(Reuters) – Russian forces are “methodically carrying out” plans to “liberate” two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s defence minister said on Tuesday.
Sergei Shoigu said the West, by arming Ukraine, was doing everything it could to prolong Moscow’s military operation.
Russian forces entered Ukraine on Feb. 24. Driven back by Ukrainian forces from an assault on Kyiv in the north, Moscow has poured troops into the east for a ground offensive in two provinces known as the Donbas.
The coal- and steel-producing Donbas has been the focal point of Russia’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine since 2014, when the Kremlin used proxies to set up separatist “people’s republics” in Luhansk and Donetsk.
“The plan to liberate the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics is being methodically carried out,” Shoigu was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying at a meeting of defence officials.
Western countries have given Ukraine military equipment worth billions of dollars, with the United States alone offering aid worth more than $2.5 billion.
“The United States and Western countries it controls are doing everything to drag out the special military operation as much as possible,” Shoigu said.
“The increasing volume of foreign arms supplies clearly demonstrates their intentions to provoke the Kyiv regime to fight to the last Ukrainian standing.”
Shoigu, who is close to President Vladimir Putin, has been only rarely seen in public since Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. The Kremlin said last month that this was because he was preoccupied with his duties and had no time for media activity.
Moscow said its operation is designed to demilitarise Ukraine and remove what it calls dangerous nationalists.
Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext for an unprovoked attack that has forced millions to flee abroad, killed or wounded thousands and left Russia increasingly isolated on the world stage.
“The actions of our forces and the quality of the weaponry being used demonstrate once again that the priority set by our military and political leadership of building up the Russian armed forces is correct,” Shoigu said.
(Writing by Peter Hobson, editing by Mark Trevelyan)