It was announced on March 25th that the first phase of the Russia invasion of Ukraine was complete. As recently as September, Vladimir Putin had threatened to destroy Ukraine’s military forces and replace the Ukrainian government, which he alleged without any evidence was going to carry out genocide in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Russian forces launched a rapid attack on Kyiv on February 24 while also conducting operations in Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kherson, Melitopol & Mariupol, as well as the line of contact in the Donbass region. All save the southern cities of Kherson and Mel itopol have been lost to Russian forces after a month of surprisingly savage high-intensity battles, with the exception of the two smaller southern cities. Between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and more than 2,000 of their vehicles have either been destroyed or captured as a result of the conflict.
The Russian government has responded directly to these failings by announcing a new plan. It’s an admission that Russia can’t take back control of Ukraine by force, at least for the time being. In place of regime change, Russia’s new argument is that it is just interested in gaining land and eliminating Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region.
This is a major setback for Vladimir Putin’s administration. For months, he has used extreme language and bogus charges of neo-Nazism and genocide in Ukraine; to justify special military operation against Ukraine. There has been a constant onslaught of pro-war propaganda, patriotic speeches, and rallies aimed at inflaming Russian patriotism since the invasion began.
During the first few days of the invasion; Russian official media proclaimed that President Putin’s invasion had changed the world order; and ended both the Ukraine question and a United States-led, NATO-dominated world. Russia’s military might and history – both conventional and nuclear are also a significant part of Russian national pride; and Russians have long had a cultural and political sneer; toward Ukrainians and Ukrainians’ culture and politics in particular. All of this makes it difficult for the Russian government to explain the current situation to its citizens.
But perhaps most perplexing is how Russia’s administration; which prides itself on being the sole survivor of World War II’s Allied victory over Nazi Germany; is able to reach a ceasefire agreement that keeps in power the Ukrainian government; which is accused of genocide and embraces Nazi ideology. When Russia invaded Ukraine; it built a narrative rationale for it that was entirely disconnected from reality; making it impossible for the Russian leadership to defend practically any imaginable conclusion to its own people.
Because of the high pace of equipment and human casualties; Russia wants a truce as quickly as possible. Moreover, their progress is limited to the east. Ukraine has actually retaken important area around Mykolaiv and Kherson in the southwest; near Irpin and Makariv to the west of Kiev, and Trostyanets to the east of Kiev in the previous week. The Ukrainians’ position in the continuing ceasefire discussions is steadily improving.
The announcement by Russia of a new phase of the war, this time centered on Donbas; serves two aims. First and foremost; it’s a sensible military tactic. At this point in time, Donbass is where Russian forces have the best opportunity of winning significant military victories. They are concentrating their resources in order to break through Ukrainian defense lines; along the Donets River and have made significant gains around Izyum in recent weeks. Overstretched forces should be prioritized where they have the highest possibility of delivering meaningful achievements; which will improve their bargaining position in ceasefire negotiations. Second, this is the beginning of an effort to reduce the excessive expectations that the Russian government has fed its citizens.
Though it appears as if some in the Russian administration are unable or unwilling to recognize the reality that these scaled-back objectives indicate; Propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, known as Putin’s spokesman; made the claim on Russian television on March 27. Russian missile strikes have continued throughout Ukraine; notably in Lviv, and Russian forces are finding it difficult to disengage from the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumy because of powerful Ukrainian counterattacks. As a result, while Russia has launched a new phase of the invasion; it remains to be seen if they can successfully concentrate on the Donbas as claimed.