Putin’s Current Objectives in Ukraine

A month and a half into his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the decision to withdraw all of the Russian troops from the northern front. His plan to occupy the Ukrainian capital Kyiv was in shambles, as Ukrainian resistance proved too stubborn and resilient for what seemed to be an ill-prepared and poorly led Russian army. Russian troops diverted their attention to the east of the country, moving to fully occupy the Donbass region, and the southern parts of Ukraine, overlooking the Black Sea.

If we are to believe public officials and the mainstream media, this retreat signifies a resounding defeat for Russia. A more robust and sober analysis, however, reveals that Russia has gone back to its measured, calculating, and pragmatic military intervention playbook, one which it successfully followed over the past decade and a half in Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. In these past three instances, Russia managed to achieve its objectives at minimal cost and with very little serious opposition.

Indeed, Russia’s current redeployment means, first and foremost, more straightforward logistics and safer supply lines for its now concentrated troops. It leaves its armored divisions better protected, since they no longer have to endure nightmarish scenarios, like the one where they were stretched in a 40-mile single file line, ready to be picked off at will by Ukrainian fighters. It can now resort to the use of local militias and paramilitary forces that have been fighting in the Donbass since 2014. They know the terrain and can thus counter Ukrainian asymmetric tactics with their own. Most importantly, this redeployment refocuses Russian attention on an achievable objective, the simple and absolute conquest of Ukraine’s eastern provinces and its southern shoreline.

Such an approach to the battlefield is calculated; it drives Russia’s own human and financial costs of invasion down. It is equally pragmatic and rational, as Russian leadership looks at the battleground with realistic eyes, only going after targets it knows it can achieve and setting objectives it recognizes as feasible. The near future does not bode well for Ukraine if Russia’s invasion continues along this path.

In fact, it is extremely likely that Russia will seek to further expand its territorial gains, particularly as it sets its eyes on Odessa, the last Ukrainian coastal bastion. With the Russian-friendly Transnistria to its west, a Russian naval blockade from the south, and advancing Russian troops from Crimea and Kherson in the East, Odessa will likely be overrun soon. This would be a triple victory for Putin.

First, Odessa is central to Russian national history, as it witnessed some of the most important battles in the defense of the Orthodox Russian Empire against the Islamic Ottoman Caliphate, particularly since it was none other than Czarina Catherine the Great who conquered it, quite a historical figure for Putin to contend with and even draw parallels to. It was not by mistake that, during his Victory Day speech on May 8, Putin mentioned the names of Rumyantsev, Potemkin, and Suvorov, generals serving under Catherine during her victorious war against the Turks in the early 1770s.

Second, the conquest of Odessa would effectively cut off Ukraine from any naval access point. This would put further strain on Ukraine’s commerce as it loses its naval trade routes, the primary point of export for its massive agricultural and industrial production.

Finally, it will link the territories Russia occupies to the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, a pro-Russian breakaway region, which shares similar secessionist tendencies as those of Abkhazia and Ossetia in Georgia, and Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine. The implications here are quite clear, as Moldova probably sees itself as the next target for Russian aggression in the name of protecting ethnic Russian minorities.

Given this analysis of Russia’s new approach to its war in Ukraine, it becomes essential for anyone who desires to see an end to the conflict to understand the Russian rationale and properly counter it. 

So far, the West’s sanctions have done nothing to deter Putin. The military aid sent to Ukraine, as useful as it was in defending against Russian advances, will be ineffective in helping Ukrainians dislodge Russian troops from territories they already occupy. In fact, Washington officials should stop their meritless self-congratulatory media prancing and take cue from French President Emmanuel Macron, who rightly said: “We will have a peace to build tomorrow. [ . . .] But it will not be done in denial, nor in exclusion of each other, nor even in humiliation.” 

Failure to recognize this might just turn the tables and transform a historic Russian embarrassment into another shameful moment for the Biden Administration. God knows it has already done enough to degrade American global standing. 

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About Hicham Tohme

Hicham Tohme is the director of Trans-Atlantic Network Consulting. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield and is an expert on Russian military interventions and foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East. He is the author of Russia's Geostrategic Outlook and the Syrian Crisis (2020).