Opinion | Putin’s Illusionary Goals in Russia’s War in Ukraine

Everything is going according to plan.

Those are the words of the Chairman Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, in its fifth month with no end in sight, can be exhausting. But senior Kremlin officials still reiterated that Russia, gaining the upper hand in eastern Ukraine, will achieve all its goals.

That seems unbelievable. In the end, Russia was forced to withdraw from Kyiv, underwent numerous military reversals, faced sanctions on an unprecedented scale and received international condemnation. To call such a series of hardships and utter failures a success could be a court charged with propaganda, hypocrisy or even self-delusion.

But that’s what the Kremlin believes. For more than two decades, I have closely followed Mr. Putin’s words, actions, and decisions, forming a complete picture of the president’s calculations. Based on public rhetoric, policy moves, and informal discussions with insiders, I have been able to find out – as far as possible – the contours of current thinking. Kremlin. What is very clear is that by the end of May, the Kremlin has come to the definite conclusion that it is winning this conflict in the long run. And Mr. Putin, in contrast to the chaotic early months, now has a clear plan.

Consisting of three main aspects, the plan is a kind of Russian strategic doll. Each aspect fits into another, equivalent to a grand scheme that goes far beyond Ukraine but remains focused on it. It sounds incredibly far-fetched, and it certainly reveals how divorced Mr. Putin is from reality – to put it mildly – what kind of person Mr. Putin is. But it is important for the West, whose response has fluctuated between confrontation and denial, to understand the full extent of Putin’s hopes as it continues to assess its role in defending Ukraine from aggression. Russian invasion.

The smallest, most pragmatic and achievable goal concerns Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine. Unable to push deeper into Ukrainian territory since the first days of the war, Russia quickly scaled back its ambitions, abandoning its intention to capture Kyiv. The current, more realistic goal seems to be control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which the Kremlin sees itself achieving in a matter of time, a position seemingly justified by the capture of Russian forces. effectively the Luhansk region – and the land corridor will provide safe access to Crimea.

For this goal, which is of minimal geopolitical importance to the Kremlin, Mr. Putin seems to believe that time is on his side. You can see why. Western military support has show its limits, while Washington has motioned that it is not prepared to risk the wrath of Mr. Putin by across any red lines. His earlier threats about the use of nuclear weapons appear to have been heeded: the West will not intervene directly, nor will it support Ukraine to the extent that it does. can lead before the defeat of the Russian army. Today, for all objections to the contrary, common wisdom to the West that Ukraine will not be able to regain the areas occupied by Russian forces. The Kremlin believes that sooner or later the West will abandon that idea altogether. The east of Ukraine would then be under Russian control.

The next goal seems to be focused on forcing Kyiv to surrender. This is not about occupied territories; it’s about the future of what remains of Ukraine – something of far more geopolitical importance. On a practical level, surrendering means Kyiv accepting Russia’s demands that could be summed up as the “de-Ukrainization” and “Russianization” of the country. That would lead to criminalizing support for national heroes, renaming streets, rewriting history books, and guaranteeing Russian-speaking populations a dominant place in education and culture. In short, the aim is to deprive oneself of the right to build one’s own nation. The government would be replaced, the elites purged, and cooperation with the West nullified.

Of course, this second goal sounds far-fetched. But for Mr. Putin it also seems inevitable, although it may take longer to achieve. In one to two years, when the Kremlin expects Ukraine to be war-torn, unable to function properly, and severely degraded, the conditions for surrender will be ripe. At that stage, the Kremlin’s calculation seemed to be that the elites would split and a pro-peace opposition would regroup to overthrow the Zelensky government, seeking to end the war. It is not necessary for Russia to capture Kyiv militarily; it will fall on its own accord. Mr. Putin doesn’t seem to see anything that can prevent that.

There are many discussions about what is really more important to Mr. Putin in his fight: preventing NATO from expanding on Russia’s doorstep, or his imperialist ambitions in expanding Russia’s territory, and annexed at least part of Ukraine. But the two problems are intertwined. As Ukraine slides towards NATO and the conflict in Donbas continues to stalemate, Mr obsessed with country. The land that he believed historically belonged to Russia was attacked by Russia’s worst enemy. As a response, Ukraine’s territory became the target of – but not instead, as many thought – confrontation with NATO.

That brings us to Mr. Putin’s third strategic goal in the war against Ukraine, and the most important of them geopolitics: building a new world order.

We are used to thinking that Mr. Putin sees the West as a hostile force aimed at destroying Russia. But I believe that for Mr. Putin, there are two ways: the bad and the good. The “bad West” is represented by the traditional political elites that now rule Western countries: Mr. Putin seems to see them as narrow-minded slaves of voters who disregard national interests. real expert and incapable of strategic thinking. The “good West” includes ordinary Europeans and Americans, who, he said, want normal relations with Russia and businesses who want to profit from close cooperation with Russian partners. their.

In Putin’s mind, obviously, bad west are declining and perishing while the good West is slowly challenging the status quo with a host of nationalist leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and even Donald Trump in United States, ready to break the old order. and fashion a new one. Mr. Putin believes that the war against Ukraine and all its consequences, such as high inflation and soaring energy prices, will Nurturing good things West and help people rise up against the traditional political establishment.

Mr. Putin’s bet seems to be that fundamental political changes in Western countries in time will bring about a friendly and transformative West. Russia will then be able to return to all security request it issued in a December ultimatum to the United States and NATO. This seems like an impossible dream. But that doesn’t stop it from being what Mr. Putin expected to happen.

Have a good news shoulder. The fact that the plan seems realistic to him should, in the short term, prevent any nuclear escalation. But the bad news is that sooner or later, Putin will have to face reality too. It is in that moment, when his plans are thwarted and his frustrations high, that he is likely to be the most dangerous. If the West is to find a way to avoid a catastrophic clash, it needs to really understand what they really have to deal with when it comes to Mr. Putin.

Tatiana Stanovaya (@Stanovaya) is a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes about domestic politics and Russian foreign policy and is the founder R.Politika political analysis firm.

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