“He can’t swallow the entire country,” the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov said, adding that Russia appears to be trying “to pull the occupied territories into a single quasi-state structure and pit it against independent Ukraine.” 

With its aspirations for a quick victory dashed by a stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia has increasingly focused on grinding down Ukraine’s military in the east in the hope of forcing Kyiv into surrendering part of the country’s territory to possibly end the war, AP reports.

The bulk of the Ukrainian army is concentrated in eastern Ukraine, where it has been locked up in fighting with Moscow-backed separatists in a nearly eight-year conflict. If Russia succeeds in encircling and destroying the Ukrainian forces in the country’s industrial heartland called Donbas, it could try to dictate its terms to Kyiv and, possibly, attempt to split the country in two.

The Russian military declared Friday that the “first stage of the operation” had been largely accomplished, allowing Russian troops to concentrate on their “top goal — the liberation of Donbas.”

Many observers say the shift in strategy could reflect President Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgment that his plan for a blitz in Ukraine has failed, forcing him to narrow his goals and change tactics amid a disastrous war that has turned Russia into a pariah and decimated its economy.

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