Russia says forces near Kyiv and in north "regroup" to focus on Donbas

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) - Russia's defence ministry said on Wednesday its forces were regrouping near Ukraine's capital Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to focus on other key areas and complete the "liberation" of the breakaway eastern Donbas region.

The ministry's statement, part of a reframing of Moscow's stated objectives in recent days, came a day after Russia said it would scale back operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to support progress in peace talks.

Ukraine and the West have both reacted with suspicion to that announcement, suspecting a ploy by Moscow in response to the heavy losses of men and equipment it has suffered over five weeks of war in which Ukraine has mounted fierce and effective resistance.

Russian attacks in both locations continued on Wednesday, according to Reuters reporters near Kyiv and the mayor of Chernihiv. read more

Going further than previous statements, the defence ministry said on the 35th day of the war that Russia had accomplished "all" the goals of the first phase of what it describes as its special military operation in Ukraine.

It said these were to tie up enemy forces and equipment in defence of major population centres like Kyiv, but without storming those cities, and to hit Ukrainian forces so hard that they could not be deployed in the Donbas region, which Russia now says is the main focus of its offensive.

"Thus, all the main tasks of the Russian Armed Forces in the Kiev and Chernihiv directions have been completed. The purpose of the regrouping of the Russian Armed Forces is to intensify actions in priority areas and, above all, to complete the operation to completely liberate Donbas," the ministry said.

Ukraine and the West say Russia, which launched its invasion on Feb. 24 with the aim of demilitarising the country, according to President Vladimir Putin, has been forced to outline more modest goals after getting heavily bogged down and failing to take Kyiv and other major cities. Moscow denies that was ever the objective.

The Donbas region includes two self-proclaimed Russian-backed "people's republics" and Moscow says it is helping to "liberate" these from Ukrainian forces.

The leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, said on Wednesday that offensive operations were intensifying.

"We are well aware that the longer it takes us to liberate our territory, those settlements that are now under control of Ukraine, the more victims and destruction there will be," he said.

Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Chief writer on Russia and CIS. Worked as a journalist on 7 continents and reported from 40+ countries, with postings in London, Wellington, Brussels, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. Covered the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Security correspondent from 2003 to 2008. Speaks French, Russian and (rusty) German and Polish.