By Jake Cordell
LONDON (Reuters) -Russia is unlikely to withdraw from a swathe of land across Ukraine’s southern coast and will defeat Ukrainian forces in the whole of the eastern Donbas region, Russia’s ambassador to London told Reuters.
Since the Feb. 24 invasion, Russian forces have taken control of a big chunk of territory across Ukraine’s southern flank above Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Russia is slowly pushing Ukrainian forces out of two Russian-backed rebel regions of east Ukraine which it has recognised as independent states.
When asked how the conflict might end, Russian Ambassador Andrei Kelin said it was difficult to see Russian and Russian-backed forces withdrawing from the south of Ukraine, and that Ukraine’s soldiers would be pushed back from all of Donbas.
“We are going to liberate all of the Donbas,” Kelin told Reuters in an interview in his London residence where Winston Churchill used to discuss World War Two strategy with Josef Stalin’s ambassador.
“Of course it is difficult to predict the withdrawal of our forces from the southern part of Ukraine because we have already experience that after withdrawal, provocations start and all the people are being shot and all that.”
Russia says Ukraine has repeatedly killed civilians in attacks on territory held by Russian backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas since 2014. Fighting over the frontline in that region caused thousands of casualties on both sides long before Russia’s invasion this year.
The ambassador’s comments mark one of the most explicit public descriptions of Russia’s potential endgame in Ukraine: essentially a forced partition that would leave Ukraine shorn of more than one fifth of its post-Soviet territory.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Ukraine will never accept Russian occupation of its territory and will fight on until the last Russian soldier is pushed out of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government did not immediately comment on the Russian ambassador’s remarks.
Sooner or later, Kelin said, Ukraine would have to decide: strike a peace deal with Russia or “continue slipping down this hill” to ruin.
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday accused the West of decades of aggression towards Moscow and warned that if it wanted to attempt to beat Russia on the battlefield it was welcome to try, but this would bring tragedy for Ukraine.
“Is escalation possible? Of course,” Kelin said. “If the flow of weapons is organised in such a way that it endangers our strategic situation, our defense, we will have to take serious measures against that.”
IGNORING RUSSIA’S CONCERNS
Kelin said the West did not understand the true causes of the conflict and had ignored Russia’s concerns.
“The narrative is very short: Russia has been aggressive against an innocent Ukraine,” Kelin said. “This is not true at all.”
Putin says the “special military operation” in Ukraine is necessary because Moscow had to defend Russian-speaking people against persecution which he says the West has ignored.
He also casts the war as a necessary revolt against the United States, which he says has humiliated Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by enlarging NATO eastwards and was using Ukraine to threaten Russia.
Ukraine and its Western backers say that Putin has no justification for what they say is an imperial-style land grab against a country whose borders Moscow recognised as the Soviet Union collapsed.
The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014: after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Russia annexed Crimea, fighting was triggered between Russian-backed forces and Ukraine’s soldiers in eastern Ukraine.
Before the invasion, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission found human rights violations were committed by all sides in eastern Ukraine. It found no evidence of genocide. Moscow has also criticised a Ukrainian law which obliges all citizens to know Ukrainian.
Ukraine denies it persecutes Russian speakers.
Kelin said Ukraine had been preparing for war for some time, helped by the United States and Britain. Putin says Ukraine is being used by the West as part of a plan to weaken and even destroy Russia.
“I don’t think that Europe understands what Ukrainian nationalism is,” Kelin said. The result: Russia is moving closer to China, he said.
“If sanctions will continue to be imposed on Russia, we will make a big turn to China and the East.”
(Reporting by Jake Cordell, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Frank Jack Daniel)