Russia claims to have changed its strategy in Ukraine — but there are doubts over its real intentions

Russia claims to have changed its strategy in Ukraine — but there are doubts over its real intentions

A woman walks past huge placards bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading “Russia does not start wars, it ends them”and “We will aim for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, on March 4, 2022.
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Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine is in the spotlight after it claimed it was going to change tack, but after multiple false flags and broken promises from Russia there are major doubts over the Kremlin’s real intentions.

There was surprise and suspicion in some quarters on Friday when Russia announced that the first phase of its “special military operation” (as it calls its invasion of Ukraine) was complete. It said it would now refocus on Ukraine’s breakaway eastern Donbas region, where there are two pro-Russian self-proclaimed republics.

“The main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished,” Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, said in a speech Friday. “The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”

The apparent change of strategy surprised analysts, and was seen as an indication that Russia is looking to scale back its invasion of Ukraine.

Staunch resistance from the country’s armed forces and volunteer fighters has turned what Russia hoped to be a swift occupation into what some have called a “grinding war” of attrition, with Russian forces bogged down in heavy fighting in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine.

Having first defended their towns and cities, Ukrainian forces are now launching counter-attacks against Russian fighters, with a particular focus on defending the capital Kyiv. Russian forces have only seized one city, Kherson, so far, and even this looks shaky with Ukrainian forces launching a counter-offensive to retake the southern port.

Russian military vehicles patrol in Volnovakha city, one of the cities most affected by the war between Russia and Ukraine that started on February 24, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on March 27, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Against this backdrop, Russia’s announcement that it would concentrate on the Donbas region appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement of the reality on the ground in Ukraine — that is, that Russia has failed to make the progress it expected and was pulling back to save face, amid high numbers of casualties which could turn Russian public opinion against the war.

Russia’s Rudskoi says that 1,351 Russian soldiers have died in the war so far, and 3,825 have been injured. Ukraine’s military, on the other hand, claims that more than 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict.

“I think it is clear that Russia’s military campaign has gone spectacularly wrong,” Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management said in a note Saturday responding to the announcement.

“So now saying the focus is on Donbas, and was all along, is just a face saving exercise. Even if Russia manages to take the whole of Donbas, and perhaps even secure a land corridor to Crimea, this is still a huge military failure by Russia.”

No evidence of change

Several days on from Russia’s announcement, however, and there is little to suggest that much has changed.

Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine continued over the weekend, with explosions heard on the outskirts of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv at the weekend. Lviv’s Governor Maksym Kozytskyy said there had been two missile strikes on Saturday afternoon, with an oil depot hit in the first attack, followed by three more explosions later in the day.

Lviv is at the opposite end of Ukraine to the Donbas region, where Russia claims its military campaign is now focussed.

The U.K. Defence Ministry noted in its latest intelligence assessment Monday that over the last 24 hours there has been “no significant changes to Russian Forces dispositions in occupied Ukraine.”

Other experts agree, with Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, stating on Twitter Monday that there’s “little evidence on the battlefield to suggest that Putin is just focused on Donbas now,” reiterating his earlier doubts about Russia’s apparent change of tack.

A senior Pentagon official said at a briefing Friday that it was difficult to ascertain whether Russia’s self-styled change of focus in Ukraine was genuine.

CNBC has asked Russia’s Ministry of Defense for further information about how and when it plans to focus its forces on the Donbas, but has yet to hear back.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said that Russia’s claims that the invasion has always been focussed on securing portions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region is false.

Instead, the comments “were likely aimed mainly at a domestic Russian audience and do not accurately or completely capture current Russian war aims and planned operations,” Mason Clark, Fredrick W. Kagan, and George Barros, wrote on Friday.

The Kremlin’s initial campaign aimed to conduct airborne and mechanized operations to seize Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other major Ukrainian cities to force a change of government in Ukraine,” they noted, adding that it is “inaccurate” to believe Russia has scaled back its aims.

“Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine have not stopped fighting and have not entirely stopped attempting to advance and seize more territory. They are also attacking and destroying Ukrainian towns and cities, conducting operations and committing war crimes that do not accord with the objectives Rudskoi claims Russia is pursuing,” the analysts added.

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