What is Putin’s endgame? Russian leader’s motivations explained - and will he succeed in Ukraine invasion?
A success for Putin in Ukraine could have a huge effect on Europe as we know it
The shocking images from Ukraine have left the international community stunned but largely powerless, as Russian president Vladimir Putin continues his violent invasion of a sovereign European nation.
From shelling attacks in civilian areas to targeting TV towers and nuclear stations, Russia has gradually increased the intensity of its assault, as its army has been frustrated by a stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance.
Despite the sheer power and aerial advantage of the Russian military, Ukraine’s forces, led from the front by president Volodymyr Zelensky , have succeeded in at least slowing the speed of the Russian onslaught.
But just what is Putin’s plan in invading Ukraine? Will he succeed in these aims? And if not, will it lead to his downfall?
James Rogers from the Council on Geostrategy broke the situation down for NationalWorld.
Why did Putin invade Ukraine?
To us in the West, the invasion of Ukraine may have seemed like a sudden move by the Russian leader, but it has long seemed inevitable to Russia-watchers.
“I think Vladimir Putin has had his eyes on Ukraine for many years”, says Rogers, co-founder and director of research for the Council on Geostrategy.
“His agenda is to regenerate Russia as a great power and that means that Russia needs a sphere of influence.”
Putin’s motivations may also be about changing Ukraine’s political and cultural landscape, which have began to lean more liberal, especially since the deposing of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
“Ukraine is a large country on Russia's borders, and Putin rules over an increasingly authoritarian regime in the Kremlin,” says Rogers.
“I think that his agenda is basically to prevent countries around Russia, particularly Ukraine because of its size, becoming a prosperous, liberal democracy.”
This fear from the Kremlin may be fuelled by the anxiety over the effect this could have on the Russian population, he explains.
“For people in Russia, if they see such a country emerging on their borders they will ask, ‘Well, why can't we have these kinds of freedoms and prosperity? Why can't we have this stability? Why are we ruled over by this increasingly kleptocratic regime, which is based on patronage, particularly towards Vladimir Putin?’
According to Rogers, Putin’s reason to invade Ukraine is not based on territorial gains, but rather to reduce the size of the West.
“I think the objective there is to decapitate the Ukrainian government and prevent the government of Zelensky from governing, and to create and sow corruption and discord and disorder across the entire country so that it cannot function. And so that it’s seen to fail in Russia and also internationally.”
Has Russia’s slow progress in Ukraine affected Putin’s plans?
When Russian troops crossed its border on 24 February, most experts believed that Ukraine would fall within a matter of days.
The two nations are worlds apart when it comes to military power. Russia’s military stands at around 1.5 million armed force personnel – five times greater than that of Ukraine which has 311,000 armed personnel, according to 2019 data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies and published by The World Bank.
But three weeks into the conflict, and President Zelensky and his troops are still attempting to fend off the Russian advances outside of Kyiv and other cities. Putin was not prepared for this slow progress.
“If you look at British or American intelligence that has been coming in over the last few months - which was in fact quite accurate in terms of the fact that it predicted that Putin would invade Ukraine - that's telling us that Putin's objectives have not yet been reached, and that in fact, he planned for a rapid lightning strike on Kyiv,” says Rogers.
With Putin and experts alike predicting the takeover to last a few days or weeks at most, the struggle of the Russian advance through Ukraine has come as a surprise.
Ukraine has claimed that, as of 14 March, Russia has lost more than 12,000 troops in the conflict, while Russia has only confirmed the deaths of 498 soldiers as of 2 March.
The US believes that the real number may lie between 3,500 and 6,000 losses for Russia, as of 9 March.
“[Russia’s plan] was obviously based on faulty assumptions, both in terms of the speed at which the Russian military forces could take control of Kiev and particularly the airports to deliver the result that they need to realise that objective, but also, I think, on the willingness of the Ukrainian people to either assist the invaders or not to fight for the survival of the nation,” Rogers says.
“Now, what's happened is that the Ukrainians have resisted and the Russians have not succeeded in realising their strategic objectives at the speed at which they hoped, and we've now got bogged down into a potentially protracted conflict that will go on for some weeks or months, if the Ukrainians decide to continue to resist, whereby Ukraine is now receiving military assistance from all sorts of countries, particularly in Europe and the North Atlantic area.”
