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Putin’s war aims are in disarray, as the Donbas debacle shows

Annexing part of eastern Ukraine is not a satisfactory consolation prize, but a recipe for continued instability.

By Lawrence Freedman

In 2014 Igor Girkin, aka “Strelkov” (the shooter), became the face of the rebellion in Ukraine’s Donbas region against the new government in Kyiv. He was not actually Ukrainian, but a Russian with strong nationalist views who enjoyed historical re-enactments of past Russian wars, and had worked for the FSB (the successor to the KGB). He was a veteran of the conflicts that erupted in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, including in Chechnya. In February of that year, after a popular movement had forced the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country, Girkin helped to create the conditions for the annexation of Crimea before moving on to the supposedly Russophile Donbas, becoming the defence minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

He did enough to help turn what might have been patchy unrest into a violent conflict, but then fell out with Moscow for two reasons. First, he was attracting too much attention, especially after he was implicated in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner – MH17 – for which he is now being tried (in absentia) in the Netherlands. Second, he disagreed over political objectives. He wanted the territory of Donbas (and more if possible) to follow Crimea into becoming part of the Russian Federation. But Vladimir Putin held back. Militarily, this would certainly have been easier for Russia then than it is now, but Putin’s preferred strategy at the time was to integrate Donbas back into Ukraine under a new constitution that would guarantee it extra rights and an ability to influence Kyiv’s future political direction. Girkin thought this was a lost opportunity. His readiness to speak his mind, and the publicity surrounding him, irritated Moscow, and so he was told to get back to Russia and shut up.

Putin’s Donbas dilemma

To follow his preferred strategy, Putin first had to stop the separatists losing to Ukrainian forces. He did this in August 2014 by inserting Russian regular forces into the battle. Then, having inflicted some heavy blows on Ukrainian forces he agreed to ceasefire talks, which led to the Minsk agreements of that September, which were revised slightly after more fighting the next February. In principle these agreements achieved his objectives, but in practice they failed because they were never implemented. He was stuck with subsidising the two enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were left in limbo, while Ukraine continued, from Putin’s perspective, on its alarmingly pro-Western course.

Accepting that his plan from 2014 was not working, Putin either had to allow for an increasingly unsatisfactory frozen conflict or take his chances and resolve the matter once and for all, turning Ukraine into a client state with a compliant government. There are many explanations for why he embarked on this war, including the role of Nato and demands for a new security order, but at its heart this was always about Ukraine and Putin’s inability to accept it as an independent state that was escaping historic ties with Russia and turning towards the West.

[See also: Ukraine is better prepared than Russia for a long war]

As Putin was developing his plans, a disenchanted Girkin, having failed to make a mark in Russian politics as a neo-imperialist, kept up a grumpy commentary on events. He declared his former enclave to be a “dump”, with its inhabitants worse off than they would have been in either Russia or Ukraine. Even when Putin ordered a massive build-up of forces around Ukraine, he was sceptical. Earlier this year, he noted – correctly – that there were insufficient troops mobilised to complete a full invasion of Ukraine, suspecting at most that Putin would try a limited operation in Donbas.

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After a month of war, he observed that a “catastrophically incorrect assessment” of Ukraine’s forces had been made, and that there was now a risk of a long and debilitating conflict – “a bloody push and pull”. Now he views the conflict in even more apocalyptic terms. His reaction to the war going badly, however, is not to advise abandoning it but instead doubling down, generating more reserves from within Russia; putting the whole economy on a war footing; breaking off all negotiations with Kyiv; and seeking to “liberate” more territory for incorporation into Russia. The war, he insists, must either be won completely or it will be lost completely. He acknowledges losing as a distinct possibility. As things stand, there are only a few weeks left before the forces in Donbas will be unable to function.

Avoiding defeat

Girkin himself now is a figure of little importance, but the line he is taking, and the impossible advice he is giving, indicates just how high the stakes are for Putin. Western attention is naturally drawn to those brave souls protesting on Russia’s streets against a cruel and catastrophic war. Hope for some sort of regime change in Moscow, however it might be organised, conveys a desire for a more reasonable and less obsessive figure to take Putin’s place, ready to end the war and restore amicable relations with the rest of the world so that sanctions can be ended and the massive task of reconstructing Ukraine can begin.

But for the moment, it is important to note that Putin may be as vulnerable to his critics among the hawkish nationalists as to those from more technocratic circles alarmed at the path now being taken. It is the nationalists who have been energised by Putin’s aggression and will be most distressed should he fail. As cracks start to appear in the state-controlled media, challenging the view that the military campaign is going well and on schedule, those sounding the alarm warn of the consequences should the multitude of Russia’s enemies, from the Americans to the “Nazis” in Kyiv, triumph. They want to move beyond the limited operation that Putin claimed to have set in motion to something more absolutist. Ukraine must be defeated and seen to be defeated, no matter what the costs. Perhaps because he is aware of this, Putin shows no sign of relenting on any of his core demands. He dare not confirm the weakness in his position.

This needs to be kept in mind when considering the evident uncertainty in Moscow about how to bring this war to a moderately satisfactory conclusion. There has been particular interest in the statement of 25 March from Russia’s head of the General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, who announced that the first stage of the operation had been successfully concluded, with extensive damage to the Ukrainian military machine, and that they would now focus on the main objective, which was Donbas. This appeared to let Kyiv off the hook, which meant – however this was dressed up – some retreat both from Moscow’s original objectives and its current offensive.

