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The Week In Russia: Carnage And Climbdown In Ukraine 

Ukrainian medics remove the body of a Russian soldier after Kyiv's forces retook the village of Mala Rohan, east of Kharkiv, on March 30.
Ukrainian medics remove the body of a Russian soldier after Kyiv's forces retook the village of Mala Rohan, east of Kharkiv, on March 30.

His initial push for the conquest of Ukraine rebuffed, Russian President Vladimir Putin is recalibrating. But with thousands of people dead and millions driven from their homes, how and when the war will end may be no clearer than when he launched the invasion five weeks ago.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Shifting Goals

He takes what he can get.

It happened in 2014, when Russia President Vladimir Putin appeared to be out for dominion over a huge swath of southern and eastern Ukraine -- but then settled for seizing Crimea and helping separatist forces take parts of two Ukrainian provinces in the corner of the country known as the Donbas.

And it’s happening now. At least, that’s a reasonable explanation for Moscow’s shifting statements about the goals of its unprovoked war on Ukraine five weeks after Putin launched a large-scale invasion.

From the start, it seemed clear that Putin’s chief aim was to subjugate Ukraine by pushing its government out and installing a puppet regime -- or, failing that, by forcing it to renounce its NATO aspirations forever and ensuring it was militarily toothless, a neutral country that would fast risk becoming a vassal of Russia.

Analysts say Putin expected the military to achieve this goal within a few days, but signs that it’s what he wanted go back months and even years, to his repeated assertions that Ukraine has no right to be an independent nation.

In the event, though, it didn’t happen. Russian forces headed for Kyiv have been bogged down on approaches to the city, unable to encircle it. Around the capital and in other parts of Ukraine, where it has also struggled to gain ground, the Russian military has suffered what U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland called “incredible losses.”

The setbacks have contributed to the widespread conviction that Putin “massively misjudged” the situation ahead of the invasion, as Jeremy Fleming, who heads Britain’s GCHQ electronic spy agency, said on March 31.

The Donbas Factor

It’s a conviction that does nothing to mitigate the outrage, anguish, and dismay over the way Russia has waged its war, bombarding and besieging cities, killing and maiming thousands of men, women, and children, and forcing millions from their homes and their country.

On March 25, a senior Russian military general staff officer abruptly announced that that the “first stage” of what Moscow refuses to call by its name, a war, was over and that the focus would now be trained on “liberating” the Donbas -- ensuring that it is not under Kyiv’s control, that is.

Cast as a step forward, from success to potential success – “combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced,” the officer said -- the announcement, with efforts to seize or surround Kyiv and other cities stymied, sounded much more like a climbdown.

It was followed four days later by an announcement that the Russian military would dramatically decrease its military activities around Kyiv and the hard-hit city of Chernihiv, further north, claiming the shift was aimed at building trust and advancing negotiations with Ukraine.

Russian bombardments of the two cities continued hours after the announcement, and there was deep concern that these statements may be nothing but a bluff – a way to mislead Ukraine and the West about Moscow’s military plans and give Russian forces time to regroup.

After all, the currency of Kremlin promises, already weak after eight years of falsehoods about Moscow’s involvement in the deadly war in the Donbas, was devalued even more dramatically on the morning of February 24, when Russia did exactly what numerous officials said it would not do: invade Ukraine.

Still, it seems likely that what Putin is doing is reacting to the real situation, the failure to achieve his initial goals, while casting a serious setback as a step forward and attempting to leave his options open as wide as possible when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

In other words, Putin didn’t get what he wants, so he’s trying to get what he can. But at this stage, it’s far from clear what that is.

Mariupol And More

As stated, the goal would be to establish full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which together are a little smaller than Croatia. That includes the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, which had eluded capture by the Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

Whatever happens in Mariupol in the coming weeks, months, or years -- and there are still people trapped there – the nearly obliterated city will be an indelible symbol of the death and destruction that Putin has caused.

But Russia may also seek long-term control over territory that it now holds or is trying to take to the west of Mariupol -- the so-called “land bridge” that would connect Russia to Crimea, which are now linked only by an actual bridge that Moscow built after seizing the Black Sea peninsula.

The Kremlin may also be eyeing large swaths of territory east and south of Kyiv, potentially including Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, whose fate is another testament to Putin’s actions, and largely Russian-held Kherson, at the mouth of the Dnieper River just west of Crimea.

Given the way the war has gone so far, such ambitions might be out of reach, just as Novorossia ended up being in 2014: Around Kharkiv, and in numerous other places, the Russian military is struggling. And as he did in 2014, Putin is likely to adjust his goals to the reality of what’s possible.

But following the initial apparent miscalculation, he may have limited room for maneuver, needing to calculate what’s possible based on developments in the war in Ukraine and on its repercussions in Russia – which are already huge and likely to grow bigger, and are also unpredictable.

It is extremely unlikely that Putin would settle for anything less than control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in their entirety, including the large portions of the two provinces that were under Kyiv’s rule at the time of the invasion, after eight years of war that had led to a stalemate in the Donbas.

Project Minimum

Moreover, after Putin announced Russia’s recognition of the portions of the regions held by Russia-backed separatists as independent states on February 21, it became clear that the move was meant to include the government-held parts of the two provinces as well.

And a retreat to the front lines of the Donbas war would be an obvious defeat for Putin, while a claim to have successfully defended its residents would be -- as outrageous as it sounds, in light of the fact that his forces have killed thousands of people in Mariupol and across the region -- something he can seek to spin at home as a victory.

But it is also extremely unlikely that Ukraine would agree to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as an independent state – or as parts of Russia, if Moscow decides to take that approach. Nor will Kyiv agree to recognize Crimea as Russian territory; the most it is likely to do is put any formal resolution on the peninsula off until a future date.

Another part of Putin’s calculus is the Western sanctions imposed in response to the invasion.

In a March 29 interview with Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said that the punitive measures could be reduced gradually if Russia ends the war and withdraws its forces from Ukraine.

"Were we to have a negotiated settlement to this conflict that got Russian forces out of Ukraine, that protected Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity going forward, that ensured the rebuilding of Ukraine, then sanctions could be rolled back," Nuland said.

"You could see a scenario where with steps to get Russian forces out of Ukraine, you sequenced the rolling back of sanctions," she said, adding that "we are a long, long way from there.”

For those reasons and more, the war in Ukraine – Putin’s war on Ukraine --- may be far from over.

“It’s become his personal war, with the cost being paid by innocent people in Ukraine and, increasingly, by ordinary Russians, too,” Fleming said.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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