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Russia Is Looking for a ‘Victory’ on the Cheap in Ukraine

Russia is bogged down in Ukraine and now needs to turn a precarious position into a symbolic military "victory." This has several consequences for the future of Russian operations against Ukraine and the ongoing negotiations.

For the past week, Russian armed forces have been slowing down their operations in Ukraine as well as suffering through effective Ukrainian counter-offensives.

The first month of Russian high-intensity warfare operations has reached its “culmination.” The initial campaign did not have the intended effect of swallowing the whole of Ukraine: nothing in Vladimir Putin’s “three-day war” went according to plan.

Russia is now bogged down in Ukraine and Moscow’s military options are increasingly limited. If not more Russian forces are committed to the war effort, Russia will not be able to push further into Ukrainian territory, let alone solidify its positions.

Internal Face-Saving

Russia’s war has reached a turning point where large-scale operations are replaced by protraction and attrition. Considering the track record of Russian operations for the past month, the Kremlin will not be able to conduct high-intensity operations for more than a few weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Ramil Sitdikov/AFP/Getty Images

President Putin, therefore, needs a face-saving moment where he must symbolically and rhetorically transform a quagmire into a “victory” on the cheap. With the internal audience in mind, the Russian defense ministry therefore falsely declared “mission accomplished” on March 25.

By announcing that “initial objectives” had been met, Russian forces can now arguably focus on “liberating” Donbas as a military priority. Yet Putin is lying his way out of a bad situation. It is nothing more than fabricated state propaganda aimed at internal face-saving.

Russia’s “redeployment” to Donbas essentially means organized retreats in front of mounting Ukrainian counter-offensives on a highly contested battlefield.

Regardless of the reality on the ground, Putin’s approval rating jumped up in March, now reaching over 80 percent.

Moscow’s new military priority in Donbas has several consequences.

Kyiv Still Stands

Russian forces are now retreating from Kyiv. After a month of siege and bombardments, Russian forces abandoned the idea of taking over the capital by force. Russian positions suffered heavy losses while trying to encircle the city and were not fully able to control its approaches.

Yet as Russian forces are moving away from Kyiv, mostly going back into Belarus, they will likely be committed to the rest of the offensive in Donbas in the coming weeks.

Balance

Second, Moscow must find a balance between siege warfare against major urban centers and creating pockets of advance deeper into Ukrainian territory. Troops are busy bombarding cities while not trying to capture them — except for Mariupol.

Meanwhile, further movement in the many axes of advance is increasingly restricted by Ukrainian counter-offensives and ambushes. For instance, there is now little hope for Russia to take Odesa and the rest of the Black Sea coastline by force.

Ukrainian servicemen stand near an armored personnel carrier BTR-3
Ukrainian servicemen stand near an armored personnel carrier BTR-3 northwest of Kyiv on February 24. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP

Russia must also balance out its military decisions because of the high casualty rate, low morale and will to fight from soldiers, and hardware losses.

Abandoning Contested Positions

Finally, as Russia plans to recenter the war effort towards Donbas, forces will probably have to abandon contested positions, for instance in Kherson, where Russia does not have full control of the city anymore and is facing heavy resistance.

Such a situation could lead the Kremlin into “frustration warfare” through increased indiscriminate bombardments against civilians and other scorched earth tactics.

Cheap Victory Scenario

If war operations are genuinely focusing on seizing more territory in Donbas and Eastern Ukraine, Putin will look for a cheap victory through the following scenario.

The first movement will be the “liberation” of Mariupol, where Russian troops are flattening the city to the ground. The fall of Mariupol will allow Russia to declare the creation of the fabled ‘land bridge’ between occupied Crimea and Donbas.

US private company Maxar satellite image taken on March 14, 2022 shows the word ‘children’ was painted in large Russian script on the ground outside the Mariupol Drama Theater
Satellite image from March 14 shows the word “children” was painted in large Russian script on the ground outside the Mariupol Drama Theater. It was bombed anyway. Photo: EyePress News via AFP

Concomitantly, Russia will probably try to capture more territory in Donbas by attempting a “pincer” movement in Eastern Ukraine: north from Izyum, Slavyansk, and Kramatorsk as well as south from Mariupol.

Creating new military geography in occupied Donbas would allow the Kremlin to freeze advances on the ground to solidify its positions there.

The stalemate would then be called a symbolic victory in Moscow, especially ahead of the May 9 celebrations for Victory Day. It would also allow Russia to dictate its political and strategic objectives toward Ukraine in a less unfavorable military position than today.

Little Hope

In Turkey or elsewhere, the Kremlin is not negotiating in good faith with Ukraine. It is simply buying time to regroup and focus on Donbas. Nothing good will come out of the current rounds of negotiations — not least because Russia’s position remains unknown.

Indeed, only Ukraine has so far laid down its conditions. These relate to a form of “neutralization” of Ukraine’s military potential in exchange for a ceasefire, Russian withdrawal from pre-2022 positions, and most importantly unconditional, binding security guarantees from Russia and Western countries.

Yet such guarantees will be a hard sell. Meanwhile, the future of occupied Crimea and the rest of Donbas remains undecided.

Considering the above, there is little hope that ongoing negotiations will achieve a breakthrough. At least not until Moscow matches its military objectives with its political and strategic desired end state with Ukraine.

Russian ambitions have evolved since December 2021 and Putin’s Christmas list of demands against NATO. Similarly, the “denazification” of Ukraine — which was code for regime change in Kyiv — is no longer on the table: “Nazis” can apparently stay in power now…

Ukrainian service member seen at the site of fighting with a Russian raiding group
Ukrainian service member at the site of fighting with a Russian raiding group in Kyiv on the morning of February 26. Photo: AFP

Pressure

As Russian options are constrained by the reality of war operations, the international community must continue pressuring Putin’s regime by all means necessary.

Pressure relates to strengthening sanctions and closing existing loopholes, increasing Western military assistance to Ukraine — including offensive capabilities — and testing Russia’s pain threshold through smarter deterrence.

The ultimate goal is not just to squeeze the Russian leadership dry but also to contain Moscow’s options moving forward: Putin should be allowed no compromises, no off-ramps, and no face-saving opportunities.


Headshot Mathieu BoulegueMathieu Boulegue (@matboulegue) is a Senior Research Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House – The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

He specializes in Eurasian security and defense issues, with a focus on Russian foreign policy and military affairs.

His research portfolio includes Russian warfare and military industry, Ukraine, Russia-NATO relations, and Russia-China defense and security relations.

Mathieu also leads Arctic work at Chatham House, particularly military-security issues and Russia’s polar power projection.

Having trained as a policy and security analyst in post-Soviet affairs, Mathieu previously worked as a partner at the risk management and strategic research consultancy AESMA, where he was director of Eurasian affairs.

He graduated from Sciences Po Toulouse in France and King’s College London (MA in International Conflict Studies).


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