Editorial: Offensive to defensive, Russia’s U-turn

It has been a month since Russia attacked Ukraine and the problems for Putin have kept mounting almost with every passing day.
Militants of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic take part in shooting drills
Militants of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic take part in shooting drills

That the horrific and unconscionable assault on Ukraine is not going well for Vladimir Putin is apparent from Russia’s sudden shift in military strategy.

The Russian troops in the outskirts of Kyiv are now hunkered in defensive positions and no longer engaged in a ground assault of the Ukrainian capital.

This is clearly a result of the stout resistance of the Ukrainian military, now shored up with plenty of civilian support.

But with Russia suddenly indicating that the first phase in its so called ‘special military operation’ is over (whatever that means) and turning its focus to the contested Donbas region (in Ukraine’s east), there is a possibility that Putin has settled for a more limited military objective in the face of unexpected defiance from Ukraine.

Of course, this is by no means certain. To say that the Donbas is the “main goal” is not the same thing as to say it is the only goal.

But if Russia’s military and political goals in Ukraine remain frustratingly undefined, this lack of clarity also gives Putin the handle to alter them without losing too much political face.

The Donbas, made up of Luhansk and Donetsk that Putin declared as independent States, have a sizeable population of Russian speakers. Moscow has been supporting separatist forces in the region for many years now, having stepped up its covert operations after it annexed Crimea in 2014.

It has been a month since Russia attacked Ukraine and the problems for Putin have kept mounting almost with every passing day.

On the top of the list is the loss in terms of Russian men – a figure that is placed at around 15,000 in Ukraine (which is about 10 times greater than what Moscow has admitted).

Putin will have to grapple with the morale not only within his forces but the public mood as the bodies pile up, the troops suffer military losses, and the war continues to rage in the face of condemnation from most countries around the world.

The visit of US President Joe Biden to Poland, which is host to over two million Ukrainian refugees, as his continuing push to expand the sanctions regime is bound to hurt Russia.

Moscow is hugely dependent on oil and gas exports and the big sanctions game is likely to be played out here.

As things stand, the European Union, which remains heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, continues to buy the same from Russia.

But with Germany calling off a new gas pipeline and with the United States pitching in to reduce EU dependency on Russia, the effort is to make the sanctions really bite.

However, as Washington realises, this may work only if two major nations are on board. China, which has tacitly supported Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, is the largest single nation that imports Russian oil and gas (behind only the EU).

As for India, the spiralling prices have led New Delhi to look favourably at getting petroleum products at concessionary prices from Moscow.

The pressure from Biden, who has described the Indian position on the war as “shaky” is bound to increase.

The big questions are whether alternative sources that the US earlier shunned – Venezuela and Iran – can be re-tapped to tamp down on oil prices and reduce dependency on Russia.

It is not an easy thing to do, but it may just be the issue that settles how firmly a beleaguered Vladimir Putin can hold on to power in his country.

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