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The Week In Russia: Blood And Bluster In Ukraine

Local resident Volodymir, 66, lies wounded inside his flat in a building hit by a Russian military strike in Kramatorsk on July 7.

Despite battlefield setbacks, heavy losses, and slow going during weeks of fierce fighting in the Donbas, politicians and pundits in Moscow are sounding self-assured about the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin taunted Kyiv and the West with a warning that Russia is just getting started. Is it confidence born of calculation or a bully’s bluff?

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

Tough Talk

Soon after Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, bombarding targets nationwide and sending troops and tanks toward Kyiv and other cities, it became clear that the apparent goal of the assault -- the ouster of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government -- was not about to be achieved.

Less than 48 hours after the invasion began, when Putin urged the Ukrainian military to turn against Zelenskiy and seize power, it already sounded like he was living in a bubble, an alternative world outside of which almost everyone knew that would not happen. Ukrainians had rallied defiantly against the Russian invasion, and the prospect of a military coup that would hand control of the country to Moscow seemed absurd.

Nineteen weeks later, Russian forces are focusing on substantially narrower areas, making slow progress in their effort to control the Donbas and trying to hold onto territory they have seized farther southwest, where they now control the coast from the Russian border to the isthmus that links mainland Ukraine with Crimea.

For the foreseeable future, at least, the prospect of Russia seizing the Ukrainian capital -- or even Odesa, the main Black Sea port west of Crimea and east of the Moldovan border -- seems far-fetched.

In the shorter term, the Russian military has “a very limited set of things that they can do, [and] I don't think they can recover from the losses that they've taken in personnel and equipment,” Dara Massicot, a senior researcher at the U.S.-based Rand Corporation and a former senior analyst at the Pentagon, where she focused on the Russian military's capabilities, told RFE/RL late last week. “So we might see [something] like a frozen conflict again, but you're not going to see another push to Kyiv or something like that.”

Personnel Problems?

In the longer term, she indicated, there are questions about how much manpower Russia can mount, saying that “what they’ve done to their professional enlisted force is that they've basically committed all of it from the army and the air force to this war. They've taken significant casualties, and people do not wish to participate anymore. Many are not going to reenlist after they serve out their contract.”

So why do some of the declarations and demands coming out of Moscow -- from influential officials and pro-Kremlin pundits alike -- sound so assertive, so confident, and so self-assured?

Reading recent remarks from Nikolai Patrushev, who is secretary of the presidential Security Council and may hold more sway with Putin than anyone else, one would be hard put to imagine that Russia has suffered major setbacks since the invasion.

At a meeting in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk on July 5, Patrushev said Russia’s goals in Ukraine “will be achieved” despite Western weapons supplies to the Ukrainian military, the state-run Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported.

The goals he listed, according to RIA-Novosti, included “protecting the people from genocide on the part of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi regime, the demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine,” and ensuring that neutrality is enshrined in Ukraine’s constitution.

Even reading between the lines of the blatantly false claims that the democratically elected Zelenskiy’s government is neo-Nazi and has committed genocide, these remarks suggest little change from the aims set out by Putin around the time of the invasion and evident in the Russian advance -- soon stymied and then repulsed -- on Kyiv in the first days and weeks afterward.

They echoed Putin’s remarks in his February 25 call for the Ukrainian military to seize power, when he said it would be easier for Russia to negotiate with generals than with a "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis," as he falsely called the government.

Patrushev is not the only one suggesting the Kremlin’s aims have not changed much.

'Most Of Ukraine'

"We…look at President Putin and we think he has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine," U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on June 29. She described the most likely near-term scenario as a grinding conflict in which Russia makes incremental gains and neither side achieves a big breakthrough.

And on the Russian side, Kremlin-aligned analyst Andrei Sushentsov suggested in a July 5 article that Russia would or should seek Zelenskiy’s ouster, even if Ukraine and Russia reach some cease-fire or territorial agreement.

Ignoring entirely the fact that Russia attacked Ukraine, and not the other way around, Sushenstov wrote that Zelenskiy is “fully invested in the project ‘Ukraine At War’” and would be highly likely to want the country to have powerful weapons provided by the West if he were to remain in power once the “crisis” -- that is, the war Russia started -- is over.

Sushentsov, dean of the international relations department at the state-affiliated diplomatic institute MGIMO, deployed a quote from the 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol about Cossacks to argue his point, but included no other substantial evidence.

He also wrote that highly unfavorable terms that Russia may have been prepared to offer Ukraine in exchange for peace a few weeks ago were no longer on the table, and that any future proposals would be made from a position of greater strength.

The implication was that Ukraine missed its best chance and would have to bargain hard for even less favorable terms, or simply have them forced upon it, in the future.

Given the military setbacks Russia has suffered and the deep uncertainly about the outcome of its campaign -- with high casualties in the fierce Donbas fighting and Western artillery and rocket systems having what Zelenskiy called a “very powerful” effect on the battlefield there -- why such a show of confidence?

For one thing, it may be just that: a show, propaganda, tough talk aimed to erode Ukrainian morale and undermine support for Kyiv in the West or at least push the United States and the European Union to press Zelenskiy’s government into talks on a truce at a high price for Ukraine in terms of territory and sovereignty.

That’s what Putin was doing on July 7 when he said, essentially, “We have not yet begun to fight.”

“Today we hear that they want to defeat us on the battlefield…Well, let them try. We’ve heard many times that the West wants to fight us to the last Ukrainian. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it seems like everything is headed that way,” Putin said in comments given close attention by Russian state media.

Warning that “the further this goes, the harder it will be to negotiate with us,” Putin added: “Everyone should know that we really haven’t really started anything seriously yet.”

It was a striking remark from a commander-in-chief who by many accounts has lost more soldiers in less than five months than the Soviet Army lost in Afghanistan in a nearly a decade before withdrawing its forces.

Putin also repeated his false claims that Kyiv has committed genocide in the Donbas and that a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president was ousted in an “unconstitutional armed coup” in 2014.

Zelenskiy’s adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak dismissed Putin’s comments as “primitive propaganda” from a country whose forces “entered sovereign Ukraine, shelling cities and killing civilians.”

Moscow’s outward confidence may spring more from weakness than from strength.

'Maximalist Demands'

“The tragic irony is that military reverses have pushed the Kremlin into maximalist political demands” as Putin’s government has to show Russians that the “outcomes are worth the cost,” Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London, wrote on Twitter on July 5.

Some Russian analysts, in fact, have suggested the Kremlin should seek to manage expectations in order to avoid the appearance of failure.

Dmitry Trenin, former director of the now shuttered Carnegie Moscow Center and a member of a foreign and security policy group that works closely with the Russian state, wrote that it is crucial for Russia to “achieve strategic success in Ukraine within parameters that are set and are publicly explained to society.”

“It is necessary to clarify the stated goals of the operation,” he wrote of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which the government has made illegal to call a war.

Not that Trenin was calling for a climbdown, or anything close. In his May 20 article, he wrote of what he called “the new geopolitical, geo-economic and military-strategic realities in the Donbas and Novorossiya” -- wording that and makes clear he sees Russian control over the whole of the Donbas and a large swath of southern Ukraine as one important goal.

He wrote that after “achieving strategic success in Ukraine,” the new challenge for the Kremlin would be “to force NATO countries to actually recognize Russian interests and to secure the new borders of Russia,” casting Russian control over at least parts of those regions as a fait accompli.

In the eyes of Ukraine and the West, and perhaps those of objective reality, he was speaking far too soon: The outcome of the war is impossible to predict, and its end may be months or years away.

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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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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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