Has Russia's strategy shifted?

Zelensky’s latest address to the nation called on Ukrainians to be patient with the progress of the war, promising that a “strategic turning point” was at hand. At first blush that sounded like empty rhetoric, a ray of hope from a leader desperate to keep his country’s morale high.


But is there something to it?

Some experts have also perceived a turn in Russia’s strategy this week. Watch, then read on.

Putin’s initial strategy was to advance quickly, “denazify” Ukraine by toppling Zelensky’s government, demilitarize it by seizing as many weapons as possible, then install a puppet ruler whom Ukrainians would hopefully tolerate. The “advance quickly” part is out the window. The denazification part has also seemingly been dropped, which means there’ll be no puppet ruler after all. And if Russia doesn’t end up in control of the country, there’s no way the Ukrainian military will be disarmed.

The best evidence that Russia knows its strategy is wrecked is the fact that they began holding peace talks with the Ukrainians just a few weeks into the war, before their military had achieved any degree of dominance. That’s not something you do unless you’re looking for an exit.

So what’s the new strategy? I think it’s this: Keep punching the Ukrainians until they’re willing to make painful territorial concessions that will let Russia save face in withdrawing. Concede Crimea and the Donbas to Moscow, make some sort of formal pledge not to join NATO, and maybe that’s enough for Putin to get out of dodge.


A more succinct version from Marco Rubio:

Normally Russia has no problem waging a long war. They’ll feed as many men into the woodchipper as it takes to win. But the stupendous economic hardship visited on them has called into question their ability to fund a long war this time. And Russia’s manpower reserves aren’t what they were during the days of Soviet empire. If they were, we wouldn’t be treated to surreal scenes like this:


Bringing in the Syrians isn’t just a matter of scrambling for reinforcements, it’s a tacit admission that Russia’s military may not be up for this fight. They’ve performed poorly as a tactical matter outside cities; God only knows how it would go for them in urban combat against a fierce Ukrainian resistance once they try to take Kiev. The Syrians do know what urban combat is like — against jihadis, at least. Fighting on unfamiliar terrain against a well-armed, well-trained military like Ukraine’s, we’ll see how long they last.

This report yesterday caught my eye:

The Institute for the Study of War, a hawkish think tank in D.C., offered this assessment of the state of play:

The likelihood is increasing that Ukrainian forces could fight to a standstill the Russian ground forces attempting to encircle and take Kyiv. Russian forces also appear to be largely stalemated around Kharkiv and distracted from efforts to seize that city. Russian advances in the south around Mykolayiv and toward Zaporizhya and in the east around Donetsk and Luhansk made little progress as well in the last 24 hours. Russia likely retains much greater combat power in the south and east and will probably renew more effective offensive operations in the coming days, but the effective reach and speed of such operations is questionable given the general performance of the Russian military to date. There are as yet no indications that the Russian military is reorganizing, reforming, learning lessons, or taking other measures that would lead to a sudden change in the pace or success of its operations, although the numerical disparities between Russia and Ukraine leave open the possibility that Moscow will be able to restore rapid mobility or effective urban warfare to the battlefield.


If the Russian military lacks the ability to take Ukraine’s cities, it could resort instead to punishing them with sieges and shelling until they cry uncle. Mariupol is the blueprint. If Putin can’t conquer Ukraine, he can press on its neck until it’s ready to make enough concessions to soothe his wounded pride.

He can also make it as hard as possible for NATO to keep the weapons flowing, further weakening Ukrainian morale:

Russia widened its offensive in Ukraine on Friday, striking airfields in the west and a major industrial city in the east, while the huge armored column that had been stalled for over a week outside Kyiv was on the move again, spreading out into forests and towns near the capital…

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russia used high-precision long-range weapons to put military airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in the west “out of action.”

Western Ukraine had been a safe haven until now, so much so that there’d been talk of Zelensky and his government moving to the city of Lviv near the Polish border. Russia has been preoccupied with trying to control the eastern half of the country and probably has tried to avoid any attacks near the border of a NATO country for fear of a miscalculation. But the chatter in Washington about sending MiGs to Ukraine apparently roused Putin to deliver a warning shot by attacking airfields in the western half, signaling that those MiGs won’t last long if they’re transferred from the U.S. It’s part of the effort to convince Ukrainians that they can’t possibly win and therefore it’s time to make a deal, a message Zelensky was at pains to counter in today’s video.


There’s one other notable shift happening on the Russian side: The famous 40-mile-long convoy that had been bogged down outside Kiev has finally begun to move, although it’s unclear where it’s headed. Parts of it have crept a bit closer to Kiev while other parts have retreated into the tree line near their positions on the road, presumably to take cover from Ukrainians jets and drones. Experts’ best guess is that the convoy may be repositioning to shell Kiev from afar, part of Putin’s strategy of brutalizing Ukraine into submission, or at least standing pat until reinforcements arrive to concentrate force on the capital.

We may soon face a choice about what to do if Russia lays siege to Kiev. Do we borrow a page from the Berlin airlift and fly in humanitarian relief, daring Russian troops to shoot down an American plane? Or do we stay out for fear of escalation?

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