Monday July 04, 2022

Putin’s goals

May 26, 2022

The last of the Ukrainian defenders in the port city of Mariupol surrendered at the Azovstal plant on Friday. The fact that at least half of them belong to the Azov regiment, created by far-right militants in 2014, offers the Kremlin a chance to claim major progress with regards to one of the officially declared goals of its war on Ukraine – the ‘denazification’ of the country.

Inevitably, the Russian propaganda machine is now excitedly parading all the tattoos and patches on the uniforms of the surrendering Ukrainian soldiers, which betray the far-right sympathies of their bearers. In violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, pro-Kremlin outlets are circulating videos of POWs, who are being forced to strip and expose their tattoos for the cameras of propagandist TV channels. Filming POWs, including scenes of their interrogation and torture, is practised by both sides in this war.

Officials in both Russia and Russian-backed unrecognised statelets in eastern Ukraine are now calling for a trial of Azov fighters. Right at the end of the Azovstal siege, the Russian Prosecutor-General’s Office appealed to the Supreme Court to declare the Azov regiment a terrorist organisation. This would potentially allow Russia to try the members of Azov in its territory as terrorists. Alternatively, the Kremlin could stage that trial in the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets, which – unlike Russia itself – practise capital punishment.

The Russian effort to highlight Ukraine’s troubling tolerance of the far right would be more convincing if Russia itself weren’t coopting them as well. The infamous Wagner Group, a private army that now fights on the Donbas front near the town of Popasna, for example, includes the Rusich unit, which is made up of open neo-Nazis from St Petersburg.

But such facts are virtually unknown to the Russian public, so with the help of its massive propaganda machine, the Kremlin will be able to tick off the goal of “denazification” as achieved, given that Azov is by far the most symbolic example of Ukraine’s controversial relationship with the far right.

But what about the other goals?

While many in the West seem to think that Putin aims to occupy the whole of Ukraine, Russia’s territorial expansion goals officially declared at the start of the operation are not nearly as ambitious. They boil down to establishing control over the entire territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, which Russian-backed separatists have only partially controlled since 2014.

This is a rather daunting task in military terms because it involves taking over the best-fortified areas of Ukraine, which have been carefully preparing for this battle for seven years.

The Russian progress in Donbas has been steady so far, but very slow. The Russians are now close to establishing full control of Luhansk region, but Ukraine’s strongholds in Donetsk region will be a much harder nut to crack.

In terms of selling the war to the jingoist part of Russian society, any Ukrainian territory outside of Donetsk and Luhansk claimed by Russia is just a bonus. The Kremlin does not need to obtain any territory outside Donbas to convince its support base that it achieved its goals and declared victory.

The fall of Mariupol to the Russian military represents one of these bonus achievements. Russia now has a land corridor to Crimea, which it occupied in 2014. On top of that, it has ended Crimea’s water and power blockade, maintained by Ukraine all those years. The freshwater canal connecting the Dnieper River to the arid Crimean Peninsula is now in Russia’s hands. So is a nuclear power station to the north of the peninsula, not to mention the power grid in southeastern Ukraine which can be now connected to Russia.

Only historians looking into the Kremlin archives, years or decades from now, will be able to reveal the details of Putin’s original plan for Ukraine.

For now, all we know is that the first stage of the war included an ill-fated march on Kyiv and a failed attempt to encircle Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Was it a part of the plan for a broad occupation or a way of distracting Ukrainian forces while Russia was establishing the land corridor to Crimea?

It may well be an example of what British political scientist Mark Galeotti once dubbed the Kremlin’s ‘adhocracy’. Perhaps there was not much of a plan – just a desire to punish Ukraine for refusing to implement the Minsk agreements, which ended the first war in Donbas in 2014-15 and envisaged autonomy for the Russian-backed parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions within Ukraine. A week before Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, President Zelenskyy had called the Minsk agreements “vapid” and designed to turn Ukraine into a losing side.

Excerpted: ‘Is Putin achieving his goals in Ukraine?’. Courtesy: