Putin’s Likely Ukraine Goal Now is Breakaway and Pseudo-Republics in Eastern Ukraine – The Battle of Kyiv is over, and Russia has suffered a surprising and significant defeat. A middle power has inflicted a stinging loss on an ostensible great power. Russia’s status as a world power is obviously in question now. Despite its size and weight, it cannot reduce a significantly smaller neighbor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin must now – if only to impress his Chinese backers and justify the war to his own people – win some kind of battlefield victory elsewhere in Ukraine.
It increasingly looks like the Russian effort will be a tank surge in the Donbas. Rumor suggests that Putin is looking to end the war quickly, ideally by May 9, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the day the Nazis finally surrender to the Soviet Union.
This would be a wise choice. Putin pretty clearly cannot take over all of Ukraine at this point. And the sanctions will soon bite deeply into the Russian economy. This war is breaking Russian power and pushing its economy into a major contraction. Putin himself will become persona non grata, unable to travel or access his overseas assets.
Set up some fake ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine and call it quits
Putin’s decision to fully invade Ukraine and try to take it over was a surprise. Much of Putin’s reputation as a master strategist is based on his well-honed skill of pushing the boundaries of Western tolerance for bad behavior, but then stepping back before provoking a serious NATO/EU backlash. That Putin cast aside his traditional ducking-and-weaving, salami-slicing tactics for a blatant cross-border invasion in World War II-style is a major aggressive shift in Russian foreign policy.
One school of pre-invasion thought suggested Putin would use his old tricks – used in Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine itself previously – to carve up eastern Ukraine into fake, breakaway statelets. Putin’s playbook, well-established by now, is to stir up conflict in former Soviet state where he feels Russia deserves a sphere of influence. Local proxies, funded and equipped by Russia, then demand local autonomy or alignment with Moscow. Accusations of genocide and Russophobia are thrown around to generate a pretext for Russian involvement. Resistance is damned as a Western intervention to reduce Russian power. Russian ‘peacekeepers’ are then sent in, or a micro-state in the contested area declares its independence and is recognized by Russia and just a few of its roguish friends like Belarus or Syria. The conflict settles into a stalemate, allowing Russia to project power into its ‘near-abroad’ and prevent the consolidation of westward-leaning regimes in its periphery. Russia does this so much, we even have a political science term for this: “frozen conflicts.”
A Ukrainian frozen conflict is probably the best Putin can hope for now
In 2014, Putin snatched the Crimea from Ukraine in a snatch-and-grab operation similar to his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine today. And in the lead up to February’s invasion, Putin ginned up a pretext for invasion by recognizing two breakaway pseudo-republics in eastern Ukraine – Lugansk and Donetsk. This was a clever move. Eastern Ukraine is heavily Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian. Putin-supported rebels has sought greater autonomy there for almost a decade. Before the war, Russia’s conventional military weakness was not recognized, so the West was deeply split over how to respond to years of Putin’s creeping pressure. NATO probably would have grudgingly accepted Russia tearing away of yet another piece of Ukraine – along with Crimea – in yet another frozen conflict.
Putin choose instead to launch a major war which has destroyed his reputation forever and will breed distrust of Russian intentions for a generation. Even if Russia somehow manages to win the war, the West will never accept over Russian sovereignty over Ukrainian territory, especially after the revelation of war crimes. The West will sanction Russia indefinitely to prevent that outcome, as well as flood Ukraine with weapons to fire an insurgency. Russia’s best move to avoid such a long, grinding war is a reversion to the old playbook of fake, pro-Russian statelets in the east followed by a cessation of the unsustainable war.
Is it too late to subvert eastern Ukraine?
This strategy was possible before the war. Ukraine would not have enjoyed Western support to push back, just as the West made no effort to block Russia’s 2014 anshcluss of Crimea. Now though, Ukraine and the West might not even accept this. Indeed, if the Ukrainians fight the looming Battle of Donbas to a stalemate, as they did the Battle of Kyiv, there will likely be hopes to re-take the Crimea, the loss of which Kyiv has never accepted.
But the ‘frozen conflict’ gimmick is still Putin’s best way out of the mess he has created. His economy cannot sustain a long way under heavy sanctions. His military probably cannot strategically defeat Ukraine anymore; that window has closed. The West increasingly wants Putin himself out of power because of the atrocities. The smart play for Putin now is to revert to the Lugansk/Donetsk break-away scheme of February, declare “victory” on May 9, and then rebuild his battered regime and military before this rolling catastrophe creates fissures in his own regime.