What are Putin’s next three moves to try and take over Ukraine?

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Just as the satirical profile @DarthPutinKGB on Twitter does not fail to recall almost every day, ironically underlining the “strategic mastery” of Russian President Putin, what was supposed to be a 3-day special operation has turned into a war that has been going on, with huge losses and with no real conclusion in sight, for more than 300 days.

It is clear, therefore, that Putin has not only overestimated the capabilities of his army, but also underestimated the Ukrainian resistance and above all the willingness of the allied countries to come to his aid.

Still, the Russian president has no intention of backing down; vice versa, Russia is preparing for a military and diplomatic escalation over the next few months to try to get at least part of the results it had set itself.

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After withdrawing from western Kherson region, Russia effectively lost any bridgehead across the Dnipro River with which to be able to attack western Ukraine. This makes it extremely difficult for Moscow’s armies to be able to move against strategically important cities such as Mykolaiv and above all Odesa, the jewel of the Black Sea, cited by Putin himself at the beginning of the war as one of the fundamental objectives for the Russians.

Given the difficult situation on the ground, Putin was already forced from the beginning of autumn to move in another way to confront the world with the “fait accompli”. In September, Moscow staged sham referendums that resulted in the annexation of four Ukrainian regions within the Russian Federation: those of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

The announcement came despite the fact that Russia currently controls only a new part of these territories.

With the exception of Luhansk region which is almost entirely under Russian control at the moment (but towards which the Ukrainians are advancing in two directions, Svatove and Kreminna), the situation in the other regions is as follows: more than 40% of the Donetsk region, about 25% of the Zaporizhzhia region and all the western part of the Kherson region, including the regional capital of the same name, are still in Ukrainian hands.

At the same time, Putin has declared the partial mobilization of reservists in Russia to increase the number of Russian troops engaged in the war by about 300,000 soldiers.

Many of these new recruits, often highly unprepared and badly armed, were sent directly to the front: some were even temporarily sent across the Dnipro to the city of Kherson even though the Russian authorities knew it was an impossible front to hold — and in fact shortly thereafter they should have retreated to the left bank of the river.

Russia, as we mentioned earlier, it also resumed large-scale rocket attacks on Ukrainian citiestargeting residential and civilian infrastructure, especially energy infrastructure, causing large-scale blackouts in Ukrainian cities and even in neighboring Moldova.

In response to this new missile strike campaign, Kyiv has asked its Western allies for advanced missile air defense systems and so far the requests have been met with some degree of success. The most recent example is the announcement of US President Joe Bidenwhich coincided with Zelensky’s visit to Washington, of wanting to supply Ukraine with Patriot missile defense systems.

So far it’s just one battery, but it’s already a clear sign of wanting to continue helping Ukraine in this new phase of the war as well. As President Biden clearly said alongside Zelensky at the press conference: “cWe will continue to help Ukraine as long as it needs it”.

The second invasion

Given the apparent immovability of Western countries and in particular of the United States in supporting Ukraine, Moscow is also trying to force the West to cut its support for Kyiv, by raising its tone in other ways.

In addition to the aforementioned threats of use of nuclear weapons, which occasionally leap to the headlines for the statements of some senior Russian official such as the former president Dmitry Medvedev or of Russian state TV reporters, Russia is now flashing the possibility of one second land invasion from the north. But how likely is that to happen?

Several Russian units arrived in Belarus on December 12 and 14, carrying up to 60 trucks and Ural infantry fighting vehicles. A Belarusian monitoring group says the equipment was destined for Russian troops stationed at the Abuz-Liasnouskiy training range in the Brest region.

On December 16, the Belarusian Independent Union of Railway Workers reported another delivery of Russian military equipment it received in the Mahiliou region, near the Asipovichskiy training range, which also houses Russian troops.

On December 20, Belarusian observers noted the redeployment of Russian military equipment even closer to the Ukrainian border. In particular, 23 T-80 tanks and nine Ural and KamAZ trucks were transferred from the Abuz-Liasnouskiy firing range to Luninets in the Brest region.

