Russia has revised its Ukraine war strategy to focus on taking control of the Donbas and other regions in eastern Ukraine with a target date of early May, according to several US officials familiar with the latest US intelligence assessments.
More than a month into the war, Russian ground forces have been unable to keep control of areas where they have been fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to demonstrate he can show a victory, and eastern Ukraine is where he is most likely to achieve that, officials say. US intelligence intercepts suggest Putin is focused on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day,” according to a US official.
May 9 is a prominent holiday on the Russian calendar, a day on which the country marks the Nazi surrender in World War II with a huge parade of troops and weaponry across Red Square in front of the Kremlin. The officials say Putin wants to celebrate a victory of some kind in his war that day.
But other officials note even if there is a Russian celebration, an actual victory may be further off.
“Putin will have a victory parade on 9 May regardless the status of the war or peace talks,” a European defense official said. “On the other hand: a victory parade with what troops and vehicles?”
Still, US and European officials say any deadlines Moscow may set rhetorically don’t change the reality on the ground that Russia appears to be preparing for the prospect of an extended conflict.
A European diplomat said while the Kremlin is talking optimistically, Putin is preparing for a “Chechnya-style long, drawn-out war, because he, to a certain extent, has nowhere else to go on this.”
There are several reasons behind the May timeframe, the officials say. As the winter freeze ends and the ground softens, it will be harder for heavy Russian ground units to maneuver, meaning it’s vital for those forces to get into place as soon as possible, US intelligence assesses.
Russian-backed fighters have also already been in that region for years. The Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine is where Russian separatist forces took control of territory in 2014.
Ukrainian officials have publicly pointed to the date as well. "Ahead of May 9, Putin set the goal of a victory parade for this war," Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said on Thursday.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Friday the Ukrainians believe they are facing a “very complex and difficult month” as Putin tries meet a deadline.
“His ultimate goal is, was, and will be to take over Ukraine, but he failed. He failed due to a very strong resolve of Ukrainian military and very strong unity of Ukraine and the Western world, and the sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and G7 and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “So now, as far as I see, Putin switched to Plan B. My take is that this Plan B has a, kind of, deadline.”
The US also assesses Putin is now preparing, for the first time, to name an overall commander of the war to achieve greater Russian successes, two US officials said. The US believes Putin will likely name a general who has been in the southern part of Ukraine because that is a place where Russians have succeeded in their objectives.