Russia has outlined plans to seize the entire Donbas and the south of Ukraine in the second phase of its offensive to create a land corridor stretching to Moldova.
The deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, Rustam Minnekayev, said Russia planned to forge a corridor between Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Russia annexed in 2014, and the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Mariupol sits between areas held by Russian separatists and Crimea and its capture would allow Russia to link the two areas.
It comes as Russia continues to pound the Donbas, striking 58 targets overnight, but the Kremlin is still suffering heavy blows with claims their death toll has risen to 30,000.
Minnekayev said taking control of southern Ukraine would improve Russian access to Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transdniestria, which borders Ukraine and which Kyiv fears could be used as a launching pad for new attacks.
Kyiv earlier this month said that an airfield in the region was being prepared to receive aircraft and could be used by Moscow to fly in Ukraine-bound troops.
‘Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transdniestria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed,’ TASS quoted Minnekayev as saying at a meeting in Russia’s central Sverdlovsk region.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry denounced the plans announced by Russia to take full control of Donbas and southern Ukraine as ‘imperialism’.
‘They stopped hiding it,’ the ministry said on Twitter. It said Russia had ‘acknowledged that the goal of the ‘second phase’ of the war is not victory over the mythical Nazis, but simply the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine. Imperialism as it is.’
Elsewhere in Ukraine today, at least one person died and two were injured when a transport plane crashed over the centre of the country, the latest incident involving accident-prone Soviet-era aircraft.
‘An AN-26 aircraft, which according to preliminary information belonged to Ukraine, crashed today in the vicinity of Mikhailovka in the Zaporizhzhia region,’ the region’s administration wrote in a statement on social media.
‘The aircraft was performing a technical flight. It has been established that one person was killed and two more were injured.’
Crew numbers and the cause of the crash were being investigated, the statement added.