Reviews | Putin’s crazy goals in Russia’s war on Ukraine

Everything is going according to plan.

This is the phrase of President Vladimir Putin. The war in Ukraine, in its fifth month and with no end in sight, can be grueling. But senior Kremlin officials keep repeating that Russia, gaining the upper hand in eastern Ukraine, will achieve all of its goals.

It may seem hard to believe. After all, Russia was forced to withdraw from Kyiv, suffered several military setbacks, faced sanctions on an unprecedented scale and was subjected to a chorus of international condemnation. To say that such a litany of difficulties and outright failures is a success can be accused of propaganda, hypocrisy or even self-delusion.

But that’s what the Kremlin seems to believe. For two decades, I have closely followed Mr. Putin’s words, behavior and decisions, forming a complete picture of the President’s calculations. Based on public rhetoric, political movements and informal discussions with insiders, I was able to work out – as far as possible – the outlines of current Kremlin thinking. What is very clear is that at the end of May, the Kremlin came to the firm conclusion that it was winning this conflict in the long run. And Mr. Putin, unlike the first chaotic months, now has a clear plan.

Composed of three main dimensions, the plan is a sort of strategic Russian doll. Each aspect fits into another, constituting a great project that goes far beyond Ukraine but focuses on it. This may sound extremely fanciful, and it certainly reveals how divorced Mr. Putin is from reality – to put it mildly. But it is important that the West, whose response has swung between confrontation and acquiescence, understands the full extent of Mr Putin’s hopes as he continues to assess his role in defending Ukraine against the Russian aggression.

The smallest, most pragmatic and achievable goal concerns Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine. Having failed to advance much further into Ukrainian territory since the early days of the war, Russia quickly scaled back its ambitions, giving up on the idea of ​​taking Kyiv. The current, more realistic objective seems to be the control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which the Kremlin sees itself achieving in a short time, a view apparently justified by the effective capture of the Luhansk region by Russian forces. – and the land corridor that provides secure access to Crimea.

For this goal, of minimal geopolitical weight for the Kremlin, Mr. Putin seems to believe that time is on his side. You can see why. Western military support has shown its limits, while Washington has signaled that it is not prepared to risk invoking Mr Putin’s ire by crossing red lines. His earlier threats to resort to nuclear weapons appear to have been heeded: the West will not intervene directly, nor help Ukraine to a point that could lead to a Russian military defeat. Today, despite all protests to the contrary, the conventional wisdom in the West is that Ukraine will not be able to recapture areas occupied by Russian troops. The Kremlin seems to believe that sooner or later the West will completely abandon this idea. Eastern Ukraine would then be effectively under Russian control.

The next objective seems to be to force Kyiv to capitulate. It’s not about the occupied territories; it’s about the future of the remaining territory of Ukraine – something that has far more geopolitical significance. Concretely, the capitulation would mean that Kyiv accepts the Russian demands which could be summed up in the “de-Ukrainization” and the “Russification” of the country. This would involve criminalizing support for national heroes, renaming streets, rewriting the history books, and ensuring the Russian-speaking population has a dominant position in education and culture. The goal, in short, would be to deprive Ukraine of the right to build its own nation. The government would be replaced, the elites purged and cooperation with the West canceled.

That second goal looks fantastic, of course. But for Mr Putin, it is also seemingly inevitable, although it may take longer to achieve. In one to two years, after which the Kremlin expects Ukraine to be war-weary, unable to function normally and deeply demoralized, the conditions for surrender will ripen. At this point, the Kremlin’s calculation seems to be that the elite will split and a pro-peace opposition will rally to oust the Zelensky administration, seeking to end the war. There would be no need for Russia to take Kyiv militarily; it would fall off by itself. Mr. Putin apparently sees nothing that can prevent it.

There is much discussion about what is really more important to Mr. Putin in his war: preventing NATO from expanding on Russia’s doorstep, or his imperial ambitions to expand Russian territory and annex least part of Ukraine. But the two problems are linked. As Ukraine slid towards NATO and the conflict in Donbass continued in a stalemate, Mr Putin became increasingly obsessed with the country. The land he says historically belongs to Russia has been brought to heel by Russia’s worst enemy. In response, Ukrainian territory has become a target alongside – but not instead, as many believe – the confrontation with NATO.

This brings us to Mr. Putin’s third strategic objective in the war against Ukraine, and the most geopolitically important of all: the construction of a new world order.

We are used to thinking that Mr. Putin sees the West as a hostile force aiming to destroy Russia. But I believe that for Mr. Putin there are two Wests: a bad one and a good one. The “bad West” is represented by the traditional political elites who currently rule Western countries: Mr. Putin seems to see them as narrow-minded slaves of their constituents who neglect genuine national interests and are incapable of strategic thinking. The “good West” is made up of ordinary Europeans and Americans who he says want normal relations with Russia, and businesses that want to benefit from close cooperation with their Russian counterparts.

In Mr. Putin’s mind, apparently, the bad West is in decline and doomed while the good West is slowly challenging the status quo with a series of nationally oriented leaders, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France and even Donald Trump in the United States, ready to break with the old order and shape a new one. Mr. Putin believes that the war on Ukraine and all its consequences, such as high inflation and soaring energy prices, will feed the good West and help people rise up against the mainstream political establishment.

Mr. Putin’s bet seems to be that fundamental political changes in Western countries will eventually bring about a transformed and friendly West. Russia can then revert to all the security demands it laid out in its December ultimatum to the United States and NATO. This may seem like a wish to the point of impossible. But that doesn’t stop it from being what Mr. Putin expects.

There is some good news. The very 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 Mr. Putin will face reality. It is then, when his plans are thwarted and his disappointment high, that he is likely to be most dangerous. If the West is looking to avoid a catastrophic confrontation, it really needs to understand what it is really dealing with when it comes to Mr. Putin.

Tatyana Stanovaya (@Stanovaya) is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She writes on Russian domestic and foreign policy and is the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis company.

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