Home » What Does Putin Really Want in Ukraine?
Defence Featured General News Global News Lifestyle News Russia Ukraine

What Does Putin Really Want in Ukraine?

Russia’s early setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine could have foreclosed on some of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping war objectives, but he is unlikely to relent given the conflict’s momentum. 

More than two years after he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to insist that all his goals will be achieved. He has not, however, spelled them out in great detail, leaving himself considerable wiggle room to declare victory depending on battlefield developments. Broadly speaking, his goals fall into three baskets: weakening or disrupting Ukraine’s ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), stymieing Ukrainian nationalism, and expanding territorial gains.

Understanding Putin’s goals and motivations is a critical element in developing a counterstrategy to ensure that he does not succeed. His security concerns leading up to the war could have been dealt with through intense negotiations with Ukraine and the West, which were underway but then overtaken by his decision to launch the invasion in 2022. Putin has no right to impose on Ukraine his views of how it should structure its military or run its internal affairs. Any concerns could have been a topic for diplomacy, and perhaps negotiation, with Ukraine’s leaders, but no more. And it goes without saying, invading another country and seizing territory is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and the norms of European security.

Dealing With NATO Ties

From the outset, Putin has embedded his issues regarding Ukraine in the larger question of NATO’s role in Europe. He has long railed against the alliance’s expansion and potential Ukrainian membership as a grave threat to Russia’s security, as well as a betrayal of promises at the end of the Cold War not to extend NATO “an inch” eastward. Russian draft treaties on security guarantees released in the run-up to the invasion focused on NATO, not Ukraine. The three key demands in these treaties were an end to NATO expansion, a prohibition on the deployment of offensive weapons along Russia’s borders, and the withdrawal of NATO infrastructure back to the lines of 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed two years before the first post-Cold War wave of expansion.

NATO’s Expanding Membership

What unsettled Putin was the ever-closer military and security cooperation between Ukraine and individual NATO members, especially the United States, which included more frequent and complex joint exercises in and around Ukraine. As before, Putin—like the rest of the Russian elite—was vehemently opposed to Ukraine’s membership. In his view, NATO was now deliberately working to make Ukraine into a staging ground for lightning strikes against Russia. NATO’s insistence that it was a defensive alliance predictably fell on deaf ears in the Kremlin. Tellingly, in major addresses leading up to the invasion, Putin ranted about the West’s threat to Russia and insidious role in turning Ukraine into an “anti-Russia.”

Quelling Nationalism

Putin’s concerns about NATO overlapped with the two goals he identified as essential to Russia’s security when he launched the “special military operation”: the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine. A hint of the content of those two processes came in the negotiations Russian and Ukrainian officials held in the first weeks after the invasion in an effort to produce a framework for a settlement. With regard to demilitarization, the Russians insisted on Ukrainian neutrality, while proposing a peacetime military force capped at eighty-five thousand troops, as well as strict limits on heavy weaponry and the range of missile systems.

As for denazification, Moscow wanted Kyiv to ban neo-Nazism and aggressive nationalism and to repeal laws that advanced a view of Soviet-era history that ran counter to the Kremlin-approved version. In particular, the Russians were opposed to any positive mention of the role Ukrainian nationalists might have played in World War II—they consider those forces to be Nazi sympathizers, if not outright Nazis, and honoring them to be evidence of neo-Nazi attitudes, even though the far right has little support in Ukraine. Left unsaid is what many observers considered Putin’s real goal: the overthrow of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who he smeared as neo-Nazi, and the installation of a puppet regime.

Controlling ‘Novorossiya’

Meanwhile, Putin has said little about his territorial ambitions. He fervently believes that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and that Ukraine can thrive only in partnership with Russia. He has spoken about his desire to recover Russia’s “historical lands” without specifying what they are, although they clearly include at least parts of Ukraine. Russia already effectively controlled two pieces of Ukrainian territory prior to its 2022 invasion, which it had seized at a time of upheaval in Ukraine in 2014: Crimea, which it had illegally annexed, and parts of two provinces in the eastern Donbas region, where it had installed pro-Russian separatist leaders.

Nevertheless, when Putin announced the “special military operation,” he suggested that he had little interest in seizing much territory. He declared his intention to be protecting the Russian-speaking population of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which Russia had recognized as independent states just three days earlier. Presumably, that goal entailed “liberating” the territory of those republics that Kyiv still controlled. Beyond that, Putin claimed that his plans did not include the occupation of “Ukrainian lands.” What he meant by that is ambiguous. Putin firmly believes that today’s Ukraine was the creation of the Soviet-era leader Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, who gave it some of Russia’s “historical lands.” The only region of Ukraine that clearly does not fit in that category is historical Galicia, land in the west that Ukraine gained as a consequence of the Soviet victory in World War II. 

In any event, the main lines of advance during the invasion have suggested Putin had far greater territorial ambitions. Arguably, the thrust toward Kyiv could be construed as part of an operation to “denazify” Ukraine by seizing the capital and overthrowing the government, which Putin had branded as neo-Nazi. But the march on Kharkiv in the east, the drive to create a land bridge between Crimea and Donbas, and the thrust toward Odesa all looked like part of an ambitious plan to control all of Ukraine east of the Dnipro River, which bifurcates the country, or the territory of what was once known as Novorossiya, roughly the land Catherine the Great had seized from Turkey in the mid-eighteenth century. If successful, Russia would have then fully controlled the Sea of Azov and the entire north shore of the Black Sea, turning a rump Ukraine into a landlocked country.

Lack of success on the battlefield in the early stages of the war compelled Putin to adjust his immediate goals. Stymied in the effort to seize Kharkiv and Odesa and concerned about further Ukrainian advances eastward in the fall of 2022, Putin annexed the four provinces his troops partially controlled on the basis of sham referenda. Those provinces thus marked the minimal gains that would satisfy Putin. All Russian offers of negotiations since then have stipulated that Ukraine would have to accept the existing “geopolitical realities” —that is, an acknowledgment that the annexed territories are indeed Russia’s.

Putin believes that he can still achieve all the goals he has set for his military operation. His confidence is only growing with Russia’s recent gains on the battlefield near Kharkiv, which are shifting momentum in his favor. Nevertheless, ultimate success is far from certain. Ukraine’s ties with NATO are growing stronger. Zelenskyy’s government has survived, as has Ukraine as an independent state. What little progress Russia has made on the battlefield has come at horrific cost in men and armaments. But Putin is not prepared to relent in the effort to achieve his goals. It is the task of Ukraine and the West to ensure that he does not succeed.

Source: CFR