This will allow Ukraine to put up some “pretty firm resistance to the Russians”, Rogers adds.
“We've already seen interesting images of Russian forces being defeated, or of broken down or destroyed Russian tanks and artillery, and then the very fact they failed to reach their objectives at the speed at which they initially hoped is indicative of their problems.”
How likely is Putin to eventually succeed?
Although Russia is heavier losses than predicted, Putin may still reach his goal.
Troops have begun to encircle Kyiv, cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv have been devastated and Russian forces now control parts of northern and eastern Ukraine.
“Despite the fact that the Russians have failed in their initial strategic objectives. It doesn't necessarily matter for the simple reason that they have enormous maths behind them”, says Rogers.
“They can put large numbers of troops in, they can keep pushing. They've got a lot of firepower behind them, much of which is actually quite old and therefore it will be indiscriminate fire. They have been firing on the major cities in northern or southern Ukraine, particularly Kharkiv, both with rockets and heavy artillery.
“We've seen the harrowing images of the destruction and of the Ukrainians surviving in tube stations underneath those cities, reminiscent of the images we saw during the Second World War in the UK when people had to shelter from the German Blitz. And, ultimately, the Russians could decide to keep pushing on.”
However, not all hope is lost for the people of Ukraine, as Rogers explains.
“There are some issues here - firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the sanctions that the Western powers have applied on the Russian economy are quite profound, and Mr Putin in his kleptocratic regime did not imagine that these would be applied so swiftly and so vigorously.
“We're told both by leaders such as Boris Johnson, also by Joe Biden, that there are more sanctions to come and they will continue to cripple and hamstring the Russian economy.”
The question, then, is how prepared is Russia to cope with these sanctions?
“Russians do have something of a war chest that they've built up over years, that will keep them going through some weeks, if not months, and they do potentially have the means to push,” Rogers says.
“Having said all of that, the West is now providing Ukraine with increasing numbers of weapons, which are extremely effective against the Russian armour and artillery.
“The Western powers will also continue to provide Ukraine with those weapons and they're now arriving in increasing numbers, so that the impact of that can now be felt on the battlefield.
“I would say that it's not unthinkable that Mr Putin and his regime can secure their objectives in Ukraine. But it's also very likely that the Ukrainians with Western assistance, both in terms of the sanctions applied onto the Russian state and also the weapons deliveries, will be able to resist.
“So this might end up in some kind of ceasefire and negotiated settlement, whereby Ukraine and Russia will realise that actually, there's nothing more to be had by the fighting except more destruction, and that some kind of settlement needs to be realised. The issue is when that time comes, and who will get the greatest spoils?”
If Putin does succeed in Ukraine, what’s next for Europe?
Peace talks have so far broken down between Ukraine and Russia, with a ceasefire unlikely on the immediate horizon.
Given the scale in attacks on civilians and the targeting of major cities being ramped up in the past week, it’s not difficult to see a resolution where Putin and Russia emerge as victors.
“That is a very big risk”, says Rogers. “I think that is why the major Western leaders have said basically that Putin must fail in his endeavour in Ukraine.”
However, it may not be as straightforward for Putin as capturing Kyiv.
“If the Ukrainian government is decapitated and removed from power by the Russian offensive, if Russian troops move into Kyiv, if they take Kharkiv and other major population centres of southern, eastern and northern Ukraine, then of course there’ll be a period of consolidation.
“We don't know that there will then be resistance within Ukraine and an insurgency to try and overthrow the occupying force. We do know that the Russians are prepared to be basically as brutal as necessary to force force people down.”
“That can lead to a situation where the Kremlin is emboldened, it thinks the West is weak.
“It might then decide to invade Georgia or Moldova. The Russians have had a role in the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova, and there are so-called Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria as well, so that's another possibility.”
Putin’s eye may even wander to the Baltic states or to Lithuania or Poland to create a bridge between Belarus and Kaliningrad.
Aside from the obvious desire within Ukraine right now to see Putin fail, Rogers believes that it can only be a good thing for the future of Russia’s neighbours too: “If he fails, then all his successors will probably not seek to do anything as reckless ever again.”
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