar, a day the country marks the Nazi surrender in World War II with a huge parade of troops and weaponry across Red Square in front of the Kremlin. The officials say Putin wants to be able to celebrate a victory — of some kind — in his war on that day.
But other officials note even if there is a Russian celebration, an actual victory may be further off.
“Putin will have a victory parade on 9th May regardless the status of the war or peace talks,” a European defense official said. “On the other hand: a victory parade with what troops and vehicles?”
Still, US and European officials say that any deadlines Moscow may set rhetorically don’t change the reality on the ground that Russia appears to be preparing for the prospect of an extended conflict in Ukraine.
A European diplomat said that while the Kremlin is talking optimistically, Putin is preparing for a “Chechnya-style long, drawn-out war, because he, to a certain extent, has nowhere else to go on this.”
There are several reasons behind the May time frame, the officials say. As the winter freeze ends and the ground softens, it will be harder for heavy Russian ground units to maneuver, meaning that it’s vital for those forces to get into place as soon as possible, US intelligence assesses.
Russian-backed fighters have also already been in that region for years. In 2014, Russian separatist forces took control of territory within the the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin announced he was recognizing two self-declared independent republics in the Donbas region.
Ukrainian officials have publicly pointed to the date as well. “Ahead of May 9, Putin set the goal of a victory parade for this war,” Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on Thursday.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Friday that the Ukrainians believe they are facing a “very complex and difficult” situation as Putin tries meet a deadline.
“His ultimate goal is, was and will be to take over Ukraine, but he failed. He failed due to a very strong resolve of Ukrainian military and very strong unity of Ukraine and the Western world, and the sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and G7 and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “So now, as far as I see, Putin switched to Plan B. My take is that this Plan B has a, kind of, deadline. The deadline is the ninth of May.”
The US also assesses that Putin is now preparing for the first time to name an overall commander of the war to try to achieve greater Russian successes, two of the US officials said. The US belief is Putin will likely name a general who has been in the south because that is a place where the Russians have succeeded in their objectives.
CNN previously reported there was no theater-wide commander on the ground in or near Ukraine, and units from different Russian military districts operating in different parts of Ukraine appear to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts, according to two US defense officials.
One of the signs the Russians are regrouping is that their troops pulling out of fighting areas north and east of Kyiv appear to have moved north, in some cases into Belarus, for resupply. The US believes this will put them in position to move southeast into the Donbas region. One Russian battlefield goal in Donbas would be to cut off Ukraine troops already there so they cannot fall back to defensive positions or link up with other Ukrainian forces, officials say.
But a shift in the battlefield to the east on the ground may do little to stop the ongoing Russian air assaults by long-range missiles and aircraft throughout the rest of Ukraine, especially in the south.
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