ussia is about two weeks behind schedule in its invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and the south of the country, a senior US defence official has said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said on Tuesday: “We would assess that [Putin’s] easily two weeks or even maybe more behind … where he thought he wanted to be in the Donbas and in the south.”
Vladimir Putin’s forces have shifted most of its focus to eastern Ukraine, after failing to capture Ukraine’s capital Kyiv earlier in the invasion.
Many analysts believe the battle of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas region, will decide the fate of the war, which is now in its 11th week.
Russian-backed separatists control part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which jointly make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s old coal and steel-producing area.
Moscow’s forces also control large swathes of the country’s south, and are continuing to launch offensives in a bid to capture the port cities of Mariupol and Odesa.
Further attacks on the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol took place. The industrial complex is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the beseiged city.
The majority of civilians seeking refuge in the steelplant have been evacuated, but Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said on Tuesday at least 100 civilians are still trapped in the plant, along with more than 1,000 Ukrainian fighters.
Missile strikes were also launched in the vital Black Sea port of Odesa, killing one person and injuring five others when a shopping centre and warehouse depot were hit, in what appears to be Russian efforts to disrupt supply lines and Western weapons shipments.
Last month, one Russian general suggested the Kremlin aimed to seize the Donbas region, link up with the Crimea peninsula which it annexed in 2014, and capture Ukraine’s entire south as far as a breakaway, Russian-occupied region of Moldova.
That would mean pushing hundreds of miles beyond current lines, past the cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa.
America’s Director of National Intelligence told a Senate hearing on Tuesday that Russia could be seeking a land bridge to the breakaway Moldovan territory of Transnistria.
Avril Haines said that a Russian victory in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine might not end the war.
“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” she told lawmakers.
She added that Vladimir Putin was counting on the Western resolve to weaken over time and as the conflict continued, there was concern about how it would develop in the coming months.
“Combined with the reality that Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities … the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” Ms Haines said.
With the prospect of a long drawn-out conflict in Ukraine growing, Boris Johnson was preparing to fly out to Sweden and then Finland on Wednesday to discuss security issues.
The two countries are considering joining Nato following the Russian president’s attack on Ukraine, which began on February 24.
Speaking ahead of Mr Johnson trip, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s about not just Ukraine but broader security of Europe.
“This is about meeting other democratic countries and discussing issues such as security which is of importance both here and overseas.”
The relentless attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities have seen more than eight million people internally displaced since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, according to the United Nations’ migration agency.
Indiscriminate bombing campaigns by Mr Putin’s forces have sparked a humanitarian crisis and are believed to have caused thousands of civilian casualties.
The UN said it believes the civilian death toll is “probably much higher” than the nationwide figure of 3,381 Ukraine has been reporting.
Around 5.9 million people have already fled the country since the invasion, but this is expected to surpass eight million by the end of the year and would constitute Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.