A man walks away from a building set afire by Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 25, 2022.

A man walks away from a building set afire by Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 25, 2022. MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Russian Forces Halt Kyiv Advance as Kremlin Says Donbass Was Only Goal All Along

Pentagon official rebuts Moscow's claims about war aims, casualties; adds that Russian precision munitions are failing at high rates.

A month into its invasion, Russia appears to be reducing its war aims from capturing all of Ukraine to merely holding the Donbass region–which a top Russian military officer said Friday was the goal from the start, but which Pentagon said may be a result of Russia’s intelligence failures. 

“Our forces and equipment will focus on the most important thing, the complete liberation of Donbass,” Russian General Staff head of military operations Sergei Rudskoi said at a Friday briefing in Moscow, as reported by Interfax. Rudskoi said the month-long invasion had completed its first phase and achieved its purpose: keeping Ukraine from retaking the separatist-controlled Donbass territories. 

Rudskoi claimed the attacks on Kyiv and outlying cities were done only to keep Ukraine from being able to send troops or defenses to Donbass. 

He also said Russian military casualties were 1,351 dead and 3,825 wounded. Both figures are far below recent NATO estimates of 7,000 and 15,000 Russians dead and 40,000 wounded. 

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday that Pentagon leaders have a different assessment of the situation: that intelligence, command and control, and logistics failures were taking their toll and potentially forcing Russia to reconsider its objectives. 

“They overestimated their ability to take any population center and they clearly underestimated the Ukrainian resistance,” the official said. “So I think it's safe to assume that they face some intelligence failures of their own. Whether they're now changing their strategic goals or not, I think it's difficult to say.” 

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On the ground, the official said, the Russians were facing “significant command and control problems, both in terms of an individual leader’s ability to command troops in his field but also the ability of commanders to speak to one another.” 

Unlike the United States, Russia does not have a non-commissioned officer corps, seasoned and senior enlisted leaders who provide decentralized command and control. 

Russia’s stalled ground attack and columns of forces that have faced fuel, food and water shortages have forced it to rely heavily on long-range fires, which were also facing shortages and high failure rates.

Those long convoys of troops that had been headed to Kyiv have not made significant forward progress in weeks and were now digging in, the official said. 

“The Russians are at least for the moment not pursuing a ground offensive towards Kyiv. They are digging in. They're establishing defensive positions. They don't show any signs of being willing to move on Kyiv from the ground,” the official said.  

As of Friday, Russia was  also continuing its escalated air war, launching more than 300 sorties a day, but its stocks of air-launched cruise missiles were dwindling, the official said. 

All types of Russian precision munitions are seeing high failure rates, perhaps up to 60 percent, the official said.

“The ranges I've seen in the press from anywhere from 20% to 60%—I would not push back on that assessment,” the official said. “There are times when they have—when our assessment is that they have experienced a significant amount of failure in their missiles.” 

Russia appears to be concentrating its forces on eastern Ukraine, the official said. 

“At least for the moment, they don't appear to want to pursue Kyiv as aggressively, or frankly at all. They are focused on the Donbass,” the official said.