Russia lowers invasion aims as Ukraine resistance beats back forces

As footage from a horrific attack on a Mariupol theatre emerges, a briefing in Russia suggests Moscow is shifting its focus elsewhere in Ukraine, as Correspondent John Ray reports

In a sign Russia might be scaling back its invasion goals in Ukraine, Moscow has declared the first phase of what it calls its “military operation” mostly complete and will focus on “liberating” the breakaway Donbas region.

The Russian military has run into stiff resistance, having failed to take any major city in Ukraine and fallen short on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv.

The one city Russians had managed to occupy, Kherson, is now no longer under Moscow’s control, the Pentagon said on Friday evening.

This week, a Russian advance to cut Ukrainians off in the city of Mykolaiv in the south was reportedly pushed back, forcing the invading army to leave behind old equipment dating back to 1978.

Friday’s announcement, therefore, appears to indicate the Kremlin may be switching to more limited objectives a month on from the start of the invasion.

'This is all about lowering expectations for the Russian people': Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo says Russia's move has been forced by a lack of progress

The defence ministry said Russian-backed separatists now controlled 93% of Ukraine's Luhansk region and 54% of the Donetsk region, which jointly make up the Donbas.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff's Main Operational Directorate, said in a speech.

“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.”

A senior diplomatic source in Moscow described it as a face-saving move and possible prelude to a climb-down by Russia.

ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports this move has been forced by a “lack of progress right across the country.”

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The latest intelligence assessment from the UK Ministry of Defence said Ukrainians were continuing to push pack against Russian forces advancing on the capital.

“Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of Kyiv,” it said.

Western officials said that Russians continued to suffer heavy losses, including a brigade commander deliberately killed by his own troops.

Nato has estimated that in four weeks of fighting, between 7,000 and 15,000 Russia troops have been killed in combat – compared the 15,000 they lost in 10 years in Afghanistan.

One Western official said the of the 115 to 120 battalion tactical groups the Russians had at the start of the operation, 20 were no longer “combat effective.”

“After a month of operations to have somewhere in the region of a sixth, maybe even a fifth, of the forces being no longer effective, that is a pretty remarkable set of statistics,” the official said.

Meanwhile, the British prosecutor leading the investigation into allegations of Russian war crimes told ITV News he has received help from the Ukrainian side – but nothing but silence from Moscow.

One of the potential war crimes under examination is a bombing of a theatre in Mariupol, where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter on March 16.

The first images from inside the destroyed theatre emerged on Friday, showing women and children covered in dust evacuating the ruins.

Another video shows part of the three-storey building had completely collapsed after being struck by Russian missiles.

As many as 300 people are feared dead after the attack.