Over 20 tanks and about 16 Ural trucks were instead transferred from the Lepelskiy polygon, in the north of the country, to Slutsk, in the Minsk region. 20 infantry fighting vehicles and 7 Ural trucks arrived in Kalinkavichi, Homiel region.

However, the amount of equipment relocated near the Belarus-Ukraine border is still widely seen as insufficient to cross the border to the south, especially after last winter’s debacle.

Nonetheless, the presence of these troops is at least enough to oblige the Ukrainians to maintain patrols ready to intervene in the northern border areas, thus preventing them from being sent as reinforcements to the hottest areas of the front.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, for his part, said that the risk of a new invasion by Belarus persists but there are no immediate threats.

However, in a recent interview with the British magazine The Economist, Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, said that he has no doubts that Russia will “lash out against Kyiv again” in early 2023 and that the Ukrainians must be ready to push them back again.

The role of Belarus

During their recent meeting in Minsk, the two dictators Putin and Lukashenko they denied speculation that Russia is planning to force its neighbor to participate in the invasion of Ukraine; Instead, Putin spoke in vague terms of a strategic partnership between the two authoritarian regimes.

These denials were echoed by the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who also ruled out the possibility of large-scale involvement of Belarus in the ongoing invasion.

For now, Putin’s and Lukashenko’s true intentions remain shrouded in mystery. Few are willing to accept their denials, even given the record, but it is still too early to identify specific preparations for a major new offensive from the north.

For his part, for Putin to force Belarus into the war would be a desperate gamble that could easily backfire. He has already suffered catastrophic losses in Ukraine and cannot afford another humiliating military defeat.

Furthermore, as Igor Girkin, the Russian ultranationalist who has become one of the strongest critics of the Kremlin, also affirms, there is a risk that Belarusian troops, if engaged in warfare, will end up opening fire against the Russians instead of the Ukrainians.

However, with his invasion plans rapidly unraveling and his options shrinking ever more, Putin may decide that even this is worth the risk.

diplomatic strategy

The Russian military escalation strategy relies on the diplomatic one already underway. In a Dec. 27 interview with Russia’s state news agency TASS, Lavrov said the Kremlin would continue to pursue a military solution to the war until the Ukrainian government essentially capitulated to Russia’s demands.

Among other things, Lavrov stated that Ukraine and the West are “well aware of Russia’s proposals on demilitarization and denazification” of Ukrainian-controlled territory and that the Russian military will resolve the issue by force if Kyiv ” and its Western masters” will refuse to accept such proposals.

Lavrov added that Ukraine and the United States must recognize Russia’s control of the annexed regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, although a large part of these regions, as we have seen, are not yet controlled by Moscow and that this position represents a dead end for any realistic possible peace negotiations.

Lavrov’s call for a military solution to the war in Ukraine that meets Russia’s original war aims follows President Putin’s deliberately vague statements, who instead declared that Russia was open to negotiations on December 25, although he did not formulate any specific plan.

With its strategy of false openings to dialogue, the Kremlin essentially intends to continue to concentrate his grievances against the West and to ignore as much as possible Ukraine as a sovereign entity capable of autonomously deciding its own future.

This serves Putin in part to support the ongoing information war to paint the current operation as a “war against the West” and to exploit the latter’s “fatigue” and push him to offer preemptive concessions and put pressure on the ‘Ukraine to negotiate on terms favorable to Moscow.

Moreover, it is highly probable that the Kremlin is not interested in serious negotiations that will produce a definitive solution to the war in Ukrainegiven his weakened position on the field and the distance from obtaining the set goals.

The intent, rather, would be to obtain a temporary cessation of hostilities which would allow the Armed Forces to be replenished for further offensive campaigns against Ukraine. Also for this reason we should not have too many illusions and indeed we should prepare for a war that will almost certainly still last a long time.

Daniele Angrisani, 43 years old. Always passionate about international politics, especially the United States and Russia.

What are Putin’s next three moves to try and take over Ukraine?