Russia on Tuesday claimed to have taken control of 97% of one of the two provinces that make up Ukraine’s Donbas, bringing the Kremlin closer to its goal of fully capturing the eastern industrial heartland of coal mines and factories.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow’s forces hold nearly all of Luhansk province. And it appears that Russia now occupies roughly half of Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian officials and military analysts.
After abandoning its bungled attempt to storm Kyiv two months ago, Russia declared that taking the entire Donbas is its main objective. Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas since 2014, and the region has borne the brunt of the Russian onslaught in recent weeks.
Early in the war, Russian troops also took control of the entire Kherson region and a large part of the Zaporizhzhia region, both in the south. Russian officials and their local appointees have talked about plans for those regions to either declare their independence or be folded into Russia.
But in what may be the latest instance of anti-Russian sabotage inside Ukraine, Russian state media said Tuesday that an explosion at a cafe in the city of Kherson wounded four people. Tass called the apparent bombing in the Russian-occupied city a “terror act.”
Before the Feb. 24 invasion, Ukrainian officials said Russia controlled some 7% of the country, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014, and areas held by the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces hold 20% of the country.
While Russia has superior firepower, the Ukrainian defenders are entrenched and have shown the ability to counterattack.
Zelenskyy said Russian forces made no significant advances in the eastern Donbas region over the past day.
“The absolutely heroic defense of the Donbas continues,” he said late Tuesday in his nightly video address.
Zelenskyy said the Russians clearly did not expect to meet so much resistance and are now trying to bring in additional troops and equipment. He said the same was true in the Kherson region.
Speaking earlier to a Financial Times conference, Zelenskyy insisted on Ukraine’s need to defeat Russia on the battlefield but also said he is still open to peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But a former senior U.S. intelligence officer said the time isn’t right.
“You’re not going to get to the negotiating table until neither side feels they have an advantage that they could push,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
The Russians “think they will be able to take the whole of the Donbas and then might use that as the opportunity to call for negotiations,” Kendall-Taylor said at an online seminar organized by Columbia and New York universities.