News World Europe Russia hides its troops’ Ukraine failure behind shift of focus to just one front
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Russia hides its troops’ Ukraine failure behind shift of focus to just one front

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pushed for further talks with Russia as Moscow signals it is scaling back its ambitions to focus on territory claimed by Russian-backed separatists in the east after attacks elsewhere stalled.

Western military analysts are scoffing at Russian claims of a crushing military triumph.

With battle lines near Kyiv frozen for weeks and two massive Russian armoured columns stuck northwest and east of the capital, a British intelligence report hailed the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has pushed Russians back in the east and recapture lost territory.

“Ukrainian counterattacks and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines have allowed Ukraine to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres east of Kyiv,” the report said.

In an announcement on Friday appearing to indicate more limited goals, the Russian defence ministry claimed the first phase of its operation was mostly complete and it would now focus on the Donbas region bordering Russia, which has pro-Moscow separatist enclaves.

“The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas,” said Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate.

Breakaway Russian-backed forces have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Donbas and the adjoining Luhansk region since 2014. They declared independence with Moscow’s blessing – but not recognised by the West – soon before the February 24 invasion.

Reframing Russia’s goals may be President Vladimir Putin’s gambit to claim a face-saving victory as his domestic economy collapses under the weight of international sanctions and opposition to his war and leadership grows, military analysts said.

In a further signal of how badly the invasion has gone, Russian military chiefs admitted 1351 of its soldiers had been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict and a further 3825 injured.

The figures are the first official death toll issued by Russia since the beginning of March, when the number of Russian dead was given as 498.

Ukraine insists Russian fatalities are closer to 15,000.

Joe Biden visits Poland

US President Joe Biden has praised the bravery of the Ukrainian people after he landed in Poland to see first-hand the refugee crisis on the border.

Poland, on Ukraine’s eastern flank, has taken in more than half of the 3.7 million Ukrainians who have fled abroad.

While meeting US troops, Mr Biden said there was more at stake in this war than “alleviating” Ukraine.

“Ukrainian people have a lot of backbone. They have a lot of guts,” Mr Biden said.

“Look at how they’re stepping up … Women, young people standing in the middle of, in the front of a damn tank, just saying ‘I’m not leaving. I’m holding my ground.’ They’re incredible,” he said.

“What you’re engaging in is much more than just whether or not you can alleviate people of Ukraine. We’re in a new phase. Your generation, we’re in an inflection point,” he continued.

“The question is, who is going to prevail? Is democracy going to prevail and the values we share? Or are autocracies going to prevail?

“That’s really what’s at stake. What you’re doing is consequential, really consequential.”

Talks going nowhere

Moscow had said the goals for what it calls its “special operation” include demilitarising and “denazifying” its neighbour. Western officials dismiss this as a baseless pretext for a war they say is aimed at toppling Zelenskiy’s government.

As weeks of on-and-off peace talks continue to go nowhere, Zelenskiy on Friday hailed his troops’ resistance and said Russian forces were reeling from “powerful blows”.

“Our defenders are leading the Russian leadership to a simple and logical idea: we must talk, talk meaningfully, urgently and fairly,” Zelenskiy said.

Facing stiff resistance, Russian troops have failed to capture and hold any major city. Instead, they have bombarded cities, laid waste to urban areas and driven a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million from their homes.

Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, the eastern suburb where Kyiv’s main airport is located, said 20,000 civilians had evacuated the area so Ukrainian troops could counterattack.

Mass graves in Mariupol

Mariupol’s city council says it believes 300 people were killed during the bombing of a theatre on March 16 for which Russia denies responsibility.

It was the first official estimate of the death toll from the airstrike where hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the basement.

But the city council emphasised it was still not possible to determine the exact number of fatalities because Mariupol remains in chaos and under almost constant bombardment.

“From witnesses comes information that about 300 people died in the Mariupol Drama Theatre as a result of the bombing by a Russian plane,” Mariupol city council said in a statement on Friday.

“Up until the very last moment, one does not want to believe this horror.

“But the words of those who were inside the building at the time of this terrorist act says the opposite.”

The head of the UN human rights team in Ukraine says monitors have received increasing information on mass graves in Mariupol, including one said to hold as many as 200 bodies.

Matilda Bogner said civilian deaths exceeded 1035.

In recent weeks some residents in Mariupol had to pile bodies into hastily dug mass graves because heavy shelling prevented them from properly burying their dead.

JK Rowling hits back

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has hit back at Vladimir Putin after she was mentioned in a speech by the Russian president.

Mr Putin cited the British writer while condemning “cancel culture” in the West, saying like Russia she had been “cancelled” because “she didn’t satisfy the demands of gender rights”.

Ms Rowling responded by taking to Twitter with a message referencing jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

She wrote: “Critiques of Western cancel culture are possibly not best made by those currently slaughtering civilians for the crime of resistance, or who jail and poison their critics.”

Her tweet was accompanied by the hashtag #IStandWithUkraine.

Ms Rowling also reminded her followers she would personally match all donations up to £1m to an emergency appeal by a charity she co-founded to help children in Ukraine.

-with AAP