Russian forces are struggling in the eastern Donbas area of Ukraine, according to U.K. intelligence reports, making it unlikely they will hit Moscow's goal of taking over the Donetsk region by Sept. 15, Newsweek reported.
In an update on the Ukraine war on Monday, the British Defense Ministry tweeted that despite Ukraine's counteroffensive in the southern region of Kherson, Russia's main efforts "almost certainly remain its Donbas offensive operation."
Russian forces' main advance in the Donbas was at Avdiivka, near Donetsk City, and around Bakhmut, about 37 miles north, Newsweek reported.
"Although Russia has had the most success in this sector, its forces have still only been advancing around 1km per week towards Bakhmut," the ministry said.
"The political goal of the Donbas operation almost certainly remains to secure the whole of Donetsk Oblast, which would enable the Kremlin to announce the 'liberation' of the Donbas," the ministry added. "Russian forces have highly likely repeatedly missed deadlines to achieve this aim."
Ukrainian authorities have asserted that Russian forces "are now under orders to complete this mission by 15 September 2022," the statement continued. "The force is highly unlikely to achieve this, which will further complicate Russia's plans to run referendums on the occupied areas joining the Russian Federation."
Moscow-installed authorities in an occupied Ukrainian region on Monday suggested plans for a referendum on joining Russia had been delayed, perhaps adding credence to the report.
Ukraine and its allies in the West do not recognize the Crimean Peninsula or the Donbas as Russian territory as Moscow claimed when it "annexed" them following the 2014 invasion.
Crimea and the Donbas are mainly Russian-speaking, but a poll in May indicated that 82% of those living in the territories seized earlier this year do not have a favorable attitude toward Moscow.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, said its halting of gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline was due to Western sanctions hampering maintenance, after the key infrastructure was closed indefinitely for repairs.
Since the first weeks of Russia's February invasion, Kherson and the southern region of Zaporizhzhia have been largely under Russia's control and are now being forcefully integrated into its economy.
Moscow-backed authorities have been for several weeks talking of holding referendums to join occupied territories to Russia, as happened in the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But Kirill Stremousov, a pro-Moscow official in Kherson, told Russian state TV that "we will pause for now" despite preparing for a referendum due to "all the events that are occurring" amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
He later moderated his comments, saying the move "was not a pause" because no precise date had been set.
"The referendum will take place no matter what. No one will cancel it," Stremousov said.
Ukrainian forces have claimed gains in their counteroffensive in the south, saying they have recaptured several areas and destroyed targets including a pontoon bridge, an ammunitions depot and a Russian army control center.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced Sunday the recapture of two villages in the south and one in the east, without giving their names.
The deputy head of the presidential administration, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, also tweeted a photo of a Ukrainian flag being raised in the village of Vysokopillia in the north of the Kherson region.
"The Ukrainian counter-offensive is making verifiable progress," U.S.-based research group, the Institute for the Study of War said, noting gains in Kherson and the eastern Donetsk region.
The Russian government is seeking to open two new factories to repair armored vehicles "in the interests of defence," according to a decree by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin made public on Monday.
Ukraine's southern command said its forces were trying to disrupt the Russian army's "management of troop movements and logistics" through air strikes and artillery fire.
Ukrainian forces added that they destroyed a warehouse where ballot papers for the referendum were stored.
Russia's defense ministry said it continued to inflict heavy losses on the Ukrainian army.
After failing to capture Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russian troops withdrew from the northern part of the country and focused their attacks on the south and east.
AFP contributed to this report.
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