What next for Putin in Ukraine fight?

Published July 6, 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin must now decide his next steps. — Reuters/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin must now decide his next steps. — Reuters/File

PARIS: Russian President Vladimir Putin must now decide his next steps in the five-month invasion he started in February.

After Russian troops captured the strategic Ukrainian city of Lysychansk on Sunday, here are five different options raised by security experts:

Grinding advance

Russian forces appear on course to take full control of the Donbas region that was already partly held by pro-Kremlin separatists before the Feb 24 invasion.

With Lysychansk and its twin city Severodonetsk captured in the past weeks, Putin’s troops “can hope to take Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and the surrounding regions,” said Pierre Grasser, a researcher at Paris’ Sorbonne university.

Sloviansk in particular is home to “a relatively welcoming population — at least those who have remained there” rather than fleeing the fighting, he added. But there may be limits to how far the Russians can press into their neighbour’s territory.

“Their steamroller works well near their own borders, their own logistical centres and their airbases. The further away they get, the harder it is,” said Pierre Razoux, academic director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES).

Control the Black Sea

Southern Ukrainian city Kherson was one of the first to fall to Russian forces in the opening days of the war. But Russia’s grip on the country’s Black Sea coast is not secure.

“Counter-attacks by Ukraine in the south... place Russian forces in a dilemma. Do they sustain their eastern offensive, or do they significantly reinforce the south?” said Mick Ryan, a former general in the Australian army.

The question is all the more pressing as “the war in the south is a front of greater strategic importance” than the Donbas, he added.

Claiming territory along the coast could allow Moscow to create a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, while both sides want to control Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

Crack Kharkiv

Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv is close to the northeastern border with Russia — and located in a pocket still controlled by Kyiv that could yet be cut off by Russian forces.

“If the Ukrainians collapse and Kharkiv is completely isolated, the Russians could force them to choose between committing to defend the city or taking the pressure off in the south towards Kherson,” said Pierre Razoux.

It will be up to President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian commanders “to deploy their units so as to prevent a big summer breakthrough” that could encircle Kharkiv, he added.

Home to 1.4 million people in peacetime, a siege of Kharkiv could be a bloody affair lasting up to a year, Razoux said.

Divide the West

While the West has so far kept up a mostly united front of sanctions and support for Ukraine, continued Russian advances could drive the allies’ judgements of their interests apart.

“The goal for Russia is to continue to grind down Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, while waiting for the political will to support Ukraine to fade among Western countries,” said Colin Clarke, research director at the Soufan Centre think-tank in New York.

Deliveries of Western military aid have been too slow and too small to turn the battle decisively in Kiev’s favour.

Meanwhile, the war’s inflationary impact on basics like food and energy may gradually turn public opinion away from the strong initial support for Ukraine.

“The Americans could tell the Ukrainians ‘you can’t go on’,” said Alexander Grinberg, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2022

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