Moscow’s claim it did not want to oust Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky may signal a shift in Vladimir Putin’s calculations over what he can achieve in Ukraine as his invasion faces serious setbacks.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Moscow was not interested in “the occupation of Ukraine” nor did it want to overthrow the government in Kyiv.
Russian foreign ministry statements are taken with a grain of salt—Moscow did after all repeatedly deny it would ever invade Ukraine—but is Putin backpedaling?
While she repeated the Kremlin tropes that the war was about the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine, Zakharova’s position was at odds with the invective Putin spat out in front of the cameras at the start of the war.
On February 25, the Russian president had called on the Ukrainian army to “take power into your own hands” and oust a government of “terrorists” and “neo-Nazis.”
But his forces are making slow progress, troop casualties are high, soldiers are deserting in droves and a 40-mile-long convoy remains stalled outside Kyiv.
“It seems that Putin really counted on Zelensky escaping,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of analysis firm R.Politik, who believes the Russian president has been thwarted in his bid to exploit a power vacuum in Kyiv. “It appears that now these plans have completely failed,”
She said that Putin thought he could repeat the ease with which he seized Crimea in 2014, and that “the Ukrainians would be happy to see Russia on their soil.”
“For now, he has to correct his tactics and it means that he will switch between offense and pause.
“When he makes a pause, he gives Zelensky time to think that maybe he should surrender. As soon as he receives a negative answer, he will continue the offensive.”
Talks between Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers, Dmytro Kuleba and Sergei Lavrov collapsed during a meeting on Thursday.
They took place as airstrikes continued to devastate the city of Mariupol where a maternity hospital was hit on Wednesday in an attack that Kyiv has dubbed a “war crime.”
Zelensky dropped a hint that he might agree to the independence of the Donbas region and accept Crimea remaining in Russia’s hands to end hostilities.
“Compromises can be made,” Zelensky told German newspaper Bild, “but they must not be a betrayal of my country,” as he said the war could only end after he had held direct talks with Putin.
Stanovaya said the Kremlin may consider such a deal, even if abandoning the idea of taking over all of Ukraine might not be considered much of a concession by some.
“Under such conditions, Russia would withdraw from Ukraine,” she said and so Putin would “abandon this idea of regime change.”
The U.S. estimates that between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian troops have already been killed, which CIA Director Bill Burns told U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday was a number “far in excess” of what Putin had anticipated. While Russians have captured parts of northeastern and coastal Ukraine and bombed cities, advances have ceased in many areas.
“We don’t know exactly what Putin’s plans were but it certainly looks like there has been a change in the Russian approach over the past two weeks,” said Tracey German, professor in Conflict and Security at King’s College London.
“Their initial operation appeared to be focused on a rapid advance to Kyiv combined with missile strikes forcing the Ukrainian government to capitulate quickly,”
Surprised by the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, there has been a shift towards greater use of artillery and missile strikes against major cities, such as Kharkiv and Mariupol.
“I think the use of indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardments is likely to continue, imposing heavy costs on the Ukrainian population and their leaders,” German said.
However, she said there should be a health warning attached to Zakharova’s comments that Russia did not want to occupy Ukraine or oust its government.
“She is putting forward an official line, which does not necessarily bear any resemblance to reality,” German said. “However, in terms of the issue of occupation, it is not clear that Russia would have the ability to sustain one.
“Even if it was able to hold territory, it has lost the battle for ‘hearts and minds,’ and would face ongoing resistance, probably an insurgency.”
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that Putin is “unlikely to be deterred,” as speculation grows over whether the operation in Ukraine will take on the brutality of the bombardment in 1999 and 2000 of Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya.
“For Putin, he believes he can win this war, the problem is time,”
“Even if Russia does not attack and just waits and puts everything on pause, the Russian army bears a lot of losses and they cannot stay too long there,” she said.
“Whatever we can say about him—that he has lost his mind and is too emotional, I am not sure he is ready to completely destroy Ukraine, not at this price.”