What does Putin want to achieve with his attack on Ukraine? An attempt at analysing the invasion.
Expansionist politics in the West and a fundamentally insecure Russian psyche has caused Vladimir Putin to order an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. This blatant aggression has caused an outcry of shock and indignation around the world. As has become the norm in these situations, most journalistic outlets have concentrated more on the emotional side of the conflict, because it drives their audience into a frenzy and increases engagement – which in turn promises more income for the corporations running these outlets. Therefore, I’ve seen very little sober analysis of what Putin’s actual goals are in Ukraine. This is my attempt at a calm and largely emotionless look at the Russian goals in this war. Avoiding the obvious propaganda from either side as much as humanly possible.
As far as I see it, there are three possible goals Putin could have here. I will deal with each of them separately in the following piece. But before we get to the details, let’s start with looking at what the different possibilities are:
- Full-on conquest: Conquering and occupying all of Ukraine (or as much of the country as needed) with the goal of making it a puppet state or even part of the Russian Federation
- Toppling the government: Invading Kiev, forcing a surrender of the country’s military forces and installing a Russia-friendly regime
- Forcing neutrality: Fighting the country’s (most significant) military forces to a standstill and/or effecting enough civilian casualties to get the current government to commit the country to neutrality
All of these war goals have different prerequisites for completion and achieving them is of varying difficulty. In fact, I’ve listed them from what I think is hardest to easiest to achieve for the Russians. What all these goals have in common is easy to see: They, to varying degrees, reduce or even negate NATO’s influence on the country. I also think there is possibly a fourth fallback goal for Putin:
- Occupy the east: Permanently occupy as much of the country (probably in the east) as possible and thus prevent Ukraine from joining NATO without immediately causing World War Three
Arguably, the Russians already reached this goal when they started the war in 2014. But if the situation does not change significantly in Ukraine’s favour, they are certainly at this point now.
Having laid out what I think the possibilities are, let’s get into the different war goals and how likely I think they could be reached based on the current situation on the ground. I will also try to intuit how likely it is that each of these goals is actually what Putin wants to achieve.
In this case, the goal would be to capture all of Ukraine or as much of the country as is strategically important enough to make resistance by the Ukrainian military unfeasible. Putin would then either turn the country into a puppet state or even annex it outright and make it a part of the Russian Federation. Conquering Kiev would obviously be important in this scenario, but it would not be the extend of the campaign. Even with the government in exile or captured, it would be conceivable for the Ukrainian military to keep its command structure intact and stay in the fight for a significant amount of time.
Subduing the regular Ukrainian military is not the main difficulty of this scenario, either. Even with the whole country conquered and occupied and a Russian puppet government installed, the invaders might have an extended guerilla war on their hands. The Russian army has had much painful experience over the years with how costly such a conflict can be, mostly from the Chechen conflict but also from the Soviet-Afghan War. And the Ukrainian side has prepared for this eventuality from the very outset of the invasion in February, including by handing out guns to civilians and forming militias.
While I think, given time, that winning this war is inevitable for Russia – just because of the sheer size of their military and historic precedent teaching us that they know exactly how to leverage this – I also think that a successful occupation of Ukraine would be almost impossible. Even this early in the campaign, it has become clear that the full-on attack in February has galvanised the Ukrainian people to resist the invasion, even if their regular military fails. I don’t think this resolve is based solely on Ukrainian wartime propaganda, because it fits with the nationalist undertones the government has exploited – and cultivated – in the past. Ukrainians seem to be genuinely willing to resist the Russian invaders for years, possibly decades. There certainly is enough hatred in play.
The fact that the West, and much of the rest of the world, has arrayed itself behind Ukrainian resistance against the invasion should also not be underestimated. Even if the regular military is beaten, the West would probably turn the conflict into a Cold War-style proxy conflict by continuing to supply the pro-Ukrainian irregular forces. The fact that the West is even willing to overlook obvious neo-Nazis fighting for the Ukrainian side is telling.
Since Putin has had a significant involvement with the Second Chechen War, I doubt that he underestimates the danger of insurgencies making it impossible to occupy and hold the whole country. The guy is many things, but dumb or naïve he is not. I therefore find it highly unlikely that his goal for this invasion is to conquer and hold the entirety of Ukraine.
Toppling the Government
The second hypothetical war goal is much easier to achieve: Conquer Kiev and force the surrender of the government and the country’s military forces. This of course pre-supposes that the government would actually surrender and that the country’s regular military would lay down their weapons when ordered to do so. Both of which is debatable at this point, in my opinion. But if this were to happen, it would also pretty much preclude a guerilla war breaking out. At least initially. Putin would then install a Russia-friendly regime and get his puppet state – essentially reaching the same geopolitical outcome as in the first scenario. But in a way that is significantly easier to achieve.
