Russian President Vladimir Putin has not necessarily given up on trying to capture the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, even as Russia has shifted its focus in recent days to southern and eastern Ukraine, according to US and Western officials.
Over the next few weeks, officials expect Russian forces to resupply and reposition with the aim of launching a brutal new offensive in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.
“They will be rearmed, because they’ve used a lot of ammunition,” Stoltenberg said, “and they will be resupplied with fuel and all the things they need, food and so on, to launch a new big offensive.”
It is still unclear what Putin’s long-term goals are, a senior defense official said. But despite the recent shift in strategy and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine peace talks, the US and its allies are preparing for the possibility that Putin tries to reinvade the Kyiv region once he completes his objectives in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, assuming he has enough manpower and equipment left to do so, US and European officials told CNN.
“In order to protect any territory it seizes in the east, we expect that Russia could potentially extend its force projection and presence even deeper into Ukraine, beyond Luhansk and Donetsk provinces,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday. “At least that is their intention and their plan.”
Sullivan added that the US expects Russia to continue launching air and missile strikes across Ukraine, including against the cities of Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv and Lviv.
“Russia’s goal, in the end, is to weaken Ukraine as much as possible,” he said.
US, European and Ukrainian officials told CNN that they don’t believe Russia is negotiating with Ukraine in good faith, and that the talks are little more than a “smokescreen.” The officials also said they don’t believe Putin has abandoned his goal of removing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Western-aligned government in Kyiv.
“While Moscow may be interested now in using military pressure to find a political settlement, if this offensive in the east proves to gain some traction, Russia could regenerate forces for additional goals, including trying to gain control of yet more territory within Ukraine,” Sullivan said in his Tuesday remarks.
US intelligence suggests that while Russia may try to reattack elsewhere, such an operation may have limited success given the heavy losses its military has already sustained over the last six weeks, said one of the sources familiar with the US assessments.
But Russian forces are resupplying as they move east, leaving Western governments actively – yet informally – weighing the kinds of security guarantees they could provide Ukraine that could deter any renewed Russian offensives.
The officials said they still believe the clearest path to ending the war is for Ukraine to decisively push out Russian forces, which is why NATO members and Europe have continued to pour military equipment into the country.
“There is only one way out of the war,” said a European official. “And that is for Ukraine to win.”