Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia’s invasion of his country was just the beginning and that Moscow could seek to conquer more countries after the Russian general said it wanted full control of southern Ukraine.
“All nations that, like us, believe in the victory of life over death, must fight with us. They have to help us because we are first in line. And who will come next? “Zelensky said this in a video speech late Friday.
His comments come after Rustam Minnekaev, the acting commander of the Central Military District, said the new Russian offensive was aimed at taking control of southern Ukraine and building a land bridge in Crimea, suggesting Russia was planning a permanent occupation of Ukrainian territory in the war.
Minnekaev also told members of the Defense Industry Forum on Friday that control of southern Ukraine would allow Russia access to Transnistria, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova, suggesting that Russia could attack the port city of Odessa or launch an economic blockade. .
These remarks are in direct contradiction to Vladimir Putin’s earlier claims that Russia did not plan for a permanent occupation of Ukrainian cities, and suggest that the Kremlin is changing direction after a failed offensive on Kyiv that seemed to seek regime change.
The statement was the first high-ranking official on the Russian military’s goals of occupying the territory as it maneuvered toward the expected “Battle of the Donbas” in eastern Ukraine.
“Since the beginning of the second phase of the special operation … one of the tasks of the Russian army is to gain full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. This will provide a land corridor to the Crimea and affect vital objects of the Ukrainian economy, the Black Sea ports, through which agricultural and metallurgical products are supplied. [other] countries, “Minnekaev said at an annual meeting of the Union of Defense Industries of the Russian Sverdlovsk region.
Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, which the international community did not recognize.
Russia’s campaign in southern Ukraine was more successful than his attempts to conquer Kyiv from the north, although there was also strong opposition from Ukrainian troops. Russia occupied the city of Kherson and claimed almost complete control of Mariupol as it planned a pliers attack on Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region.
Zelensky accused Russia of planning a “falsification” of the independence referendum in the partially occupied southern regions of Kherson and Zaporozhye, when he told Ukrainians not to provide personal information to the occupying forces.
The Kremlin declined to answer questions about Minnekaev’s comments on Friday, saying that the Russian Ministry of Defense was responsible for the “special operation”, the Russian war in Ukraine.
It is unclear whether Minnekaev revealed details of Russia’s formal plans for the offensive or expressed his personal views on the benefits of Russia’s military offensive.
map of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Minnevaev, the acting commander of one of Russia’s four military districts, also said that “control of southern Ukraine will provide another access point to Transnistria, where facts about the oppression of the Russian-speaking population have also been observed.”
“Obviously we are at war with the whole world now,” Minnekaev said.
If true, it could indicate that Russia will seek to conquer Odessa, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, and will strengthen its positions in Transnistria, Russia’s Russian-controlled territory hosted by Russian troops since the fall of the Soviet Union.
With Russian support, Transnistria waged a war against Moldova in the 1990s, which left the area de facto independence and a crew of 1,500 Russian soldiers. The region is recognized as part of Moldova. The unrecognized state is strongly influenced internationally by the nostalgia for the Soviet Union and its affinity with Russia, which is supported by state propaganda.
Moldova’s foreign ministry said it had summoned Moscow’s ambassador on Friday to express “deep concern” over the general’s comments. Moldova was neutral, he said. The country applied to join the European Union last month, signaling a pro-Western course accelerated by Russia’s invasion.
It is unlikely that Russian forces, which have suffered significant losses in the early stages of the war, could now launch an offensive toward Odessa, let alone the border with Moldova. Russian warships were driven further off the Ukrainian coast after the cruiser Moscow, the Russian flagship, sank in the Black Sea last week. Ukraine claimed to have attacked the cruiser with anti-ship missiles.
On Friday evening, Russia’s defense ministry said one sailor had died and 27 were missing after a fire in Moscow, with 396 more rescued.
Analysts said Minnekaev’s statement could mean that Russia would focus on the economy of Odessa and the surrounding region, rather than launching an attack on the city. Russian forces have already been driven back in Ukraine’s counter-offensive last month and may be almost exhausted.
“My interpretation of Minnequayev’s recent statement is that Russia intends to stick to what has taken hold in the south (this is largely assumed at this point) and try to put pressure on Ukraine on the economic front over time, including the blockade,” Michael said. Kofman, director of research at the Russian Studies program at CNA, a research and analytical organization based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote on Twitter.
“I am skeptical of any other major offensives outside the Donbas given the losses and the current limitations on force availability,” he added.
In further development:
UN Secretary-General António Guterres will travel to Ukraine on Thursday to meet Zelenysky and Foreign Minister Dmytrom Kuleba, his office said. The visit will take place two days after Guterres travels to Moscow to meet Putin.
Russia is trying to “starve the remaining defenders and civilians at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and is unlikely to allow the imprisoned civilians to leave,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote in its latest analysis of the conflict.
Another mass grave was found near Mariupol, the AP agency said, referring to the city council and the mayor’s adviser. The city council has published a satellite photo provided by Planet Labs, which says there is a mass grave measuring 45 x 25 meters, which can hold the bodies of at least 1,000 inhabitants of Mariupol outside the village of Vynohradné.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to the report