I think that it’s much more likely that this is the actual goal of the invasion. Simply because it is a much more realistic goal to aim for from the point of view of Putin and his military. Controlling Kiev would allow the attackers to set up their own pro-Russian government in Ukraine even if the legitimate government flees the country. Russia would probably keep Crimea and incorporate the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics into the Russian Federation, leaving the rest of Ukraine roughly analogous to Vichy France in the Second World War.
Aside from being a more realistic goal – and Putin appearing to be a very Realpolitik-minded politician – the actual approach of the Russian army also reinforces my theory that this is their actual war goal. Their attack seems to have two main immediate goals: Capture Kiev and consolidate as much territory in the east of the country as possible. It seems to be set up to both capture the seat of the government as well as entrench their forces in a way that makes it appear that it would be impossible to dislodge them again – i.e. drive home the futility of long-term resistance.
If Putin’s goal was to capture the whole country, you’d have expected his military to press the significant advantage of the surprise attack. And by the looks of it, everyone was indeed very surprised – including the Ukrainian military, which seemed to have been caught thoroughly off guard as it wasn’t able to stop the Russians from entering its territory at all. If the goal was to capture as much territory as possible, you’d have expected a Blitzkrieg-like attack from the Russians, using elite forces, analogous to Hitler’s surprise attack on Poland in the Second World War.
Instead, Russia is clearly keeping its best forces in reserve. Its next generation battle tank, the T-14 Armata, is arguably the most advanced combat-ready MBT in existence today. But so far, it hasn’t been seen on the field of battle in Ukraine. instead, Russia is fielding antiquated T-72s and current generation T-90s instead. Probably because getting rid of these first makes sense. The T-72 is hopelessly outdated and the T-90 is in the process of being replaced by the Armata. So the approach makes sense if you’re setting up for a prolonged war and want to get the most out of the resources you have. It also means the Russians don’t see Ukraine’s military as much of a threat to them in the grand scheme of things, which is something I would agree with them on. This approach only makes sense if speed isn’t your main priority, though.
A look at the Russian foot soldiers, and the small arms they are fielding, paints a similar picture. Reportedly, the Russian military is even using drafted recruits in this attack. A far cry from the seasoned veterans you’d expect if a country with such a huge military was trying to wage a Blitzkrieg campaign where speed and capturing as much territory as possible before the enemy can recover is of the utmost importance. If this was the goal, the current Russian approach could be described as hapless. And I am not so fatally arrogant to assume that the people who planned and executed this invasion are idiots. They are probably very good at this kind of thing. It’s much more likely that what the Russians are trying to do is topple the Ukrainian political order while at the same time keeping their options open to further escalate the conflict. After all, if NATO actually gets involved, those T-14s, experienced veterans and AK-12 accessories held in reserve right now will be sorely needed.
The general poise of the Russian forces and the way they are conducting the war in the east of Ukraine also underlines the government’s propaganda narrative of a “limited military intervention in the Donbass”. The cover story is further evidence pointing towards Putin not wanting to annex the whole country. Trying to conquer all of Ukraine would expose the official propaganda line as an obvious lie.
All of this seems pretty clear to me, but mainstream Western media consistently analyses Putin’s war goals very differently. It is quite amazing to me how their analysts maintain that Putin is a cold blooded dictator intent on subjugating the nations of Europe to his will, while at the same time assuming that the invasion was planned badly and that the Russian military is ill-prepared and generally too inept to use its resources correctly. Especially here in Germany, it seems the height of arrogance to me, when pundits from the country that can’t keep its tanks, planes or rifles in working order presume they are so much superior to the Russians. Especially since the Russian military has actually fought several major engagement in the lasts twenty years (Dagestan, Chechnya, Georgia, North Caucasus, Ukraine, Syria, Central Africa) while the Bundeswehr was sitting in compounds in Afghanistan, unable to even move without US military support.
Instead of their analysis of the Russian military being simply bad at conquering the country outright, it seems much more likely to me that Putin is simply committing those forces he needs to commit to have a realistic chance of reaching his goals. I think he’s waging a war of attrition (a particular Russian military tradition) on the Ukrainian military, the country’s political leadership and – sadly – the civilian population. When looking at the situation on the ground objectively – as much as that is possible from my desk here in Düsseldorf – one has to acknowledge that he’s closer to his goal, if indeed I have analysed it correctly, than when the war started. The significant losses of the Russian military notwithstanding – which I think their political and military leadership is taking as par for the course – he seems to be getting what he wants.
The third possible war goal, allowing the current government to stay in power but forcing them, quite literally at gunpoint, to commit to neutrality between Russia and NATO is not what Putin set out to achieve, in my opinion. I just don’t think he would trust such an agreement. It’s not worth much more than the paper it’s written on and waging a war to get such a commitment seems uncharacteristically half-baked for Putin. But he’s probably keeping his options open in this respect to have a position he can fall back on if the political or military situation degrades too much from his perspective. This would explain why there are currently negotiations ongoing to this effect.
