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The Week In Russia: 'Divorced From Reality'

Russian soldiers fire a 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled heavy mortar from their position at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, in a photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry on July 22.
Russian soldiers fire a 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled heavy mortar from their position at an undisclosed location in Ukraine, in a photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry on July 22.

Acting on "profoundly flawed assumptions," President Vladimir Putin was wildly wrong about how the large-scale invasion of Ukraine would go when he launched it five months ago -- but he seems to believe Russia is winning the war. Is he wrong again?

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

More Attacks

February 24, 2022, is a momentous date -- it's the day on which, before dawn, Russian missiles began striking targets across Ukraine, the start of a new, large-scale invasion and fighting that continues to rage nearly five months later, with no clear end in sight.

But it wasn't the start of the war in Ukraine. That began eight years ago, in the spring of 2014, when Russia sent its military to occupy the Crimean Peninsula and fomented separatism across eastern and southern Ukraine, sparking and participating in an armed conflict against the government in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the southeast -- the Donbas.

A reminder of that now sometimes neglected phase of the war came this past Sunday, on July 17, the eighth anniversary of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. A Russian rocket fired from a launcher that had been brought to separatist-held territory not much earlier and trundled back into Russia shortly afterward shot down MH17 as it flew over the conflict zone en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

All 298 people on board were killed. Some of the earliest civilian casualties in a war that had killed thousands of civilians before February 24, 2022, they have been joined since that morning by thousands more.

Those thousands include Liza Dmytriyeva, the 4-year-old girl who was killed by a missile strike on the west-central city of Vinnytsya on July 14.

They now also include a 13-year-old boy whose father prayed over his body for two hours after he was killed in a strike on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, on July 20.

They include many other children whose parents have survived, parents whose children have survived, and families in which multiple generations have been wiped out.

Territorial Ambitions

Early in the war in the Donbas, and even before it broke out, Putin and his government appeared to be eager for control over a broad swath of eastern and southern Ukraine that officials, state media, and pro-Kremlin pundits increasingly referred to as Novorossia, or New Russia -- a tsarist-era name that gets rabid Russian nationalists' blood racing.

That goal is back -- if it ever went away.

At least, that's certainly how Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made it sound on July 20, when he told state media outlets that the geographical objectives of Russia's war in Ukraine now go beyond the Donbas, encompassing the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to the southwest "and a number of other territories" -- and could be expanded still further in future.

While Lavrov was by far the highest official to make such a statement, he was stating the obvious.

Russia already controls parts of those two additional regions, including Kherson's eponymous capital, giving it a coveted "land bridge" from the Russian border to Crimea, which juts into the Black Sea and is linked to Russian territory only by a bridge completed in 2019.

And as they seek to cement control, Russian forces have “turned occupied areas of southern Ukraine into an abyss of fear and wild lawlessness,” Human Rights Watch said on July 22. It said they have “tortured, unlawfully detained, and forcibly disappeared civilians” in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions, as well as torturing POWs they hold there.

Moreover, there have been plenty of signals that Moscow wants to control all of Ukraine's Black Sea coast, including Odesa, up to the border with Moldova -- and specifically its breakaway Transdniester region.

And when Putin launched the new invasion on February 24, it seemed clear that he was after more than eastern and southern Ukraine, seeking to control all or most of the country and to install a friendly government in Kyiv. It also seemed clear that he was expecting not just to achieve this goal but to do so within days -- which proved to be a wild overreach.

Of course, it would be foolish to assume that Lavrov's description of what the Kremlin now wants is honest. After all, this is the same Lavrov who stated repeatedly last winter that Russia would not invade Ukraine -- and then, once it had invaded, said repeatedly that it had not. But it seems likely to mean that Putin believes this is something he can get.

"What is very clear is that, in late May, the Kremlin came to the firm conclusion that it is winning this conflict in the long run," Tatyana Stanovaya, a Russia analyst who is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a July 18 opinion article in The New York Times.

Stanovaya was referring not just to control of the Donbas and a large section of southern Ukraine but to what she described as a three-part "grand scheme that goes far beyond Ukraine yet centers on it," includes replacing Ukraine's government and "building a new world order," and "reveals how divorced from reality -- to put it mildly -- Mr. Putin is."

'Profoundly Flawed'

"He's got his own way of looking at reality," CIA Director William Burns said of Putin on July 20. Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, traveled to Russia last November to try to avert an invasion of Ukraine as tens of thousands of Russian troops were massed at its border.

"And as we could see in the first stages of this war, it was based on some profoundly flawed assumptions and some real illusions, especially about Ukraine and the will to resist in Ukraine -- which he helped to create in many ways by aggression now over a period of at least the eight years since 2014," Burns said.

Regardless of how Putin perceives it, whether Russia can achieve the territorial objectives described by Lavrov is not clear.

The Russian military has made gains in the Donbas in recent weeks, but they have come at a high cost and seem to have slowed as the West provides more weapons. Meanwhile, amid successful counterattacks by Ukrainian forces, there is no indication that Russia will be able to control the Kherson or Zaporizhzhya regions in their entirety -- including the city of Zaporizhzhya itself -- any time soon.

And as it struggles to recruit soldiers to replace what Kyiv and Western intelligence agencies say are tens of thousands of soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine, it is also faced with an increasing numbers of soldiers who are refusing to fight.

But Putin's determination to subjugate Ukraine, running up against Ukraine's will to resist -- and Western weapons supplies -- could make a war that is already in its ninth year, by some counts, even longer.

"Putin's bet is that…he can succeed in a grinding war of attrition," Burns said. "That they can wear down the Ukrainian military, that winter's coming, and so he can strangle the Ukrainian economy, he can wear down European publics and leaderships, and he can wear down the United States.

"My own strong view is that Putin was wrong in his assumptions about breaking the alliance and breaking Ukrainian will before the war began, and I think he's just as wrong now," he 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.

About This Newsletter

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country and in its war against Ukraine, 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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And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

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