In the first weeks of the war, when Moscow targeted civilians it would pretend that it was chasing military targets. Think of the famous bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, which the Kremlin falsely claimed was being used as a base by a far-right militia, the Azov Battalion. Russia had good reason not to want to cop to trying to kill innocent Ukrainians: Their “Plan A” in taking over the country was to occupy it with a light military footprint, something that would only be feasible with the acquiescence of Ukrainians. The more brazenly Russia targeted civilians, the less likely that acquiescence would become.
After nearly a month of war, it’s clear that Plan A has failed. If they’re going to get Ukrainians to acquiesce in anything — a Russian takeover, or at least some territorial gains in the south and east — terrorizing them into submission is their only shot.
So it’s time for Plan B. “The quick decapitation of the Ukrainian government didn’t work,” said one former U.S. diplomat to the WSJ. “Now [Putin] just wants to pound them because they are resisting and therefore it must be purged. It’s Stalinesque.”
The new assessment of Mr. Putin’s intentions, which is shared by senior officials within the Biden administration, is to compel Kyiv to accept Russian claims to Ukraine’s southern and eastern territories. Having seized both Crimea and the region of Donbas in 2014, Russia seeks to secure a “land bridge” between western Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and to expand Russian control of the Donbas region.
Mr. Putin would also continue his military pressure, including the pummeling of Ukrainian cities, calculating that it will lead Mr. Zelensky to abandon his hopes of joining the West and agree to a neutral status and other Russian demands.
Should Mr. Putin’s demands for territory and neutrality be rebuffed, he is expected to try to hold all of the ground his forces have taken, and fight on, U.S. officials said. “Based on our assessments militarily, it does appear that he is reverting to siege tactics,” said another U.S. official.
Videos circulating today show that no Ukrainian city will be spared. Kharkiv, in the northeast:
#Kharkiv: A #Russian shell explodes next to people who are standing in line at the supermarket. pic.twitter.com/QIZkgV4ZLa
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) March 21, 2022
Occupied Kherson, in the south:
Today in #Kherson
— inna shevchenko (@femeninna) March 21, 2022
Blood on the main square of Kherson. Looks like Russian occupation forces opened fire at a peaceful protest, after dispersing previous ones by shooting in the air and throwing flash-bangs. pic.twitter.com/PdGjoEvEQF
— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) March 21, 2022
Residents there have been protesting the Russian presence for weeks but this is the first time I’ve seen Russian troops punish them by drawing blood.
Kiev isn’t spared either. The capital is well defended and the Russian army hasn’t been able to encircle it to lay siege. But they can hit it from afar with horrific results:
#Kyiv. Retroville pic.twitter.com/IpyTwxoPYA
— Gulsum Khalilova (@KhalilovaGulsum) March 21, 2022
Dead bodies lie on the ground at the site of a bombing at a shopping center as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 21, 2022. REUTERS/Marko Djurica pic.twitter.com/iqxkoaqFtF
— Idrees Ali (@idreesali114) March 21, 2022
Aftermath of the attack in Kyiv. pic.twitter.com/cJTjZp0BqC
— Paul Ronzheimer (@ronzheimer) March 21, 2022
It looks like Grozny circa 2000. Naively, I thought Russia might refrain from pulverizing Ukrainian cities because of the amount of global attention the war was sure to receive. It’s one thing to level Chechnya or Syria, where westerners are less engaged. It’s another to do it in Ukraine, where every atrocity will eventually make its way onto U.S. and European social media.
This is what shifting to “Plan B” means, though. To the extent that waging a “clean” war with minimal bloodletting was a priority for Putin and his aides initially, it’s now sunk far below their need to preserve Russian prestige by emerging from Ukraine with something that might plausibly be described as “victory.”
That also explains why Mariupol has suffered the most. It has the misfortune of being strategically important, the one remaining obstacle in the south to Russia creating a corridor from the Donbas to Crimea. And the less likely it becomes that Putin will fulfill his dream of seizing Kiev and toppling Zelensky, the more important it becomes that Russia at least takes Mariupol and gets its corridor ahead of peace negotiations. They’re not just wantonly firing into Mariupol to terrorize the locals, in other words. They’re killing with a purpose, to break the residents’ resolve as quickly as possible:
Mariupol is the hell on Earth pic.twitter.com/jhXGi3qQrH
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) March 21, 2022
“Hell on earth” is also the term used today by the Financial Times to describe siege conditions inside the city. The FT reports that stray dogs are eating corpses left unattended on the streets — and starving residents are killing and eating the stray dogs. Radiators are being drained for drinking water because when locals queued up near fresh-water streams, they would come under Russian attack. “Everything was burning, there were corpses everywhere, and I was just walking through, picking up a cabbage here, a carrot there, knowing it meant my family would live another day or two,” one local said. “You become completely desensitised.”
Russian troops are already fighting in the city and meeting Ukrainian resistance, another reason why Moscow urgently wants a surrender. They’ve suffered enough casualties already that they can’t afford the bloodletting of sustained urban combat, so they’re doing what they can to try to intimidate city officials into quitting:
"After a complete cleansing of Mariupol, the team of the DPR ombudsman, together with the law enforcement agencies of the republic, will enter the city and collect evidence of all the crimes of the Ukrainian national battalions for the tribunal" via RIA Novosti
— Olga Lautman 🇺🇦 (@OlgaNYC1211) March 21, 2022
The two AP reporters who were inside Mariupol documenting Russia’s crimes have now been exfiltrated after they discovered they were on a Russian hit list. “To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” Zelensky said this weekend of conditions in Mariupol. He’s not wrong.
Mariupol presumably will fall. What then? Having gotten his corridor to Crimea, Putin could order a ceasefire and offer to withdraw if Zelensky will concede the territory Russia has conquered already. If Zelensky says no, as I assume he would, Russia may cease fire anyway for awhile and try to hold its positions while it resupplies its troops. If the endgame here is to attack Kiev or at least to take control of all of eastern Ukraine, Putin’s army will need a breather.
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