Civilian bodies found littering streets of Ukrainian town following withdrawal of Russian forces

Ukrainian armed forces have withdrawn from the town of Debaltseve after a prolonged battle with pro-Russian separatists. The move has highlighted Russia’s continuing presence in eastern Ukraine, as many question what will happen next

On March 23, a column of tanks with the Z emblem extends into the distance as they go north along the Mariupol-Donetsk route. (Reuters/Maximilian Clarke/SOPA/Sipa)

According to numerous US sources familiar with the current US intelligence assessments, Russia has changed its Ukraine war plan to concentrate on seizing control of the Donbas and other eastern Ukraine areas by early May. 

Russian ground troops have been unable to maintain control of regions where they have been battling for more than a month.

Officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is under pressure to demonstrate that he can win, and eastern Ukraine is the most probable place for him to do so. According to a US source, US intelligence intercepts show Putin is focused on May 9, Russia’s “Victory Day.”

May 9 is a significant Russian event, commemorating the Nazi surrender in World War II with a massive procession of soldiers and armaments across Red Square in front of the Kremlin. Putin, according to authorities, intends to celebrate a win in his war on that day. 

Other officials, though, point out that even if Russia celebrates, triumph may be a long way off. 

“Regardless of the condition of the conflict or peace negotiations, Putin will have a victory parade on May 9,” a European military official said. “On the other side, what soldiers and vehicles would be in a victory parade?”

Nonetheless, US and European officials argue that whatever rhetorical limits Moscow sets don’t affect the reality on the ground, which is that Russia looks to be preparing for a protracted confrontation.

While the Kremlin is sounding upbeat, a European official said Putin is prepared for a “Chechnya-style lengthy, drawn-out fight, since he, to some degree, has nowhere else to go on this.”

Officials say there are several reasons for the May deadline. As the winter freeze breaks and the terrain softens, large Russian ground troops will find it more difficult to move, making it critical for those forces to deploy as quickly as possible, according to US intelligence. 

For years, Russian-backed fighters have been stationed in the area. In 2014, Russian rebel troops grabbed control of land in the Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine.

The date has also been officially mentioned by Ukrainian authorities. On Thursday, Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov remarked, “Prior to May 9, Putin outlined the objective of a victory parade for this conflict.”

As Putin seeks to fulfill a deadline, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Friday that the Ukrainians fear they are in for a “very complicated and tough month.”

“His ultimate objective is, was, and will be to take over Ukraine, but he was unsuccessful.” He failed because of the Ukrainian military’s tremendous commitment, Ukraine’s and the Western world’s strong solidarity, and the sanctions implemented by the US, the G7, and the European Union,” Yatsenyuk added. “As far as I can tell, Putin has shifted to Plan B.” This Plan B, in my opinion, has a sort of deadline.”

According to two US sources, Putin is also prepared to identify an overall commander of the battle for the first time in order to gain bigger Russian wins. The US thinks Putin would choose a general who has served in the southern portion of Ukraine, where Russians have been successful in achieving their goals.