Have Putin’s Ukraine goals shrunk or expanded?

THE WAR in Ukraine is, let’s admit it, weird. Russian citizens can, at least theoretically, travel to Ukraine for business or pleasure, though now — only since June — they need visas. The belligerents are parties to a recent deal ensuring safe grain exports. Russian gas keeps flowing to Europe through Ukraine’s pipeline system, albeit in reduced volumes. Countries that supply weapons to Ukraine are also paying Russia for energy and fertilizer imports, thus also funding its war effort. It’s not easy to imagine any of this going on during, say, World War II.

If that tangle of relationships is not confusing enough, both Russia’s stated invasion goals and outsiders’ perceptions of them appear to be shifting shape on a monthly basis.

In one sense, Russia appears to have scaled back its goals. To achieve his stated objectives, the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin attacked on a much broader front than Russia maintains today. When he then had to pull back from Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and parts of the Kharkiv Region, the objectives, which sounded like euphemisms for regime change, slid into the background. At this point, it is probably wrong to call them “goals”: Since they are not attainable in the foreseeable future with the resources the Kremlin — and Russians as a largely passive populace at war — have been willing to devote to the invasion, “dreams” is probably a better word.

In another sense, however, the goals appear to have expanded in reach. Initially, the only territorial ambitions Russia officially declared were confined to the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which the respective puppet “People’s Republics” claimed as their land. Recently, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated bluntly that “the geography has changed,” adding that Russia was now also interested in the Kherson Region in southern Ukraine and the Zaporozhzhia Region in the country’s center. Lavrov is the highest-placed Russian official to speak more or less openly of such plans. Coupled with the groundwork being laid by the occupying administrations for “referendums” that would call for the invaded areas to join Russia, his words are evidence that Russia intends to annex the territories outright rather than leave them in a gray zone as it did with the “People’s Republics” in 2015.

The easiest way to reconcile these diverging vectors is to assume that, having failed to secure a somewhat reduced Ukraine (minus Crimea and the two eastern regions) run by a pro-Kremlin government, Putin has decided to grab significantly more land instead, as a kind of compensation. But this weird war defies easy explanations. It’s far more likely that any Kremlin “planning” these days is reactive and ad hoc rather than strategic. Kremlin expectations appear to be shaped by battlefield events. Every shift in the military situation leads to a new “plan” that, if carried out, would allow Putin to declare victory.

When it turned out that the Russian military could not take Kyiv or the cities of northern Ukraine, the Kremlin concentrated its forces in the east, completing the invasion of Luhansk Region early this month.

This plan, however, ran into personnel issues. The draft-based armies of the “People’s Republics” have incurred enormous losses (just the admitted military casualties of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” approach 3,000 dead), and the poorer regions of Russia proper have already supplied most of the available recruits willing to sign military contracts — and their contingents account for a disproportionate amount of Russia’s military fatalities. A “hidden mobilization” echoing across Russian Telegram channels that offers able-bodied men, including prisoners, a chance to fight in Ukraine for attractive pay and their freedom is a slow and iffy process. Without more infantry, Russia cannot risk a frontal attack on Ukrainian fortifications around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the way it did in Mariupol and Severodonetsk, and there appears to be no other obvious way to complete the conquest of the Donetsk Region.

At the same time, increasingly powerful Western weapons have enabled Ukraine to hit military targets such as munitions warehouses and command centers deep in the occupied territory, killing more senior officers. In his interview with one of Russia’s top propagandists, Margarita Simonyan, Lavrov admitted that these weapons have changed the Kremlin’s calculus.

Putin’s attention appears to have shifted to defending Russia’s conquests in the south, where Ukraine has been threatening to launch a major counterattack to retake Kherson, and in the east, where the Ukrainian military has been shelling targets in and near Donetsk. The relatively weak Russian group of forces in the south has been beefed up and reinforced with more aviation and artillery support in recent days as it repelled Ukrainians’ probes.

Igor Girkin (Strelkov), who fought in Ukraine in 2014 and is one of the harshest nationalist critics of Russia’s conduct of the war today, has suggested on his Telegram channel that the current plan might be to defeat the Ukrainian military as it mounts an attack in the south and then push on against a weakened enemy in the east. If Strelkov is right, that would be at least the third major change of strategy in five months. And the annexation plans shaping up in the form of “referendums” indirectly support his argument. Making the land grab official before a negotiated end to the war can only mean one thing: A declaration by Russia that it will defend the new territories as its own.

It would be meant as a warning to Ukraine’s Western allies to be careful what weapons they supply — the US administration already limits the range of the munitions it sends for fear of starting World War III — and it would, at least theoretically, spread Russia’s nuclear umbrella over parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. At the same time, it would reassure pro-Russian activists and Russia-backed administrations in the occupied territories that Russia would not abandon them — reassurance they sorely need in the face of Ukrainian guerilla action and threats to recover the lost territories.

In all these aspects, a formal annexation fits a defensive mindset. If Putin were still on the attack, he’d try to seize more territory, including a least another regional center — Kherson is the only one grabbed so far — then attempt to make a peace deal on his terms before claiming more land for Russia. In that case, a massive push in the Donetsk Region would already have started. The Institute for the Study of War reported that Russia’s “operational pause” was ending as early as July 15, but Russia has made no major moves in the region in the two weeks since.

As it is, holding on to what was grabbed in the first, chaotic weeks of the invasion appears to have become a priority for the Kremlin. Paradoxically, the seeming expansion of territorial ambitions comes as a sign of relative military weakness, not strength.

For that reason, any Western compromise-seeking at this point makes little sense. Why offer Putin anything if he’s increasingly willing to settle for less (even if “less” may sometimes look like “more,” at least in terms of occupied square miles)? As Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a keen observer of the Ukraine war, has argued, “The starting point to ending this war is by shaping the military balance of power so that Russia cannot make further advances.”

Any speculation that things are close to reaching that point is premature. The Russian military may be understaffed and poorly commanded, but it is adapting to new circumstances, new Western weapons in Ukraine’s hands, and a shifting political vision in the Kremlin. It will fight a sound defensive battle, and in the end, whichever side shows more tenacity and fighting spirit will win in the south and, subsequently, in the east. If that side is Russia, Putin’s goals will shift again in the direction of February’s frustrated dreams. If it’s Ukraine, Putin will look for a way to claim even less and still portray himself as a winner.

The apparently planned annexation is a stop-loss move in this game of diminishing returns.

BLOOMBERG OPINION