Putin’s final goal in Ukraine has demonstrably shifted, as has his escalation calculus
Vladimir Putin’s Sept. 21 speech — alongside Russian mobilization and sham referenda in Ukraine’s occupied east and south — demonstrates that the Russian leader’s immediate war aims have shifted. As always, Putin seeks to let the context shift, grab what he can, and await a better set of circumstances. Putin’s goal is now a stalled conflict, not a frozen one. The West must deny him this victory by assisting Ukraine in another counteroffensive before winter, while preparing a series of responses to Putin’s threat of nuclear escalation.
Two weeks ago, the Ukrainian military, with only a limited force — around a division’s worth of soldiers — employed tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and anti-aircraft systems to push deeply into Russian-held territory. By manipulating Russian expectations and trumpeting a counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast, Ukraine prompted Russia to leave only light forces covering its positions between Izyum and Kupyansk. Ukrainian units ripped through the Russian lines, captured Russia’s primary logistics artery running from Belgorod to Izyum, and thereby compelled a Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv Oblast.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive changed the course of the war in three ways.
First, by eliminating Russia’s Belgorod-Izyum supply route, it undermined any favorable operational geometry in the Donbas. Russian advances stemmed from favorable geometry: The Severodonetsk salient was at the end of a long, vulnerable neck that the Russians could slowly choke. The Slovyansk pocket is far wider and lies behind a robust defensive line between Siversk and Bakhmut. Russia had abandoned immediate advances from Izyum, but as long as it maintained that position, it could have once again reduced a Ukrainian pocket. Now that Russia has withdrawn from Kharkiv Oblast, the Donbas is far more secure: Absent a massive influx of trained manpower, a renewed Donbas offensive is highly unlikely.
Second, the counteroffensive demonstrated that Ukraine could retake territory using Western-supplied armor. Throughout summer, analysts and national governments alike worried that Ukraine had left a counteroffensive in the south too late and that Russian redeployments had locked in the so-called war of attrition indefinitely. The counteroffensive has given Kyiv valuable credibility heading into winter.
Third, and most crucial, Ukraine’s counteroffensive demonstrated that, absent drastic action, the Russian military could not sustain its “Special Military Operation” (SMO). It was not simply an issue of reserves and materiel stocks, although Russia did lack the military equipment to sustain its grinding offensive pace and respond to Ukrainian counterstrokes. More fundamentally, the Russian command structure was entirely inadequate vis-a-vis the task at hand. The shadowy Russian mercenary/paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group, and its private military companies (PMC’s) reported, through owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, to Putin directly; Russian Rosgvardia likely had an independent command structure; the L/DNR militsyia had their own warlords who nominally reported to Russian commanders, and the Russian regular military, which began the war without a clear command structure, may still lack an overall command-staff apparatus to fight the war from the field, rather than through Moscow.
Vladimir Putin had to respond to survive.
Russia has taken three clear steps, expressed through its post-Sept. 10 actions, Putin’s Sept. 21 speech, and its Sept. 23 sham annexations. In general, Russian choices indicate a revision of Russia’s immediate war aims, and an intensification of escalatory threats.
Putin’s Sept. 21 speech indicates strategic changes that were almost certainly agreed to during his discussion with China’s Xi Jinping at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. Initially, Putin’s aims were maximalist: His “SMO” was meant to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine, per his Feb. 24 war speech. Russia’s goals were identical when Putin expressed them on May 9, although he was unwilling to commit to a mobilization that would stress the Russian state. Now, however, the “denazification” and demilitarization rhetoric is gone: “Novorossiya,” the Russian imperial term for Ukraine’s non-Crimean south, has returned.
Putin’s Sept. 21 speech was meant to square the political-ideological circle. He explained, with limited logical success, why the Donbas-focused “special military operation” — which also involved a strike towards Kyiv — now required the annexation of Ukraine’s south. The south, nevertheless, is the war’s strategic prize. By controlling Ukraine’s coastline, Putin can secure a land bridge to Crimea, thereby remedying a previously untenable long-term strategic position, and force Ukraine to route exports at scale through Russia.
This does not indicate Putin seeks an “off-ramp.” In the long-term, Russia’s goals likely remain unchanged. Putin likely hopes to stall the conflict, prevent a Ukrainian counterstroke, and — in time — let the context shift, awaiting a collapse in Western cohesion or perhaps even a Chinese attack on Taiwan. In the short-term, however, Russia will look to hold its gains.
