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April 8, 2022

Putin’s Post-Kyiv Strategy

Having failed to take Ukraine’s capital on his first attempt, what does Putin do now, with war crime charges pending?

There are now no more Russian troops in and around Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. Last weekend, the Russians began a rapid exfiltration, backing into Belarus and Russia. One U.S. official stated, “We are assessing that they have completely withdrawn from Kiev and from Chernihiv." And U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin has "probably given up” on taking Kyiv. Thus, it seems, ends the battle for Kyiv, as Russian forces were surprisingly stymied in their rapid advance against the capital and were being pushed back by Ukrainian forces.

However, Putin’s failure to take Kyiv and remove Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from power is likely only a hiccup, albeit a pretty large one, in his overall war plan. The war seems far from over. “We have now seen the Russians have moved from the north [of Ukraine] into Belarus and into Russia for refit and resupply,” one U.S. official reports. “We have seen indications that that refit and resupply is occurring.”

As for Austin, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday: “Putin thought he could really rapidly take over the country of Ukraine, very rapidly take over the capital city; he was wrong. I think Putin has probably given up on his effort to capture the capital city and is now focused on the south and east of the country.”

Indeed, Ukraine’s far eastern Donbas region, where fierce fighting continues, seems to be the immediate strategic goal for the Russian military now. Gaining control of the Donbas and Ukraine’s Black Sea coast are now job one before any really effort to move west and attack Kyiv again.

At the outset of Russia’s invasion, most observers gave Ukraine only a couple of days before Kyiv would be in Putin’s hands. Today, 44 days later, Ukraine has given Putin the proverbial bloody nose, and with Zelensky’s inspiring leadership, many are now wondering if it’s possible for Ukraine to actually repel the Russian invaders.

While much of the world has roundly condemned Putin’s invasion and engaged in a massive sanctions campaign against Russia, NATO has treaded carefully in an effort to avoid provoking Putin. However, with the recent revelation of war crimes committed by the Russian army, the resolve to continue to stay out militarily may become much more difficult, especially depending on what is learned about the scale of Russian atrocities. Furthermore, those crimes now make the prospect of a peace deal that much more difficult.

So, with Kyiv seemingly off the table (at least for the time being) for Putin, what is a win for him now? Russian officials claim that securing the eastern region of Ukraine has been the objective the entire time, and that the failure to take Kyiv was not really a failure. It’s clearly a bit of face-saving propaganda, as no one, especially the Russians, believed the invasion would be this tough. But granting that eastern Ukraine was the primary goal, it does make sense from an economic standpoint. Putin gaining Ukraine’s natural gas- and oil-rich region would both benefit him and severely weaken Ukraine’s economy.

And that is likely Putin’s plan moving forward. If his army can secure the Donbas region and much, if not all, of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, then he has a big victory he can tout before the Russian people. Frankly, even if Putin fails, he can blame that failure on enemies in the West and build nationalist fervor against foreign aggressors. About 90 years ago, another famous European tyrant did that.

As far as the U.S. and NATO are concerned, one interesting factor of this war has been the revelation of just how deadly U.S. and NATO weapons technology has been confronting the Russian military. One of the worst places to be in this conflict appears to be in a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier. The apparent superiority of NATO’s weapons against Russia’s may have also given China a reason to press pause on its Taiwan aspirations. In fact, that may actually prove to be the most significant development from this war, given that Joe Biden’s feckless leadership on the world scene certainly wasn’t serving as a deterrent.

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