A few days later, the foreign ministry announced, ostensibly as a gesture of “de-escalation” to support the Istanbul peace talks, that the Russians were going to wind down their attacks on Kyiv and the northern city of ChernihivThis was then followed by limited signs of troop movements, with some units moving back into Belarus. This has led to intense debate about whether the Russians are really serious about this shift in objectives. They are not known for honest portrayals of their policies. Every gesture has to be scrutinised for deception and tricks. Perhaps the real purpose is to regroup to prepare for new offensives? How does this new focus square with the missiles and shells that continue to fly at all types of targets, civilian as much as military, in Chernihiv and elsewhere? There has yet to be much concrete progress at the talks.

The state of the war will become clearer but there is no doubt that a degree of focus has been forced on to the Russian military. Not because it has achieved its first set of objectives, let alone because it wishes to give a boost to negotiations, but because it is in a bit of a pickle. The vast armies assembled to invade Ukraine have been frustrated and now largely exhausted, both in terms of troop fatigue as well as in supplies. Logistics and morale are pressing issues, along with casualties and lost equipment. They simply cannot hold all their current positions beyond the Donbas region, as has been demonstrated in a number of successful Ukrainian counteroffensives.

Supply lines are still required to maintain troops in defensive positions – say, close to Kyiv – and keep Ukrainian forces tied down, and they must remain strong enough to avoid conspicuous and embarrassing defeats. Withdrawal carries its own hazards but the advantage of redeployment is that these forces can be used to achieve what is now the main objective. Reinforcements will arrive but, on the evidence so far, few will be elite units, and many will involve unwilling troops dragooned into service. Plus, the equipment taken from the reserves is likely obsolete and even less well maintained than what it is replacing.

All this means that there is good sense in Russia’s refocus on Donbas. Some commentators urge President Zelensky to use this as an opportunity to end the war by giving Putin something that he wants. Others wonder why Putin did not simply make Donbas his sole objective from the start instead of seeking to subjugate all of Ukraine and install a new government in Kyiv.

Is Donbas a consolation prize?

This is a question worth addressing because it takes us back to the role of Donbas in this whole sorry story. It reminds us why political and military objectives cannot be discussed in isolation from each other.

Recall the days before the invasion. Then, the Russian narrative was about the “genocidal” threat that Ukraine posed to Donbas. The separatists encouraged this with an elaborate rigmarole about how they were being shelled from Ukrainian positions and so must evacuate civilians into Russia for their own safety. On 21 February, when Putin convened that odd and stilted meeting of his security council, the question on the table was should Russia recognise (but not annex) the independent statelets of Donetsk and Luhansk. At the end of the day, after a long speech, so full of grievances and angry assertions that it seemed to be building up to much more, Putin announced, somewhat anti-climactically, that indeed Russia would recognise these statelets.

This was curious, given the Russian line up to this point had been that these enclaves should be part of Ukraine, which should also pay for their upkeep, but allow them more self-government and influence over Kyiv’s policies. The claim at the security council meeting was that the Minsk agreements were dead because Ukraine clearly did not want these territories anymore. That left another puzzle. The enclaves only constituted about a third of the total territory of the two provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. It soon became apparent that the separatists would lay claim to all this territory. The next day the recognition of these statelets was put into law in Moscow, followed by the inevitably staged “provocation” that required Russia to act to protect their security. On 24 February, when Putin announced his objectives for the invasion that was then under way, he explained:

“We will seek to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

Thus the rapid escalation of Russian concerns led to the dramatic conclusion that only with regime change in Kyiv could the security of these territories be guaranteed.

Take away all the dissembling and the make-believe and one can see the policy dilemma that has been present from 2014, which the invasion was intended to solve. The starting point then may well have been Putin’s belief that Russia had some responsibility to protect the population of Donbas after the unfortunate turn of events in Kyiv and the flight of Yanukovych. The main concern, however, was that this would lead to Ukraine drifting away even more from Russia despite the historic connections between the two countries. Although Putin’s actions in 2014 accelerated the detachment, he hoped, somehow, to use the Minsk agreements to pull it back. This effort has proved to be futile, which is why he really did want to achieve regime change in Kyiv as the only way to reconstitute this lost unity.

[See also: As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, Putin escalates his information war at home]

This partly explains why he held back from taking Donbas in 2014 when he had the chance to do so. But it was not the only reason. There were three others. First, he was aware that there was no real clamour in this territory to join Russia. It would be challenging and costly to govern these areas. Second, there would be far more severe Western sanctions imposed on Russia than those following the annexation of Crimea. And third, a new border would be created between Russia and Ukraine that would then have to be defended against an angry government in Kyiv, which would also get increased backing from the West.

All those considerations still apply, except more so. So long as Putin stays in power, the alienation of Ukraine from Russia is complete and it will integrate more with the West. So long as Ukrainian territory is occupied, severe sanctions will stay in place and the Ukrainians will keep up the pressure on any new ceasefire line that leaves their territory under Russian control. Their army is no longer one that Russia dares underestimate. The problems of governing and controlling this territory will be immense. They have destroyed those they were going to save. Their prize from the war will be shattered and depopulated towns and cities, with those still in residence sullen and hostile, ready to resist and support insurgencies. This is why taking Donbas is not a satisfactory consolation prize for Putin, let alone for those hardliners demanding that he stick to his maximalist objectives. It is simply a recipe for continued instability, turning Putin’s folly of 2014 into an even greater catastrophe, serving as a continuing drain on Russia’s dwindling economic and military resources.

In all the searches for a peace settlement, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there are no good outcomes for Russia from this war. It has inflicted massive human, political and economic costs on itself, as well as on Ukraine. Nothing that Moscow can now achieve can outweigh those costs. If he is unable to muster a final offensive to achieve his original aims, there is no formula that will enable Putin to pretend that this has all been worthwhile and that he has achieved exactly what was intended. As Igor Girkin has observed, he will have lost as completely as he once hoped to win.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular “New Statesman” contributor. This article originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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