Battle of Donbas at heart of Russia's plans despite 'significant cost' to Putin's army

Moscow is concentrating its efforts in the eastern region after failing to take Kyiv

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a damaged residential building. Getty Images
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President Vladimir Putin’s military has made gains in the battle for Donbas in eastern Ukraine but “at significant cost”, Britain has said.

As the war enters its tenth week, Russia is concentrating its efforts in the east of the country in a bid to secure control over the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway enclaves. Invading troops have the advantage of being backed up by separatists who have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the region since 2014.

In an intelligence update issued on Friday morning, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said: “The Battle of Donbas remains Russia’s main strategic focus, in order to achieve its stated aim of securing control over the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

“In these oblasts fighting has been particularly heavy around Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, with an attempted advance south from Izium towards Slovyansk.

“Due to strong Ukrainian resistance, Russian territorial gains have been limited and achieved at significant cost to Russian forces.”

Officials at Britain’s Foreign Office are scrambling to gather more information following reports two British citizens had been captured by Russian forces in Ukraine.

UK non-profit organisation Presidium Network said that two civilians working as humanitarian aid volunteers were captured by President Putin’s forces on Monday at a checkpoint south of the city of Zaporizhzhia in south-eastern Ukraine.

They were not working for the Presidium Network, which helps to get aid into Kyiv.

The Foreign Office on Thursday confirmed a British man fighting alongside Ukrainian troops had been killed in the war. Scott Sibley is the first Briton confirmed to have died while fighting since Russia invaded on February 24.

The International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, said the death of a British military veteran in Ukraine was “terribly sad” but denied that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss caused confusion by saying in February she would support UK nationals who chose to fight for Ukraine.

“Terribly, terribly sad news to hear,” Ms Trevelyan told Times Radio.

“The Foreign Office are working closely with authorities in Ukraine and indeed supporting the family.

“But the government was clear that the travel advice was: do not go to Ukraine.

“It was clear and it was reiterated many times.”

The UK government announced on Friday it would send war crimes experts to help the Ukrainian government with investigations into Russian atrocities.

The team will support the government in Kyiv in gathering evidence and prosecuting war crimes and will include experts in conflict-related sexual violence.

They will arrive in neighbouring Poland early next month to examine how they can assist.

Ms Truss vowed the victims would get justice.

“Russia has brought barbarity to Ukraine and committed vile atrocities, including against women. British expertise will help uncover the truth and hold Putin’s regime to account for its actions. Justice will be done,” she said.

The announcement comes as Ms Truss prepares to meet the president of the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Friday.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 10:16 AM