Mobilization and annexation are efforts, in the immediate future, to increase Russian combat power and deterrence credibility. The Russian military lacks the men and materiel to produce trained, equipped units, considering its officer casualties and the damage sanctions have done to Russia’s military-industrial base. Nor is the Russian reserve system a reserve in the Western or Soviet sense. The overwhelming majority of Russian reservists have not trained since their conscript terms ended, while only a handful, perhaps just several thousand, have drilled consistently.
However, Russia’s mobilization decree eliminates the legal procedures Russian soldiers can use to avoid combat. This will provide a manpower boost. And Russia’s new soldiers will provide some manpower, especially if used on the defensive to hold fixed positions against an attacking Ukrainian force.
In other words, Putin is playing for time.
He has opened a window on the top story: The Russian state was wholly unprepared for mobilization; the West has yet to crack, and China has not acted decisively to split Western attention.
After months of stress, the Russian state will react, and the security services are organized effectively enough internally to prevent large-scale dissent — unless the army stages a putsch.
But from now until early spring 2023, Russia’s growing pains and combat weaknesses will create clear risks. A successful Ukrainian offensive, one that jeopardizes Russia’s position in the south and squeezes Crimea — most likely by a drive through Zaporizhzhia Oblast towards Melitopol, Russia’s most obvious supply artery at this point — could cause a large enough morale shock to collapse the Russian military. At minimum, it would isolate between 70,000 and 200,000 Russians, depending on the Kremlin’s reserve deployments.
Hence the nuclear threats the Kremlin makes today must be taken seriously.
Putin’s risk calculation is that, given Russia’s military position, holding the south will be difficult if not impossible.
Yet nuclear use, even in a demonstrative manner, would violate the limited war’s boundaries and enable far greater NATO intervention.
Ukraine’s response, of course, will be gradual. It will slowly but surely wrap its coils around the enemy, target the Russian bridgehead on the Dnipro River’s north bank, an area from which Russia may very well withdraw, and will continue its interdiction campaign, a campaign even more effective with new Russian soldiers that must be armed and fed at ever-growing rates. Much as Ukraine struck Crimea without a major Russian reaction, Ukraine can do the same after annexation in the south and east.
Nevertheless, Ukraine must stage a counteroffensive at some point, and again, likely before the winter — and if not then, before the early spring, once the Russian state and military have several months to adapt to the new situation.
In turn, Russia is likely to multiply its strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure. The Enerhodar Reactor could be sabotaged; the Kakhovka Dam or the Dnipro’s other dams could be hit with long-range missiles, and other power stations and relevant civilian infrastructure could be destroyed. This will not break Ukrainian will, nor would it significantly reduce combat capacity. But it might kill tens of thousands more Ukrainians and restrict Ukraine’s operational freedom of movement along the Dnipro, perhaps giving Russia a local advantage in parts of the south.
American and Western policy must account for this new set of circumstances. Four steps are necessary.
First, NATO should stage a major combined-arms exercise in Poland and Romania, demonstrating its ability to generate forces rapidly and at scale. This would indicate to Putin that, if the nuclear threshold is crossed, the U.S. could stage a large enough conventional response to jeopardize Russian combat capacity.
Second, the U.S. and its allies should step up their cyber and electronic pressure on Russia. Ukraine has no ability to respond to Russian strikes on critical infrastructure in relative kind — indeed, providing Ukraine with this capability may be undesirable for the West; yet, the U.S. can increase its jamming and spoofing efforts against Russian targeting systems, particularly if it increases aerial presence in the Black Sea, which will open up greater avenues of pressure for Ukraine’s long-range fires. Similarly, cyber and electronic pressure can disrupt Russian communications between field headquarters and combat units, complicate the mobilization process, and undermine the Kremlin’s picture of the war. Inducing friction throughout Russian command structures will erode Russian capacity. The sooner Ukraine mounts its next major offensive, the sooner this war is terminated on favorable terms.
Third, the U.S. must accelerate its transfer of air defenses to Ukraine. Russia must be denied the ability to degrade Ukrainian critical infrastructure as an escalatory outlet. Only air defenses can even the balance in this respect, ranging from Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Systems (NASAMS) to perhaps spare PATRIOT batteries and remaining Soviet-era air-defense equipment.
Fourth, and most important, the U.S. must credibly demonstrate its counterforce nuclear capacity. This requires the most robust and visible nuclear deployments the U.S. and NATO have made since the Cold War, including heavy bombers equipped with variable-yield weapons, missile deployments, and intense submarine coverage throughout Russian naval bastions.
All wars must end. The U.S. cannot allow this one to end on Putin’s terms.
It is not that nuclear threats are a bluff, or that Russia is a paper tiger. The U.S. must do the hard work of ensuring escalation dominance and managing a nuclear crisis.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy, and he is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).