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“Since the start of the second phase of the special operation…one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine,” Major General Rustam Minnekaev told Russian news agencies.
A Russian military convoy moves on a highway in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces near Mariupol, Ukraine, Saturday, April 16, 2022. Mariupol, a strategic port on the Sea of Azov, has been besieged by Russian troops and forces from self-proclaimed separatist areas in eastern Ukraine for more than six weeks. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
The general’s comments come one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory over the Mariupol, despite the thousands of resistance fighters that remain bunkered in the southeastern port city.
The Pentagon continues to assess that Mariupol is still contested and has yet to fall to Russian forces.
Mariupol is a strategically important port city, not only because of its access to the Sea of Azov and the direct coast-to-coast access it would grant Russia – but because of Moscow’s strategy for eastern Ukraine.
Defense officials have said that Russia is planning to pinch the Luhansk and Donetsk regions by invading from the north through Kharkiv and up from the south through Mariupol.
But the general’s Friday statements suggest that cities as far south as Odesa could be seeing a similar fight to the ongoing battle in Mariupol.
An armed serviceman of Donetsk People’s Republic militia walks past a building damaged during fighting in Mariupol on Wednesday, April 20. (AP/Alexei Alexandrov)
When announcing his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin said he has no intention of occupying Ukraine and claimed his forces would “demilitarize and denazify the country.”
But Minnekaev on Friday said the goal was not only to create a land bridge between the Donbas and occupied Crimea but to gain superiority over all Black Sea ports – extending its coastal access outside the Sea of Azov.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are cases of Russian-speaking people being oppressed,” Minnekaev said, in an apparent threat to Moldova.
Transnistria is an unrecognized breakaway state in Moldova sympathetic to Russia.
Map depicting Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, the Donbas region held by pro-Russian forces, and nearby countries. Ian Jopson, Fox Digital (Fox News)
Though a peace treaty between Transnistria and the Moldovan government since 1992, the breakaway state has similarities to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the Donbas which served as Putin’s justification for his illegal invasion in February.
Minnekaev’s comments suggest that Moldova could be next to face off with Russia.