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For The Kremlin, The Ukraine Endgame Is A Moving Target

Ukrainian soldiers fire a shell from a M777 howitzer in the Kharkiv region, another of the weapons supplied by the West that have stymied Russia's attacks.

Demilitarization and "de-Nazification." Keeping Ukraine out of NATO. Preventing "genocide" in the Donbas. And now, a land grab, seizing territory with an eye toward incorporation into Russia.

For the Kremlin, there have been various justifications and goals for its invasion of Ukraine, launched five months ago on July 24. For Ukraine, the response has been straightforward: defending its territory. For the West, however, the shifting rationales have required shifting responses, in helping Ukraine both fight the war and find some basis for negotiation.

It's not easy when your opponent keeps changing his tune.

"They're obviously making it up as they go along," said Aglaya Snetkov, a lecturer in international politics at University College London and an editor of the Russian Analytical Digest. "They had a crazy plan, and then it didn't work out, and then they had to adjust."

The latest iteration of the plan came on July 20, when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the Kremlin's territorial ambitions in Ukraine had expanded beyond the eastern Donbas region, to include the southern-central regions of Zaporizhzhya and Kherson. Both those regions have been partially occupied by Russian troops since early in the war, though Ukrainian forces have been chipping away at Russian defensive lines in Kherson.

"Now the geography is different," Lavrov said. "It's not just [Donetsk] and [Luhansk], it's Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, and a number of other territories. And this is an ongoing process, consistent and insistent."

For weeks, there have been smaller signals that the Kremlin was taking creeping administrative steps -- like handing out passports, installing puppet leadership, ordering stores to use Russia rubles -- to lay the groundwork for Russian governance.

The White House pointedly had a National Security Council official call out Russia on its plans this week. "Russia is beginning to roll out a version of what you could call an annexation playbook," John Kirby said. He said he was "exposing" the Russian plans "so the world knows that any purported annexation is premeditated, illegal, and illegitimate."

In his interview, Lavrov also warned that the territorial goals could expand further if the West continued to supply long-range-rocket and artillery systems to Ukraine.

Whether a wider land-grab actually happens is an open question.

"I don't see it meaning they're going to change their military operations," said Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "Take over the whole country? Most of the country? There's no way that's going to happen. It looks like their operations have culminated in the Donbas."

Shifting Goals

At the outset of the invasion, President Vladimir Putin's stated goals were "demilitarization and "de-Nazification." The latter refers the Kremlin's false claim that Ukraine's government is populated by neo-Nazis, a Soviet-era trope that Moscow has wielded regularly since the 2013-14 Euromaidan street protests that culminated in the ouster of a pro-Russian president.

The former refers to what Moscow says would be a serious threat to Russian security if Ukraine were to join NATO or even host weapons or troops from the alliance.

In his February 24 announcement, Putin also claimed that Russia had no intention of occupying Ukraine or "imposing anything on anyone by force."

There's another rationale that the Kremlin has brandished: genocide. Russian officials have falsely claimed for years that the Kyiv government was committing genocide against Russian-speakers, particularly in the eastern Donbas region.

What most analysts consider to be the first phase of the war ended in failure for Russia, when it tried to seize Kyiv and oust President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's government. Russia's military then withdrew, regrouped, resupplied, shuffled commanders, and then launched a new, focused offensive targeting the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. On June 3, Russia claimed full control of Luhansk.

For Ukraine, not much has changed: Russian troops now occupy as much as one-fifth of Ukraine's territory, and the goal for Ukrainian forces, Zelenskiy has said repeatedly, is to win that territory back. That includes Donetsk and Luhansk, large parts of which have been controlled by Kremlin-backed fighters for eight years now.

"Russia can definitely be defeated," Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said in a July 19 speech to the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. "Ukraine has already shown how it can be done."

Given limitations of manpower and weaponry and the overall exhaustion of war, that may not happen.

Still, the small Ukrainian advances in Kherson, and its scorched-earth defense in Luhansk and now Donetsk -- "The Ukrainians are making the Russians pay for every inch of territory that they gain," U.S. General Mark Milley said this week -- is due in no small part to Western-supplied weaponry: powerful, long-range rockets and artillery such as the U.S. HIMARS rocket system.

"I think the new weapons supplied by the U.S. really hurt the Russian Army and they are not happy with it, that is for the first message," said Stefan Meister, a Russia specialist at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Then Lavrov says something we already know: that the Russian leadership has not given up [the effort] to take whole Ukraine, and as soon as they are able to do it, and [if] the West is not supporting Ukraine sufficiently, they will do it."

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The rhetoric is also being used alongside the ongoing crisis over energy in Europe, where Russia has signaled it might severely curtail natural gas supplies to the continent, Meister says.

Lavrov "is threatening the West, that weapons supply will have consequences," he said in an e-mail to RFE/RL, "but together with the current gas blackmailing it is also about building up a bargaining position on sanctions and a possible cease-fire after Donbas is taken completely."

For some analysts, the question is whether Lavrov's statement is indeed a "saying the quiet part out loud" moment -- that a land grab is what the Kremlin planned all along -- or whether it's another example of Kremlin improvisation, adjusting goals and tactics with no real, clear endgame.

"Call it revisionism or imperialism or both. But this unilateral landgrab is on full display for all to see," Francois Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said on Twitter. "We really are back to the pre-1945 world."

Still, there are parallels to what happened in the Donbas after fighting erupted in March 2014, Snetkov said. "This is where the similarities with 2014 come up," she said. Moscow "didn't have end goals, an endgame then. It became unclear, they were getting stuck. Russians on the ground didn't really know what the point was."

'They Are Obviously At A Loss'

For many longtime Russia watchers, Putin has long been seen as a tactician and an opportunist, and Lavrov's announcement of a new land grab may just be a "let's say it and see what happen" ploy.

The comments are "a bit of a scare tactic," Snetkov said. "Russia is barking, and in the past, when Russia has barked, the West has responded."

But Russian improvisation in Ukraine is also due largely to woefully inaccurate prewar assessments: of the strength of the Russian military; of the determination of the Ukrainian defenders; and of the willingness of the West to back up Ukraine with billions of dollars in weaponry and sweeping economic sanctions.

"They are obviously at a loss," said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin. "They don't know what to do, so they are improvising. Putin needs to achieve something that will convince Russians that he won and he can't get it."

"One of the particular features of the Russian regime is that the words weigh nothing," Gallyamov said in a message to RFE/RL.

Cancian says the lull in fighting in recent days -- called "an operational pause" by Russian officials -- indicates exhaustion and problems with supplies and manpower. "The facts on the ground have rendered such expansive goals impossible for the Russians to achieve," he said. Lavrov's comments are "just a reiteration of Putin's belief that Ukraine is not a real country, and is just part of great Russia, and he intends to just bring it back into the fold, but that's a long-term goal."

"I have to believe that it is a long-term goal, signaling that Russia has not given up on its ultimate ambitions," Cancian said. "But I don't think it signals a change in Russia's immediate military plans. The Russian forces are exhausted and, though they continue to make limited gains in the Donbas, are unable to launch any broad offensives."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.