Mar 21, 2022 - World

Putin's Plan B

Russian invasion of Ukraine, as of March 21
Data: Institute for the Study of War; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Russian forces planned to storm Ukraine's major cities in a matter of days. After nearly four weeks, they're instead bombarding those cities from a distance.

The big picture: As Russia's military adjusts its tactics to a new battlefield reality, analysts are watching for signs that Vladimir Putin is shifting his end game as well.

Driving the news: The Pentagon believes the Russians are increasing their missiles and airstrikes because, having failed to achieve their objectives on the ground, they are "flummoxed," "frustrated" and desperate to gain some momentum, spokesperson John Kirby said Monday.

  • Russia's advance on Kyiv has been stalled for over a week, and Russian forces that had seemed poised to move on Odessa have been repulsed. The front lines are largely frozen, with Russian forces consolidating the positions they already hold.
  • However in the east, Russian forces are attempting to break through south of Kharkiv and use a pincer movement to pin down a large number of Ukrainian troops, according to Michael Kofman, a leading expert on Russia's military at CNA, a U.S.-based think tank.
  • Russia also continued a brutal bombardment of Mariupol in the southeastern Donbas region on Monday after Ukrainian leaders rejected a demand to surrender the besieged port city. Civilians lack heat and electricity and have been scavenging for scraps of food between explosions.
  • Mariupol would be the biggest city to fall thus far, and taking it would free up some of Russia's forces in the south, Kofman says. The symbolic significance could be greater still, as Putin originally justified the war in part as a mission to "liberate" the Donbas.
What remains of a shopping center in Kyiv. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty

What they're saying: "I've been watching them revise down what I think the war aims are, and if they’re searching for anything they can claim as a victory and get out of this conflict, one of the things they would need is to have captured most of the Donbas," Kofman says.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted that Putin's objective was "no longer to take over most of Ukraine" but to achieve a ceasefire "on terms he will claim are a strategic victory" by annexing the southern coast, laying siege to Kyiv and other major cities in the north, and degrading Ukraine's military and industrial capabilities.
  • A senior defense official also briefed reporters Monday that Russia may be seeking to "improve their position at the negotiating table."
  • Moscow is demanding that Ukraine rule out future NATO membership and give up all claims to Crimea and the Donbas "republics."

President Volodmyr Zelensky has signaled some flexibility on the former but not the latter. It's also not clear how serious Putin is about seeking a deal.

For now, the war appears likely to drag on.

What to watch: Russia's exhausted and depleted forces will need to be reinforced and resupplied, perhaps during an operational pause or even a temporary ceasefire, Kofman says.

  • A pro-Kremlin tabloid Monday published and then deleted what it said was a Defense Ministry assessment that 9,861 Russian troops had been killed and 16,153 wounded, while 96 planes and 118 helicopters had been lost — staggering numbers that have not been officially confirmed.
  • Russia has additional forces and weaponry at its disposal, but "the best of the Russian military has already gone into this war," Kofman says.

The scale of Ukraine's losses is unclear, but a war of attrition would be difficult to win. It will be increasingly vital that Western weapons shipments reach Ukrainian troops in the field.

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