Russians seize 42 towns in eastern Ukraine as fighting intensifies

KYIV (NYTIMES) – Ukrainian officials acknowledged on Friday (April 22) that Russian forces had taken more than three dozen small towns in their initial drive this week to seize eastern Ukraine, offering the first glimpse of what promises to be a grinding brawl by the Kremlin to achieve broader territorial gains in a new phase of the two-month-old war.

The fighting in the east – along increasingly fortified lines that stretch across more than 482km – intensified as a Russian commander signalled even wider ambitions, warning that the Kremlin’s forces aimed to take “full control” of southern Ukraine all the way to Moldova, Ukraine’s south-west neighbour.

While it seemed unlikely that the commander, General Rustam Minnekayev, would have misspoken, his warning still drew scepticism, based on Russia’s probable difficulty in starting another broad offensive and the general’s relatively obscure role in the hierarchy.

The broader war aims that he outlined would be far more ambitious than the downscaled goals set out by Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks, which have focused on gaining control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Some political and military experts suggested the general’s statement could have been part of Russia’s continuing efforts to distract or confuse Ukraine and its allies. Gen Minnekayev’s official job involves political propaganda work and does not typically cover military strategy.

On Friday, fierce fighting was under way across a band of south-eastern Ukraine, engulfing communities on the banks of the Dnieper River.

While Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Russia had taken control of 42 small towns and villages in recent days, they said that those same places could be back in Ukrainian hands before long.

In his remarks on Friday, Gen Minnekayev asserted that one of Russia’s goals was “full control of the Donbas and southern Ukraine”. He said that would allow Russia to control Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, “through which agricultural and metallurgical products are delivered” to other countries.

“I want to remind you that many Kremlin plans have been destroyed by our army and people,” Mr Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on social media in response to Minnekayev’s remarks.

Gen Minnekayev also issued a veiled warning to Moldova, where Moscow-backed separatists seized control of a 402km sliver of land known as Transnistria in 1992.

“Control over the south of Ukraine is another connection to Transnistria, where there is also evidence of oppression of the Russian-speaking population,” the general said, echoing false claims of a “genocide” against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine that Putin used to help justify the Feb 24 invasion.

The Moldovan government later summoned the Russian ambassador to complain, saying that Gen Minnekayev’s comments were “not only unacceptable but also unfounded” and led to “increased tension”.

Transnistria has never been recognised internationally – not even by Russia. But Russia keeps 1,500 soldiers there, nominally to keep the peace and guard a large Soviet-era munitions cache.

A poor country of 2.6 million people, Moldova is considered vulnerable to further Russian incursions. It is not a member of Nato or the European Union, but it hastily applied for EU membership last month.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, declined to comment on Gen Minnekayev’s remarks.