The port of Mariupol is perhaps a more likely target — and a safer choice for the Kremlin. Located in the Donbas region, the city remains under Ukrainian control after being recaptured in 2014, but its port remains blockaded by the Russian Black Sea Fleet. As the principal land-link between the Russian-occupied territories of the Crimea and Donbas, taking the city may fall within the category of President Biden’s “minor incursions”. The fact that the Mariupol population is largely pro-Russian gives less incentive for the West to take any action while allowing Putin to portray himself as a liberator. A short, sharp campaign against Mariupol would serve Putin’s purpose of claiming more territory, damaging the administration of President Zelensky and weakening the West’s image on the international stage.
The latter two goals arguably have more benefit to the Kremlin than the conquest of Mariupol. The UK Foreign Office has released a report claiming that President Putin has already lined up which Russia-aligned Ukrainian MPs will be installed in Kyiv, leaving open the frightening possibility of an assault on the capital. Likewise, the demonstrably divided nature of NATO’s response could sow the seeds for the eventual collapse of the organization. An alliance the size of NATO cannot be sustainable when its members no longer perceive external threats in the same fashion.