U.S. Says Russia Not 'Stalled' in East Ukraine, but 'Refitting, Refreshing'

The White House has not viewed a recent slowing of Russia's military operations in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as a stalling of Moscow's war effort, but rather as part of a strategic effort to regroup amid smaller tit-for-tat clashes between the two sides.

"I don't believe we would consider what's going on in the Donbas as stalled," National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told reporters Friday. "There's a lot of activity and all of it's happening in real time."

Describing the latest tide of the conflict, Kirby said, "It could be true that, in some places in eastern and southern Ukraine, the Russians appear to be taking a knee, refreshing, refitting, moving troops, and in other places in the east and south, there are actual battles going on between Russia and Ukrainian forces."

And while he said both sides have been observed making incremental gains and losses in recent days, this was not comparable to larger battles seen earlier in the war.

"What we're seeing now are smaller engagements with smaller units and smaller achievements, at least from a geographic perspective at this time," Kirby said. "But I would not classify it as stalled."

Russia, fires, Smerch, multiple, rocket, launcher, Ukraine
The White House has not viewed a recent slowing of Russia's military operations in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region as a stalling of Moscow's war effort, an official said Friday. Above, a Smerch multiple rocket launcher within the Russian Western Military District fires a projectile as part of the ongoing war in Ukraine in this image shared July 27. Russian Ministry of Defense

As Russia's war in Ukraine passed the five-month mark, confrontation between the two sides has continued along multiple lines of contact.

Ukrainian forces have claimed to have halted Russia's momentum through the use of M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, supplied by the United States. The weapon has allowed Ukrainian troops to extend their firing range to some 50 miles behind enemy lines, where they have counted strikes against Russian logistics centers and supply lines among other vital targets.

But the Russian military has also sought to maintain pressure on Ukraine, claiming to have destroyed up to 100 HIMARS in recent days, while also targeting anti-aircraft systems and the southern port city of Odessa, a critical hub for the deal signed last week between Moscow and Kyiv under the auspices of Turkey and the United Nations to resume global grain shipments.

The two sides have also traded accusations of committing atrocities throughout the war. In the latest spat, both Moscow and Kyiv held the other responsible for an attack that reportedly killed dozens of people, including Ukrainian prisoners of war, at a prison in the Russia-controlled settlement Olenivka in the Donbas.

Russia claimed Ukraine conducted the shelling to dissuade Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering as among the dead were believed to be fighters of the far-right Azov Regiment who gave in after the prolonged siege of Mariupol, while Ukraine claimed Russia staged the attack to cover up acts of torture.

Much of the Ukrainian military's focus in recent weeks has been on staging a counteroffensive in the south, particularly to retake the city of Kherson. Just as the ambitious maneuver began Thursday, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the region's pro-Russia civil-military administration, announced a referendum to be held soon to make Kherson a part of Russia.

A similar vote was held in nearby Crimea after unrest first broke out in Ukraine in 2014 as an uprising in Kyiv brought to power a pro-West government. The peninsula was ultimately annexed after Russian forces deployed there and pro-Moscow separatists launched an insurgency for Donbas, where Russia has recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

Crimea's status remains internationally disputed, and only Syria and North Korea have so far joined Russia in recognizing the two rebel republics in the Donbas. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the international community would "never recognize" such "sham referendums" in their first call since the conflict erupted.

Blinken warned that such measures "will result in additional significant costs being imposed upon Russia, if it follows through on this plan."

Moscow has continued to defend its war effort, however, accusing Kyiv of threatening Russia's national security through Ukraine's bid to join the U.S.-led NATO Western military alliance.

Speaking to Moscow's ongoing military operation, Lavrov told his U.S. counterpart that "its goals and tasks will be fully achieved," according to a Russian Foreign Ministry readout. He warned that "the continued arming of the armed forces of Ukraine and nationalist battalions with US and NATO weapons, which are being used against civilians on a large scale, is only prolonging the agony of the Kiev regime by dragging out the conflict and increasing the number of victims."

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.