Three weeks after the start of the war against Ukraine, the Kremlin’s political objectives have not been achieved. The resistance from the Ukrainian armed forces persists, the morale of Ukrainian society is high, and the very serious sanctions imposed by the international community on Russia are causing an economic crisis and the partial political isolation of the country. There are many indications that this situation has largely come as a surprise to the Kremlin, which has fallen victim to faulty analysis and forecasting. In this situation, the man responsible for the decision to invade, the Russian President Vladimir Putin, faces the challenge of which further tactics of action to choose. It is now difficult to predict further developments, as these will depend particularly on the level of Ukrainian resistance, the scale of Western support and the immediate effects of sanctions. Of the many possible scenarios, the most likely now seems to be that of either halting the Russian offensive once a political agreement to implement some of the Kremlin’s political demands has been reached; or continuing it for a longer period of time, leading to Russia’s seizure of significant areas (especially the south-east of Ukraine) and the destruction of key elements of its military and civil infrastructure, turning the country into a failed state.
The political objectives of the invasion
The strategic objective of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine remains to bring this country under Moscow’s control. This should be understood as Moscow gaining a decisive influence not only on Ukraine’s foreign, security and defence policy, but also on its domestic policy, in line with the Kremlin’s interests. This objective is simultaneously an important element of Russia’s broader strategy aimed at weakening the West, especially the US & its closest allies, and destroying the post-Cold War political and security order in Europe.
Since Russia’s policy to date aimed at achieving the above-mentioned goals has failed, and Moscow has moved further away from achieving them, the Kremlin has been faced with a choice of which strategy to pursue towards Ukraine: to increase pressure in a number of areas (political-diplomatic, economic-energy, information-cybernetic and military); or to attempt to escalate military aggression against Ukraine, in order to cause a political breakthrough which could achieve most of Moscow’s above-mentioned goals (for more details, see ‘Russia’s Ukrainian dilemma: Moscow’s strategy towards Kyiv‘). Events have shown that the Kremlin has opted for the second option, pursuing one of the most radical scenarios of aggression: a massive ground invasion combined with a campaign of targeted missile & aerial attacks, rather than a local escalation in the Donbas.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that this was decided within a very narrow circle of President Putin’s closest associates in the leadership of the Armed Forces and state security structures several months before the invasion began. In this context, the diplomatic talks with the West (primarily the US) on the demands made in mid-December 2021 in the sphere of European security (for more details, see ‘Russia’s blackmail of the West‘) should be seen as a sham manoeuvre, and at the same time as a test of the West’s cohesion (although this test has shown that there are no significant divisions).