Did Russia just give up on seizing Kiev?


Day 29 of the war brings major news: The face-saving retreat may have begun.

Remember that Putin’s goals when the invasion began were nothing less than the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. That was code for liquidating Zelensky’s government, installing a Russian puppet regime, and disarming the Ukrainian military so that insurgents wouldn’t threaten the new status quo. This was to be a war of conquest, designed to settle the question of whether Russians and Ukrainians were separate nations. They were not, according to Putin. They were one people. Russia’s “special military operation” would make that clear.

Twenty-nine days later, we find Russia’s government engaged in one of its favorite pastimes, historical revisionism. Military leaders held a briefing this afternoon that seemed to scale the objectives of the campaign way, waaaay back from the original denazification/demilitarization goals. According to Russia, this was only ever about Luhansk and Donetsk, the two disputed provinces in the east knows as the Donbas.

“The announcement appeared to indicate that Russia may be switching to more limited goals after running into fierce Ukrainian resistance in the first month of the war,” said Reuters with great understatement. The last tweet above is the military equivalent of Pee Wee toppling headfirst off his bike, brushing himself off, and telling onlookers, “I meant to do that.”

If Russia had merely wanted the Donbas, it could have poured its forces into those provinces and likely overrun the Ukrainian resistance in short order. Zelensky would have protested but the west probably would have hedged on mega-sanctions, not wanting to use a hugely destructive economic weapon pitting west against east over such a “minor incursion.” In fact, the first round of U.S. sanctions at the start of the war were modest by design in hopes that Putin would limit his invasion to the disputed territories. The big sanctions were initially held in reserve, to try to deter him from making a move on Kiev.

Four weeks later, Russia’s economy is in ruins and somewhere on the order of 10,000 troops are dead. Their military has been exposed as grossly overrated. Their diplomatic relations with NATO countries are shattered. As I write this, they have many thousands of troops parked in the suburbs of Kiev and Kharkiv, others occupying Kherson, and others fighting to capture Mariupol — all cities outside the Donbas, and all of those troops at grave risk from Ukrainian counterattacks.

Literally no one believes that Russia’s nationwide offensive against Ukraine was some sort of elaborate decoy operation to make it easier for their military to seize Luhansk and Donetsk. The cost to Russia from such a campaign is far too extravagant, militarily, diplomatically, and economically, to justify such a modest objective. But this is the sort of nonsense they’re apparently going to ask the world to believe in the name of letting them save face while retreating.

Failing on every front except southeastern Ukraine? They meant to do that.

What’s left of “denazification” and “demilitarization”? Maybe this…

…and this:

Only the Kremlin could insist with a straight face that it’s successfully “demilitarized” Ukraine at a moment when the Ukrainian military is gaining ground through counterattacks on Russian forces:

In the battles to the northwest of the capital, time is likely on Ukraine’s side, analysts say. Russian columns have run low on fuel and ammunition, intercepted radio transmissions suggest. Soldiers have been sleeping in vehicles for a month, in freezing weather…

[I]n one sign the counteroffensive has pushed into areas previously controlled by Russian troops, a Ukrainian unit that retrieves military dead from the battlefield has now also been finding the bodies of Russian soldiers in the towns around Kyiv, according to Serhiy Lysenko, the unit’s commander…

Mr. Kofman, from the CNA research institute, said, “It’s clear Russia cannot achieve its initial political objectives in this war now.” He said Russia must shift its goals or alter its military strategy “if it wants to sustain this war on scale beyond the coming weeks.”

Not only hasn’t Russia demilitarized Ukraine, something closer to the opposite is true. Ukraine has reportedly captured so many Russian tanks since the invasion began that their tank force is bigger now than it was before the war.

The not so secret ingredient to Ukraine’s success has been a surprisingly shrewd battlefield strategy, writes Phillips O’Brien. Amid all the praise for Ukrainian bravery and the oohing and ahhing over high-tech western weapons, observers have overlooked how smart and disciplined the country’s battle plan has been:

What happens now, though? If Russia was serious in today’s briefing about pivoting towards the Donbas, we should expect the forces in or around Kiev and Kharkiv in the north and Kherson and Melitopol in the south to withdraw east in order to consolidate Russia’s position in Luhansk and Donetsk. Maybe they’ll continue the offensive in Mariupol, as that city abuts the Donbas and might logically be part of Russia’s demand for control over the region. But the justification for continuing to pound Kiev etc. after today will be thin under Russia’s own logic. If this is all about the east, supposedly, and if Russia is now close to asserting control over the east, why continue to punish the Ukrainians elsewhere? Why not offer a settlement immediately — the Donbas plus Mariupol, maybe, in return for withdrawal — and see what Zelensky says?





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