Russian commander suggests plan is for permanent occupation of south Ukraine


A senior Russian military commander has said the goal of Russia’s new offensive is to seize control of southern Ukraine and form a land bridge to Crimea, indicating that Russia plans a permanent occupation of Ukrainian territory taken in the war.

Rustam Minnekayev, acting commander of the central military district, also told members of a defence industry forum on Friday that control over southern Ukraine would give Russia access to Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova, indicating that Russia may attack the port city of Odesa or launch an economic blockade of the area.

The remarks directly contradict earlier claims from Vladimir Putin that Russia was not planning to occupy Ukrainian cities permanently and suggests the Kremlin is changing tack after its failed offensive toward Kyiv, which appeared to seek regime change.

The statement was the first by a high-ranking official about the Russian military’s goals to occupy territory as it manoeuvres for an anticipated “battle for Donbas” in Ukraine’s east.

“Since the beginning of the second phase of the special operation … one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over Donbas and southern Ukraine. This will provide a land corridor to Crimea, as well as affecting vital objects of the Ukrainian economy, Black Sea ports through which agricultural and metallurgical products are supplied to [other] countries,” Minnekayev said on Friday at the annual meeting of the Union of Defence Industry Enterprises of Russia’s Sverdlovsk region.

Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, a move not recognised by the international community.

Russia’s campaign in southern Ukraine has been more successful than its attempts to take Kyiv from the north, although it has also met fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops. Russia has occupied the city of Kherson and has claimed near-total control of Mariupol, as it plans a pincer-style attack on Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region.

Zelenskiy: Russia plans to hold sham independence vote in southern Ukraine – video

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has accused Russia of planning to “falsify” an independence referendum in the partly occupied southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, telling Ukrainians there not to give personal information to occupying forces.

Russia was planning “to falsify a so-called referendum on your land, if an order comes from Moscow to stage such a show. And this is the reality. Be careful,” Zelenskiy said.

The Kremlin refused to answer questions about Minnekayev’s comments on Friday, saying the Russian defence ministry was responsible for the “special operation”, meaning Russia’s war in Ukraine.

It is not clear if Minnekayev was revealing details about Russia’s formal plans for its offensive or expressing his personal views on the benefits of Russia’s military offensive.

Minnekayev, the acting commander of one of Russia’s four military districts, also said that “control over southern Ukraine will give yet another point of access to Transnistria, where facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population have also been observed”.

“Apparently, we are now at war with the whole world,” Minnekayev said.

Ukraine land bridge map

If true, that could indicate Russia would seek to take Odesa, one of Ukraine’s largest cities, and seek to reinforce its positions in Transnistria, a Russian-controlled territory of Moldova that has hosted Russian troops since the fall of the Soviet Union.

With Russian backing, Transnistria fought a war against Moldova in the 1990s that left the territory with de facto independence and a garrison of 1,500 Russian troops. The region is recognised as part of Moldova. The unrecognised state is strongly influenced internationally by nostalgia for the Soviet Union and its affinity for Russia, which is fostered by state propaganda.

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It is unlikely that Russian forces, which have sustained considerable losses in the early stages of the war, would be able to stage an offensive toward Odesa at the moment, much less the border with Moldova. Russian warships have been driven further from Ukraine’s coast after the Moskva cruiser, a Russian flagship, sank in the Black Sea last week. Ukraine claimed it had attacked the cruiser with anti-ship missiles.

On Friday night the Russian defence ministry said one sailor had died and 27 were missing after the Moskva fire, with 396 others rescued.

Analysts said that Minnekayev’s statement could mean Russia would target the economy of Odesa and the surrounding region rather than launch an attack on the city. Russian forces had already been driven back in a Ukrainian counteroffensive last month and may be close to exhaustion.

“My interpretation of the recent statement by Minnekayev is that Russia intends to hold on to what they’ve taken in the south (largely assumed at this point), and try to pressure Ukraine over time on the economic front, including via blockade,” Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia studies programme at CNA, a research and analysis organisation based in Arlington, Virginia, wrote on Twitter.

“I am sceptical of any further major offensives beyond Donbas given losses and current force availability constraints,” he added.



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