Ukraine News: Russia Seeks to Annex Occupied Regions as Invasion Goals Shift


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Nearly 10 weeks into the war and with its troops making only marginal gains in Ukraine’s east, Russia is focused on cementing both military and political control over the territory it has taken so far.

The Kremlin is installing occupation governments, ordering locals to use rubles for transactions and, according to three people involved in the efforts, planning hastily organized referendums in some areas to open the way for full annexation. The people spoke on condition of anonymity given the risk of retribution discussing sensitive information. The Kremlin did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Though far short of President Vladimir Putin’s original aims of ousting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and installing a pro-Russian regime in most of Ukraine, the latest efforts pose a new obstacle for already-stalled peace talks, in which Kyiv has insisted Russia give up the ground it has taken since invading on Feb. 24. Zelenskiy’s military, backed by infusions of heavy weapons from the U.S. and its allies, plans a push to retake territory.

Kremlin officials, in public and private, are still confident their advance will pick up speed and Russian forces will at least conquer the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Moscow is also seeking to tighten its grip in the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, parts of which it has seized. That would leave about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and most of its coast under Russia’s control — and create a land link to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

In recent days, Russian officials have started talking down public expectations for a major battlefield breakthrough by May 9, the World War II Victory Day holiday and military parade that have become a touchstone of the Kremlin’s campaign to whip up public support for the invasion. 

Still, in a sign of its ambitions for Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kremlin has turned responsibility for them over to its domestic politics division from the one that was responsible for neighboring countries, according to people familiar with the situation. Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy chief of staff responsible for domestic politics, visited the region late last month to lay out his plans with officials there. 

Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics in late February – including swathes of territory it does not control – paved the way for the invasion. 

Why Mariupol and the Donbas Region Matter to Putin: QuickTake

While a U.S. official said Monday that votes on becoming part of Russia could be held in Donetsk and Luhansk as early as mid-May, people familiar with the planning in Moscow said they’re likely to be put off until Russian forces extend control at least to the administrative boundaries of the regions. That could take weeks or months. 

Formal annexation of those two territories would make them irrevocably part of Russia, in the Kremlin’s view, permanently fracturing Ukraine as other occupied areas moved to secede. 

In the interim, Moscow is replacing local officials loyal to the government in Kyiv, rerouting the occupied regions’ internet connections through Russian servers and censors and mandating the use of the ruble instead of Ukraine’s hryvnia. Kyiv has accused Russia of stealing 400,000 tons of grain from the areas it controls.

“We’ll absorb Ukraine region by region,” Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy backer of Putin who’s helping fund the war effort including by sponsoring an army of volunteer soldiers, said in an interview. 

He conceded that the scale of military aid to Kyiv from the U.S. and its allies “has been far greater than anticipated.” Together with determined Ukrainian resistance, that means a grinding war that “will drag on at a slow pace” for at least months to come, he said.

Sanctioned Tycoon

The U.S. Justice Department unsealed an indictment against Malofeev in April for violating sanctions first imposed on him for his role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At the time, the Treasury Department said he was “one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.”

The Evolution of Sanctions as Financial Warfare: QuickTake

While Russia since Feb. 24 has increased its grip on Donetsk and Luhansk from 30% to 75% of the territory of the two Ukrainian regions prior to 2014, according to London-based defense research group Janes, the offensive is currently making relatively little progress.

Russian troops are still fighting to complete the takeover of the port city of Mariupol, where a pocket of Ukrainian resistance is holed up in a giant steel plant after a brutal weeks-long siege that leveled much of the city to ruins.

The Kremlin is preparing for a long, grinding campaign, according to people close to the leadership. With the U.S. and its allies steadily increasing sanctions – reaching the Russian oil and gas exports that had long been thought too vital to touch – Moscow sees little reason to compromise. A Russian general said in late April that Moscow’s goals are now to take over the south as well as the east of Ukraine, which would cut off the country from the sea and its main export routes. No senior official has publicly endorsed that ambition, however.

Privately, some Russian officials concede the situation on the ground in the occupied territories is chaotic and they haven’t yet been able to assert control and impose order.

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Kherson, where a military-civilian administration headed by a former mayor of the region’s main city was appointed by Russia on April 26, will follow Luhansk and Donetsk in joining Russia, Malofeev said. At a minimum, the Kremlin should incorporate the entire southeast of Ukraine, a chunk of territory historically known as Novorossiya (New Russia) that Czarist Russia captured from the declining Ottoman Empire in the 18th century, he said.

Ambitious Goals

Without its ports and main export routes for wheat, coal and metals, “Ukraine will lose any economic independence,” Malofeev said.

He’s boosting propaganda and dispensing largess. His pro-Kremlin channel, Tsargrad, has correspondents fanning out across newly-occupied areas including Mariupol and Kherson, and he’s donated a billion rubles ($15 million) to buy generators, medicines, minivans and other supplies. The Russian government is also preparing to fund reconstruction, he said.

Alexander Borodai, a Russian legislator who briefly served as head of the Donetsk People’s Republic and leads the “volunteer” force set up by Malofeev fighting alongside Russian troops, said the Ukrainian state should be “dismantled and disappear from the face of the Earth.” 

At least for now, it’s not clear that Russia is capable of exerting full control of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the south, Odesa, the biggest Ukrainian port, remains firmly in Ukrainian hands. Kharkiv, the major north-eastern city, is also holding out.

