On March 25, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that the “first phase” of the invasion of Ukraine was over. A mere month earlier, President Vladimir Putin had vowed to completely destroy Ukraine’s military capabilities and to replace the Ukrainian government, which he claimed without any evidence was a neo-Nazi junta planning to commit “genocide” in Donbas.
To that end, on February 24 the Russian army and airborne forces attempted a lightning assault on Kyiv, and simultaneously launched offensives against Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kherson, Melitopol, Mariupol and on the line of contact in the Donbas region. The subsequent month of unexpectedly vicious high-intensity combat has seen Russian forces fail to take all the cities, with the exception of the smaller southern cities of Kherson and Melitopol, which fell in the first days. In return, the Russian army has taken extremely heavy losses; between 7,000 and 15,000 personnel killed and more than 2,000 vehicles visually confirmed as destroyed or captured.
The new announcement by the Russian government is a direct response to these failures. It is an admission that, at least for now, Russia cannot return Ukraine to its control by force. Instead of regime change (“denazification” according to Russia), the new claim is that Russia’s goal is a more limited focus on taking territory and destroying Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.
This is a serious crisis for President Putin’s regime. To justify the “special military operation” against Ukraine, he has used extreme rhetoric and baseless claims of neo-Nazism and genocide in Ukraine for months. Since the invasion began, ordinary Russians have been presented with a barrage of “Z”-themed pro-war propaganda, patriotic speeches and rallies designed to stir patriotic fervour.
During the first few days, when Russian leaders still assumed they would quickly defeat Ukraine, Russian state media carried pronouncements that President Putin’s invasion had reshaped the world order and put an end to both the “Ukraine question” and a unipolar United States-led, NATO dominated world. Perhaps even more importantly, Russia’s military power and history – both conventional and nuclear – are a cornerstone of national identity and national pride, and Russians have long looked down culturally and politically on Ukraine and Ukrainians. All of this makes the current situation extremely difficult for the Russian government to explain to its people.
In the information climate carefully created by the Russian government for its people, how could the mighty Russian military have failed to destroy the much weaker Ukrainian army? How can a supposedly high-tech “special military operation” that would be conducted in a short time by elite forces have led to tens of thousands of dead, wounded and captured Russian troops and more than 2,000 destroyed Russian vehicles? How is it that the Ukrainian people – supposedly being oppressed by an unpopular neo-Nazi junta imposed by shadowy hostile Western forces – are now fighting with fierce anger and almost total national unity against their Russian “liberators”? Most of all, how can the Russian government – supposedly a nuclear superpower, and the self-proclaimed heir of the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 – make a ceasefire deal that leaves the supposedly “genocidal”, “neo-Nazi” Ukrainian government in power? By creating a narrative justification for the invasion that was completely divorced from reality, the Russian government has created a situation where almost any possible outcome to the war now will be extremely hard to justify to its own people.
Russia needs a ceasefire soon, however, because the current rate of equipment and personnel losses is not sustainable, and in any case, they are making little meaningful progress except in the east. In fact, in the past week, Ukraine has retaken significant territory around Mykolaiv and Kherson in the southwest, around Irpin and Makariv to the west of Kyiv and Trostyanets to the east of Kyiv. With each passing day, the Ukrainian hand in the ongoing ceasefire negotiations becomes stronger rather than weaker.
In this context, the Russian announcement of a new phase of the war that will focus on the Donbas has two purposes. Firstly, it represents a pragmatic military strategy. The Donbas is the part of Ukraine where Russian forces stand the best chance of achieving major military successes – they are attempting to concentrate sufficient forces to break the Ukrainian defence line along the Donets River and have gained important ground around Izyum in the past week. It makes sense to prioritise overstretched forces where they have the best chance of achieving tangible results, which will improve their bargaining position in ceasefire talks. Secondly, this is the start of an effort to moderate the expectations created by the completely unrealistic view of the war that the Russian government has fed its people.
Despite this, some in the Russian government seem to find it hard to accept these reduced ambitions and the reality that they imply. On March 27, the propagandist known as “Putin’s mouthpiece”, Dmitry Kiselyov, stated on Russian television that “Russia will never cede Ukraine to anyone … it has to be part of Russia, even against Ukraine’s own will.” Furthermore, Russia continues to conduct missile strikes throughout Ukraine including in Lviv in the west, and is finding it difficult to disengage its forces around Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Kherson due to strong Ukrainian counterattacks. Therefore, while a new phase of the invasion has been announced, it remains to be seen if Russia can successfully focus on the Donbas as stated.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.