It makes no sense for Putin to start these negotiations by demanding that the Ukrainian government surrenders. He knows that he can only achieve this with military force – which is what he’s trying to do on the field of battle. By joining these negotiations, he’s keeping a backup plan in play. Which is a smart thing to do. This way, he can always settle for a less desirable war goal if he needs to.
Right now, it looks like the situation is more likely to deteriorate for Putin in a political way, probably back home. If the war drags on for too long, the body bags start piling up and the government’s propaganda fails, Putin may be faced with significant resistance to the war from the population and, eventually, from within his own regime. I think this is less likely than most Western observers – based largely on wishful thinking – seem to believe. But I do think it is a possibility. If it happens, it will probably take a significant amount of time. Just compare how long internal resistance to the Vietnam war took for the US government to take any action in this respect. And that was a much less autocratic regime than the current Russian government.
With most of the public opinion outside of Russia backing the West and NATO on this, Russians may eventually become wary, though. After all, the Bolsheviks brought them almost a century of “Russia against the rest of the world” – with disastrous consequences for their country. The Russian public might, despite all of the nationalism and militarism pervading their culture, finally tire of this never-ending cultural fight.
Militarily, I think there’s little chance of Russia losing this war. As much as I think it’s impossible for them to completely occupy Ukraine, I also think it’s impossible for Ukraine to completely beat them back. How would that happen? The Russians can probably keep this up for decades. NATO won’t get involved, because that would mean World War Three – probably fought with nuclear weapons – and Ukraine has no hope to repel the invaders from their territory on their own. They neither have the equipment, nor the manpower – no matter how many weapons and volunteers or mercenaries the West sends them. Ukraine’s best hope is for a bloody insurgency, using guerilla tactics, to keep the Russian military from fully occupying the country, which probably means decades of warfare and very high losses on both sides. And this scenario also pre-supposes the regular military of the country has lost the war and Ukraine is essentially lost to its civilian population.
Occupy the East
The bitter pill the West has to swallow here is that Putin, by combination of starting the war in 2014 and with this invasion, has already reached his minimum goal. At least in my opinion. He could pull back his troops to the areas they have occupied in the east of the country today, declare his “special operation in the Donbass” finished and just occupy those territories permanently. The Zelensky government would stay in place, but Putin could enforce Ukraine’s neutrality with the military threat of a renewed invasion. Ukraine could not become a NATO member at this point, because admitting the country would immediately cause and open war between the alliance and Russia, leading to World War Three. This situation would most likely lead to a second Cold War, which Putin probably sees as more advantageous for his side than for the West – an assessment I would probably share.
This means that if things go really badly and the Russians don’t manage to capture Kiev and don’t get their will to enforce neutrality in the negotiations, Putin only needs to fall back to this position. It cannot be classified as a real war goal, because in my opinion the Russians reached it before starting the invasion proper, but it is another option for them nonetheless.
The Bottom Line
Putin most likely never wanted to completely conquer and occupy Ukraine, because he knows that this would be either impossible or too costly. I think his main goal is to capture Kiev and force the government to surrender, turning the country into some version of a Russian puppet state. His second goal is to consolidate his hold on the east of the country, because if he fails to reach his main goal he can use this to pressure the Ukrainian government to commit to neutrality. And if that fails, too, his military can fall back to their position in the east and occupy the Donbass, Crimea and the surrounding largely pro-Russian areas to prevent the rest of Ukraine to fall under NATO influence.
The war isn’t going badly for Putin because he and his leadership don’t care about the losses of their own soldiers and even less about losing equipment that’s largely outlived its usefulness and is in the process of being replaced anyway. He has also reached his minimum goal of improving his country’s geopolitical stance towards NATO simply by starting the invasion. At least that’s probably how he sees it. Ukraine simply isn’t a dangerous adversary to him. The country is a pawn in his geopolitical chess game – nothing more, nothing less.
The only threat to Putin and his war effort comes from within his own country. He could be stopped by his own citizens or by people in his own regime. But this is nothing that the Ukrainian government, NATO or the EU can influence, no matter how my propaganda my colleagues in the media spew out onto the page and into the airwaves without reflecting on it critically. If Russian dead begin to get shipped home en masse, the tide might turn – albeit slowly. But how likely it is for the Russian people, or officials within Putin’s regime, to rise up and challenge his power is not something that’s within the scope of this article. It is a topic I will have to look at in detail in a future piece, I think. Cutting through the bias and propaganda to get to some actual facts on that one might prove almost impossible, though.
This is an archived issue of my newsletter Realpolitik, originally published on 23 March 2022. This newsletter is now defunct, but you can sign up to my new daily tech and politics newsletter here.
Header image: “The Consequences of War”, allegorical painting by Peter Paul Rubens about the effect of the Thirty Years’ War on the European continent