The surprise announcement goes much further than the goals Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated publicly, and on its surface seems unlikely.
Senior Russian Commander Rustam Minnekayev made the comments during a defense industry meeting and said Moscow wants to win control over a territory that stretches into Moldova, Ukraine’s southern neighbor. It is unclear whether Minnekayev’s comments are official Russian policy.
If Moscow is able to take over the swath of land, it would cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, allowing Russia to “influence critical elements of the Ukrainian economy,” Minnekayev said. The plan would also give Putin’s forces another point of access to the pro-Russian Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, the New York Times reported.
The Russian commander also issued the same ominous threat to Moldova that it had made to Ukraine to justify its Feb. 24 invasion.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another connection to Transnistria, where there is also evidence of oppression of the Russian-speaking language,” Minnekayev said.
Putin used false claims of genocide and a push to keep the Russian culture and language alive as part of the reason he invaded the Eastern European country eight weeks ago.
However, military analysts in the United States and Europe have questioned whether Russia has enough troops and equipment to carry out its offensive in the east, much less the south.
“I want to remind you that many Kremlin plans have been destroyed by our army and people,” Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on social media in response to Minnekayev.
In the besieged port city of Mariupol, Putin declared victory despite about 2,000 Ukrainians remaining holed up at a giant steel factory. Putin ordered his troops not to storm the stronghold but instead to seal it off, effectively using starvation as a tool to force them out.
Ukrainian fighters have fought off Russian forces in Mariupol since the start of the invasion.
If Russians were to take Mariupol, they would occupy an interrupted strip of land from the Crimean Peninsula in the south, which they took in 2014, through the Donbas region in the east. It would allow them to link up their soldiers in the south and the northeast.
Mariupol and its surrounding towns have been at the center of some of the war’s worst atrocities. Maxar Technologies released new satellite images that it said showed more than 200 graves in a town near Mariupol where local officials accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians there.
The eastern city of Slovyansk, which has about 100,000 residents, also came under fire overnight. There has been no immediate word on the damage, but Mayor Vadym Lyakh urged residents to leave as quickly as possible. He said a convoy of buses would be organized.
Constant shelling by Russians prevented attempts to bring buses in for civilians to evacuate in the eastern city of Rubizhne, according to Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai. NBC News reported that several displaced citizens were huddled together in the basement of a damaged building as Russian forces tore up the city with missiles and heavy artillery.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, fighting intensified overnight and into the morning. The head of Kharkiv’s regional military said the city has suffered 50 attacks by Russian forces in less than a 24-hour period.
The United Nations human rights chief said Friday that Russia has ignored international humanitarian law and has gone after thousands of civilians.
“Russian forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure — actions that may amount to war crimes,” the Geneva-based human rights office said.
So far, the office said it has verified 5,264 civilian casualties, including 2,345 deaths. Of those, 92.3% were recorded in Ukrainian government-controlled territories.
Meanwhile, in his nightly address, Zelensky said Russia has rejected a proposal for a temporary truce on Orthodox Easter this Sunday.
The news comes as Pope Francis defended his decision not to name-check Putin in his condemnation of the war, despite the bishop of Rome saying he would do “everything” so “there will not be one more death in Ukraine.”
“A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state,” Francis said in a published interview in the Argentine newspaper la Nacion.