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After encountering unanticipated failure with its stalled and heavily attacked convoy into Kyiv, Russian forces do appear to be moving East and North to a certain extent in what could be seen as a decided shift in emphasis or a “regrouping” of sorts before again escalating ground attack.
Russia Looks to Secure the Donbass Area?
Pentagon officials say the Russian “repositioning” of small portions of its forces surrounding Kyiv likely pertains to a deliberate shift to the East, meaning Putin may in fact be seeking to secure gains in Donbass area where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Ukrainians for many years.
“It's clear the Russians want to reprioritize their operations in the Donbass area, that could be one destination. But again, too soon to know. We don't really have a good sense of it,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, told reporters March 31, according to a Pentagon transcript.
Do the Russians hope to secure Eastern Ukraine first, before moving more aggressively into the West? It may be tough to say for certain, to be sure, yet Russian forces are likely to have more familiarity with areas occupied by pro-Kremlin separatist groups in the East. However, Pentagon officials cautioned that although Russia may seem to have a historical presence and strong numerical force advantage in the Donbass region, these factors may not translate into battlefield success or measurable gains on the ground in the area.
“It's been a conflict that -- it's been fought over now for eight years. The Ukrainians know the territory very, very well, they have a lot of forces still there, and they're absolutely fighting very hard for that area, as they have over the last eight years. It's been a hot war there for eight years,” a Senior DoD official told reporters March 31. “So just because they're going to prioritize it and put more force there or more energy there doesn't mean it's going to be easy for them.”
The intensity of the Russian effort to capture Mariupll, Pentagon officials have said, may pertain to a deliberate effort to create a coastal corridor linking Ukrainian coastline from Crimea and the Black Sea up through the Sea of Azov to engineer a continuous or uninterrupted Russian controlling presence across a wide coastal area leading specifically to the Separatist-backed Russian-controlled areas in the East near Donbass.
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Russia Fires Cruise Missiles
To support this effort, Russia has been firing cruise missiles into land targets from surface warships operating in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Senior DoD official was clear that there are no indications of any upcoming amphibious attacks or stepped up Russian Naval activity, apart from a handful of surface warships in the Black Sea.
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There appears to be a visible and quite significant dis-connect or contradiction between words spoken by the Russian leaders and the Russian forces’ actual movements on the ground.
Senior Pentagon officials say roughly 20-percent of the Russian forces in the area of Kyiv have repositioned, left the immediate vicinity and either gone to Belarus to reorganize for new attacks or ventured Eastward to support Russian separatists in the Donbass region. However, despite Russian rhetoric using the word “withdrawal” in what appears to be a dishonest way, given that Russian forces are not retreating or “withdrawing” from the conflict.
“As I said earlier, the other day, the talk of de-escalation, and ‘We're pulling back because we want to give some oxygen to the talks,’ that's very nice rhetoric. But it doesn't mean that Kyiv is under any less threat from the air. It continues to get pounded,” the official explained. “For all the talk of de-escalation and moving away, Kyiv is still very much under threat from airstrikes.”
It is clear that Russia’s actions seem to indicate continued escalation and the prospect of NATO missions will need to prepare for new attacks upon previously unknown or unfamiliar surrounding environmental conditions.
“I said it was less than 20 percent, that it was a rough estimate. We don't have a perfect count, and what I was referring to was the force that Putin had arrayed against Kyiv. I wasn't counting other places because frankly, we just haven't seen that much coming out of other places,” the Pentagon official said.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.