Russia plans to seize the Donbas region and southern Ukraine, a military official said, explaining the latter move was a “way to Transnistria”, the Russia-backed breakaway region in Moldova.
Rustam Minnekaev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, made the announcement on Friday at a meeting in Sverdlovsk, according to Russian media.
He said capturing Donbas would enable Moscow to forge a land bridge between the Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it annexed in 2014, and the eastern region.
“Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transnistria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed,” Minnekaev said, without providing details of the alleged oppression.
Transnistria, where an estimated 1,500 Russian troops are based, borders Ukraine. Kyiv fears the region could be used as a launchpad for new Russian attacks.
A narrow strip of land held by pro-Russian separatists, it runs along the east of Moldova and comes to within about 40km of the Ukrainian port of Odesa.
Earlier this month, Ukrainian officials said that an airfield in the region was being prepared to receive aircraft and be used by Moscow to fly in Ukraine-bound troops, allegations Moldova’s defence ministry and authorities in Transnistria denied.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry denounced the plans as “imperialism”.
“They stopped hiding it,” the ministry said on Twitter.
It said Russia had “acknowledged that the goal of the ‘second phase’ of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Imperialism as it is.”
Minnekaev’s remarks came a day after Moscow claimed it had fully “liberated” Ukraine’s southeastern port city of Mariupol, apart from the sprawling, Soviet-era Azovstal steel plant which Ukrainian forces have made their last stronghold there.
While Kyiv acknowledged Moscow had control of most of Mariupol, it said the city was still in Ukraine’s hands, while Washington dismissed Russia’s claimed victory as disinformation.