Kremlin war aims in Ukraine have never been entirely clear. Part of that is due to the setbacks the Russian army has suffered, and once again it appears that both the strategic and symbolic objective of reducing the capital of Kyiv to its knees is again central.
The notion that Vladimir Putin was only interested in the contested southeastern regions of Ukraine vanished on Feb. 24. His so-called “special military operation” was in fact an all-out invasion of the nation — with Kyiv as the central objective.
Russian forces attacked the capital from the direction of the Chernobyl exclusion zone and Belarus. In addition to regular troops, OMON special police units and troops loyal to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov were directed toward Kyiv.
High among the orders was the assassination of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, along with his family and top advisers. Oleksiy Danilov, a top military chief, Russian special forces tried in vain several times to pierce the presidential quarters in the first days of the war.
Those efforts, as well as the wider attempt to capture Kyiv, were repelled by Ukrainian forces, with the battles for the city and its surroundings lasting just over a month. By early April, Moscow was diverting its war effort elsewhere, and the capital would gradually regain some semblance of daily normality.
Nearly nine months later, Russian troops have gained then lost much of the territory they have occupied, and are moving steadily back closer to the border of the 2014 conflict. During this time, the south and east of the country suffered heavy losses, and entire cities were destroyed. The retreat of Russian forces from Kherson earlier this month marked another low moment, with signs that the Ukrainian army is ready to move farther east — and perhaps even head toward the Crimean peninsula.
So where is the Kremlin looking now? Yes, Kyiv again.
But now, rather than cutting off the head, the goal is to suck out its guts, to starve and freeze its residents as the winter arrives. With rolling blackouts and shortages already reported, Putin is aiming to hold the city under siege.
Even if he is unable to capture Kyiv, Putin appears ready to try to destroy it. The Russian army fled the Kharkiv region in September, hastily abandoned Kherson in November, but continued to bomb Ukraine’s capital.
With 40% of critical infrastructure damaged in Kyiv, schedule blackouts are implemented to conduct electricity control.
Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA
Why is Kyiv so important?
Kyiv is the oldest city, and considered by some the one true capital of the Slavic world. And even if the entire east and south of Ukraine were to fall into Russian hands, as long as Kyiv is run by a government independent of him, most Ukrainians believe, Putin will not stop.
Russian satirist and television presenter Viktor Shenderovich once explained Putin’s obsession with Kyiv this way:
"An empire cannot exist without a subordinate Ukraine. The empire can exist without the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Central Asia...But without Ukraine, without Kyiv, there is no empire,” Shenderovich said. “Judging by the state of Donbas and Crimea, these territories are no more than a way to take the only city he thinks he needs. Because he believes that If Kyiv falls, the whole country will fail.”
We are calculating different scenarios to prepare and survive.
And if Kyiv fails to be taken, then it has its energy cut off in anticipation of winter. It is a city of over 3.5 million inhabitants, where refugees from all regions have flocked, and the supreme political and military command is located. Depriving it of heat, water, and communications is not just a response to defeat. It is a new strategy. That is why millions of dollars are spent daily on missiles, most of them destroyed by Ukrainian air defense; not on tanks, weapons, personal protection, and food for Russian soldiers.
More than 40% of critical infrastructure is damaged in Kyiv and the surrounding region. Restoration works are moving at maximum speed, and it will take about two weeks to resume the regular operation of the system. However, this is possible only if no new attacks on energy facilities exist.
Central Kyiv without electricity after critical civil infrastructure was hit by Russian missile attacks.
Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/ZUMA
"We are doing everything to avoid a complete blackout,” Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said earlier this month. “But let's be frank, our enemies are doing everything to ensure that the city is without heat, electricity, and water supply and that we all die. We do not rule it out; we are calculating different scenarios to prepare and survive."
Klitschko says Kyiv has already prepared a large stock of fuel, generators, food, and drinking water. Heating points in bomb shelters have also been equipped. Generators are bought by both private companies and large office centers. Ukraine has previously purchased power generators for hospitals, so medical facilities are expected to continue to operate.
Some have floated the idea that the civilians left in Kyiv should somehow leave, at least for the winter. But in fact, the evacuation of a city this size is virtually impossible.
Apart from the regular air attacks, the possibility also remains that Putin will try to storm Kyiv again before the end of the war.
For Ukrainian Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Kyiv will remain an objective as long as the war is on. "There remains the same danger for the capital because it is fundamental to them,” he said. “They believe that by taking the capital, they can achieve everything else.”
But unlike before the invasion, Russia is missing one weapon if it tries to take Kyiv again: surprise.