Zelenskiy has urged Ukrainians in occupied territories not to cooperate with Russian authorities. 

Even in Kherson, which fell with little fighting in March, Russian forces still don’t have total authority. Russia has set up filtration camps targeting men of military age or who served in the country’s security forces, Ukrainian officials said. 

The city has seen protests with participants holding up Ukrainian flags. The region’s Kyiv-loyal governor, Hennadiy Laguta, in mid-April visited an area freed by Ukraine’s army and oversaw the restoration of electricity, police patrols and health services. Schoolchildren in the Kherson region are continuing to study in Ukrainian schools online.

— With assistance by Rosalind Mathieson

Russia on the brink of retreating from Kharkiv as Putin loses control


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Australian-supplied artillery is playing a key role in fighting Russia a region that Putin needs to secure – and his military is failing badly.

Australian-supplied artillery has begun arriving on the Ukraine front line. Now it’s helping achieve what Russian weapons have failed to do – force its opponents to retreat.

President Vladimir Putin has pulled back his battered forces, unifying them for a “decisive” push on the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east.

But progress has – once again – been unexpectedly slow.

In fact, Ukrainian forces appear to be retaking as much territory on one hand as they lose on the other.

And one of the reasons it’s been able to do that is because it now has Western artillery in its possession.

The US is supplying 90 M777 towed howitzers. Most of these have already arrived. Australia sent another six, and Canada four.

These “may successfully push Russian forces out of cannon range of Kharkiv in the coming days,” assesses the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Artillery was supposed to be Russia’s ace up its sleeve.

It’s long been an integral part of the Kremlin’s battle strategy – rolling barrages of intense firepower, behind which its tanks and troops advance unmolested.

But it didn’t work in the opening months of the Ukraine invasion.

Now analysts are unpacking why western artillery is having such an immediate effect.

Battle for Kharkiv

The West is unwilling to commit its troops to the fight in Ukraine. But it is offering weapons as compensation.

It seems to be making an impact.

One Ukrainian military has stated NATO-supplied “antitank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units.”

He was talking about how Russian forces were repulsed from Kyiv.

Now that same artillery is holding the line around the city of Kharkiv.

“The fight they’re in the Donbas will be heavily reliant on what we call long-range fires, artillery particularly,” a senior US defence official said recently. “That’s why we’re focusing them on getting them artillery and tactical UAVs.”

Now Russia is struggling to hold territory to the north of the Donbas region. It’s believed to be massing troops on its side of the border in Belgorod in preparation to prevent Ukrainian forces from advancing any further.

But its forces in the vicinity of the critical Ukrainian border city of Kharkiv are failing in their efforts to push back. That may be because Ukrainians – previously using the same equipment as the Russians – can now shoot without being shot at themselves.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) says Ukraine is “notably retaking territory along a broad arc around Kharkiv rather than focusing on a narrow thrust”.

A matter of reach

Russian artillery comes in a vast variety of sizes and types. Each often has its own specific style of ammunition. Each has a particular role to achieve in a complex, layered doctrine.

Russia’s ungainly looking armoured rocket launcher, the TOS-1, carries an intimidating array of rockets. But it can only reach 3.5km. Russia’s principal self-propelled howitzer, the 2S19 Msta, can fire cannon shells out to 29km.

But the US-built weapons now active around Kharkiv can reach almost twice as far.

The M777 towed cannon can fire at targets up to 40km away. The Caesar self-propelled howitzer extends out to 46km.

Guided ammunition – such as the Excalibur rounds being delivered to Ukraine – pushes these ranges further while providing pinpoint accuracy.

And the difference between blanket barrages and long-range, precision-guided strikes may be what keeps the city of Kharkiv secure.

Every time Russian tanks, trucks and troops move into the open to assemble for an assault – they are found by loitering drones and hit by long-range cannon fire.

That means they have to retreat to find a safer place to assemble.

When every shot counts

NATO’s armies have long since standardised on a single 155mm-sized barrel. This is large enough to suit a wide variety of advanced shells to be designed – each with a different role.

“In this situation, artillery, while requiring more advanced training and more than one person to operate, has a greater range than traditional ammunition and can help Ukraine continue to wear down the Russian forces – who still outnumber them,” says George Mason University researcher Jordan Cohen.

The US builds the 155mm M777 towed howitzer. Germany makes the PzH 2000 155mm self-propelled howitzer. France has the Caeser truck-mounted 155mm howitzer.

All can share the same ammunition.

Each cannon, therefore, can adjust its role in an instant. It can fire an M829 Excalibur GPS- guided shell at any designated 2m by 2m location. It can then switch to fire a projectile that homes in on a laser designator (often carried by a drone), picking out a specific target – such as a commander’s armoured vehicle.

And the joint French/British BONUS artillery shell doesn’t need any help. It ejects two “smart” warheads when it arrives in the general area of an enemy position. These use their own sensors to identify and hit enemy tanks.

Given the longer reach of Ukraine’s new weapons, Russia has to rely on its combat helicopters and strike aircraft to negate this threat. And neither have been proving particularly successful – suffering heavy losses attempting such strikes in the past week.

“The international military support for Ukraine prevents Russia from holding land and establishing air superiority. If this continues, Russia will need to figure out a different way to wage war,” concludes Mr Cohen.