Russia could still save the victory in Ukraine

The year I served as a ceasefire observer in eastern Ukraine was marked by dramatic events. I arrived in September 2014, just after a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down by a Russian missile over Donbass. I left the country in September 2015 when Russia turned its military attention to Syria. Russia then fought only in the eastern regions of Ukraine, but this first incarnation of the Russia-Ukraine war has lessons for today.

Russia has shown that no matter how bad things are going, it can find a way to exert its influence on Ukraine. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, but the uprisings it instigated in Odessa and Kharkiv have fizzled out, while its separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk have only partially gained a foothold in those regions. But that was enough to destabilize Ukraine: Russia’s proxies waged a limited war in Donbass for eight years and provided Vladimir Putin with his razor-thin justification for the invasion in February this year.

Mr. Putin could settle for less than he intended and reframe this botched invasion as the next chapter in regaining Russia’s post-imperial influence in Ukraine.

As Ukrainian and Russian negotiators meet in Turkey this week, Russian officials may seek to impose new destabilizing conditions on Ukraine. The Russian military has declared the first phase of the invasion over and shifted operational priorities to eastern Ukraine – a statement widely taken by Ukraine’s US and UK supporters as an admission of the invasion’s failure.

The move follows a crucial tenet of war: change your strategic goals instead of stubbornly clinging to unattainable ones. Russia’s target moderation can be derided as saving face, but in reality Moscow’s less ambitious goals are more achievable than Putin’s dream of regime change.

Strategic failure beckons when maximalist campaign goals are sustained amid a stalled military effort. Afghanistan is a recent example: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization held fast to its goal of nation-building for nearly two decades before being routed last summer. Target moderation can be a sensible way to stay in combat on more advantageous terms, advancing some strategic targets and jettisoning others as setbacks mount.

Mr. Putin will be desperate to emerge from the war and show him something to counter internal critics who see this as a botched invasion. Moderating its strategic objectives, there are two logical outcomes of the Russian campaign: either Russia will “slaughter and slaughter” by withdrawing on terms at least partially favorable to some Russian objectives, or its forces will remain and a larger one Halve part of Ukraine.

“Butcher and Bolt” is a 19th-century term for a punitive expedition that devastates disobedient Imperial subjects, prompting the attacker to retreat. Russian troops destroyed cities and ruined the lives of many Ukrainians. The city of Mariupol, where 5,000 Ukrainians have died, according to local officials, has suffered the kind of devastation once wreaked by the Russian Air Force in Syria. Ukrainians may demand reparations if the withdrawal of Russian forces is discussed, but the toll on the country is already huge.

Russian forces are more likely to try to remain in parts of Ukraine. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said Russia wants to “create North and South Korea”. But South Korea retains huge US military garrisons to prevent future land grabs. A comparable scenario is unlikely here unless the US sends major troop deployments to western Ukraine.

Divided Cyprus offers another analogy. Since the Turkish invasion in 1974, Ankara has maintained the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” and Turkish forces are stationed there despite little diplomatic recognition. This did not stop the Republic of Cyprus from joining the European Union in 2004. Partition has become a permanent fixture on the political map of Europe.

Russia could try to secure a chunk of land from Donbass to Crimea, even if it later faces riots. Ukraine will never give up its territory voluntarily, but barring an unforeseen escalation that brings other countries into the fray, a total defeat by Russia is unlikely. Even if Ukraine ousts Russian forces from the 2022 territorial gains, ousting Russia from the 2014 gains will be almost impossible.

It’s a bleak prognosis for Ukraine, which is no stranger to division. Its lands were bisected by Austria-Hungary to the west and Russia to the east until both empires collapsed in World War I. Mr. Putin is anxious to secure something from his military misadventure. Whether he can do that depends on his awareness of the shrinking reality of what Russia’s invading force can achieve.

Mr. Puri is Senior Fellow in Hybrid Warfare and Urban Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and author of The Shadows of Empire.

Wonderland: Vladimir Putin is a modern day Adolf Hitler and he is trying to exterminate the Ukrainian people. But while Europe tries to reform itself, the American President is not stepping in. Images: Reuters/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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