As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters another day, with reports of hundreds killed in less than a week, there are rising questions about what President Vladimir Putin is trying to achieve.
According to Cristian Nitoiu, lecturer in Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London, there should be no misunderstanding about Russia’s motives; Putin is concerned with nothing less than revisionist politics and great power fantasies, he told Al Jazeera.
“The long-term goals of Russia following the end of the Cold War have been to recover the great power status of Soviet Union, to be seen as equal by the West and to be able to influence political developments in its smaller neighbours like Ukraine, Moldova or Kazakhstan,” he said.
However, Ukraine has been incorporating itself into the Western orbit of influence, and thus going against Putin’s interests.
Accordingly, placing a Russian-friendly government in Kyiv is most likely the main objective of the Kremlin’s military intervention, said Nitoiu.
But how would and could such a scenario work?
If Kyiv is captured, the Russians would probably install at least an interim administration, Graeme Gill, professor emeritus of government and international relations at the University of Sydney, told Al Jazeera.
However, given the low likelihood of this being widely accepted among the Ukrainian population, Putin would have more success if the current government, perhaps stripped of some members but continuing to be led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was retained in office and able to negotiate with the Russians, Gill added.
“The institutional structure would be likely to remain in place, although strong consideration would be likely to be given to introducing a federal arrangement of some sort to provide a degree of autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk,” said Gill.
Nonetheless, even if Russia could establish some form of dialogue and agreement in Kyiv, it faces encumbrances.
“Such negotiations would be likely seen as taking place under duress, and therefore any outcome may not stick. There are no easy options for Putin, and it would certainly not be easy for any interim government installed by force of Russian arms,” said Gill.
However, despite the current negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegations on the Ukraine-Belarus border, Moscow has yet to make serious headway, to make the latter even a conceivable scenario.
Ukraine’s resistance seems stronger than anticipated up to this point.
However, Russia still has not put all its cards on the table, John R. Deni, research professor of joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational (JIIM) security studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“I think the evidence points to continued Russian overmatch of Ukraine in terms of both capabilities and capacity. US officials have reported that somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of available Russian forces have been committed so far, meaning there is still lots of nearby Russian military power left to commit.”
However, given the lack of progress, international media and pundits have raised questions regarding Russia’s military strategy.
“In terms of the operations, there are some anomalies that do not make sense to me, including the inability of Russian forces to successfully and conclusively establish air dominance over Ukraine, the inability of Russian forces to retain control and exploit the capture of the Antonov International Airport outside Kyiv, and the evident difficulty Russian forces are experiencing in term of coordination,” Deni noted.
Nonetheless, whether Kyiv falls is to many observers a matter of when, rather than if.
To this point, it remains somewhat of a mystery what Putin would do with a nation the size of Ukraine.
Splitting up the country might be the most likely option. However, it is not without severe difficulties.
“Splitting Ukraine would require some entity to implement and enforce the split. While the Russian force might implement a split, I am not convinced Russia has the capacity and wherewithal to enforce it beyond the short run, given the Russian military forces arrayed at this point,” said Deni.
His doubts are justified.
“See, for example, the challenge Russia is having in suppressing resistance in/around the eastern city of Kharkiv and the citizen-soldiers of Ukraine that have volunteered to harass and attack Russian troops. Nonetheless, a split – perhaps along the Dniepr River – remains a possibility,” Deni added.
In general, Putin’s options seem to decrease by the day.
“I think Putin’s options are quite limited. Russia is now trapped in achieving some sort of victory in Ukraine. Countries like China, India or Iran are watching closely, and not being able to declare victory will definitely undermine its image of a strong military power,” Nitoiu said.
Most importantly, the war has already had severe implications for Russia’s future status.
“It is fair to say that in Europe, countries like Germany or Finland that professed a restrained military strategy have now embraced the idea of viewing Russia as an enemy and have increased their military budget in the case of Germany, or declared their goal of shifting from neutrality to NATO membership in the case of Finland,” said Nitoiu.
With that said, most European states have announced their willingness to still speak to Russia. However, an open line of dialogue does not equal reconciliation.
“The images of streams of refugees from Ukraine as well as igniting in Ukrainian cities will be difficult to erase in the minds of Europeans and Americans. If Putin manages to install a puppet government, this will be a major blow to the West’s commitment to liberal democracy and will set a dangerous precedent for interstate relations on the European continent,” said Nitoiu.
“I suspect that any sort of reconciliation will have to from the perspective, in the middle to long term, see Ukraine as an independent state whose decision to make choices about its future are respected by Moscow,” he concluded.