The Russian military floated a new, retroactive justification for its military strategy in Ukraine on Friday, tacked onto the back of a standard-looking Defense Ministry briefing. This new “war aim” indicates that Russia is scaling back its ambitions. According to this briefing Russia had “surrounded” several Ukrainian cities and was considering taking them, but the “main thing” was “the complete liberation of Donbas” the Ukrainian region comprising the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, areas that have been partially occupied by Russia since 2014. Russian forces had “surrounded” several cities across Ukraine not because they wanted to capture them, but in order to prevent Ukrainian reinforcements from reaching Donbas, where the “real” battle was, the briefer explained.
Here is what actually happened: After months of buildup and weeks of rhetorical escalation, Vladimir Putin gave a speech early in the morning of February 24 that launched his expanded war. He stated Russia’s purpose was: “to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.” In short, total regime change. Russia had formally recognized the so-called “separatist” regions of Ukraine as independent a few days earlier, and then clarified that Russia recognized the entirety of those provinces, not just the Russian-occupied areas, but Putin’s speech signaled a huge escalation. That morning Russian troops attacked on multiple fronts, in the south, north and northeast, and even directly toward Kyiv. The strike toward Kyiv looked like an attempt to take the Ukrainian state by surprise and kill or capture leading government figures. Presumably, they would have been used in some kind of Russian show trial after the war was over. According to Ukrainian President Zelensky, the Ukrainians have found dress uniforms among the Russian kits they have captured, indicating they expected a victory parade quite soon, with no time to have their fancy uniforms forwarded from their permanent bases inside Russia.
As the whole world now knows, Russia’s plan did not work. Its airborne thrust toward Kyiv was kicked in the teeth when the Ukrainians captured the Hostomel airfield and then consolidated their defenses along the deliberately flooded Irpin river, northwest of Kyiv. Russian thrusts toward Chernihiv and Kharkiv stopped outside the cities. Russia had more success in the south, rapidly capturing Kherson (a city close to Crimea) and making an attack toward nearby Mykolaiv, but even that offensive has spluttered and even reversed. The Ukrainians have recaptured some territory down south and are even starting to contest the city of Kherson, according to the Pentagon. There are reports that the Russian troops northwest of Kyiv are getting pushed back, and Ukraine might even be trying to encircle some of them.
Now, despite Putin’s statements about “demilitarizing” Ukraine and putting Ukrainian leaders “on trial,” the Russian military is trying to say that it really wanted to capture only Donbas all along. It may be a feint, but this is likely a sign that Russia really is reducing its war aims to something more achievable. However, this does not necessarily mean that the war will be over soon, or will become any less bloody or destructive. Putin may need some kind of face-saving victory to save his regime, one that includes Ukraine recognizing Russia’s seizure of Crimea, Ukraine ceding the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk, and possibly also a “land bridge” from Donetsk to Crimea—one that would cover at least the southern parts of the provinces of Zaporizhia and Kherson. Ukrainian morale is riding high from the unexpected battlefield successes, and even if President Zelensky decided that some kind of territorial concessions to Russia were needed, it would be incredibly difficult to convince the Ukrainian people. In fact, this might be a second-stage Russian plan: Force the government to make concessions as a way of engineering the collapse of that government by mobs of angry Ukrainians.