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Geopolitics

Blitzkrieg To Salami Tactics: A Closer Look At Russia's Pivot To The East

Vladimir Putin's original plans for conquest of Ukraine have not changed. By pulling back from Kyiv and flirting with negotiations, he is trying to buy time to reorganize for a longer war that require Ukrainian forces to hold their ground in the eastern Donbas region.

Photo of Ukrainian soldier standing near a destroyed bridge.

With the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv's villages, civilians who left are returning home to scenes of destruction

Taras Kuzio

-Analysis-

KYIV — Be clear: It is too early to talk about peace.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said Moscow is preparing its reaction to the peace treaty proposal presented by Ukraine. It is pointless to discuss the Ukrainian version of the proposals now, which would be subject in any case to significant adjustments.

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Moreover, the invading army will try to occupy as many southeastern territories of Ukraine as possible, destroy strategically important objects of Ukrainian infrastructure. So it is too early to talk about a peace deal because it is the Russian leadership that isn't ready to talk about it seriously yet.


Representatives of the Ukrainian delegation that traveled last week to Istanbul reported on a possible meeting there between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky that would be the culmination of the negotiation process. However, they immediately received an answer from the Kremlin: it is too early to talk about a dialogue between the heads of state. Meanwhile, Zelensky's office says: “there will be no surrender of Ukraine's interests.”

Why the retreat from Kyiv?

Let us start with an important question: why did Russia suddenly begin to withdraw its troops from the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions, why did it change the tactics of warfare? There are several answers.

First, Russia has realized that they do not have enough forces to occupy these regions of Ukraine, including Kyiv, Chernihiv, and its entire central part. Moscow understands that at this point they can only try to seize the Donbas and draw a land corridor south to the Crimea, ideally to seize Odessa to implement the Novorossiya project, which Putin mentioned on the eve of the war to form a federation of pro-Russian republics in eastern Ukraine.

This task is now the maximum priority for the Russian leadership, even if it is looking increasingly impossible. Because in order to achieve it, the Russian troops must surround and defeat the strongest Ukrainian group located in the east of our country, which has already put up significant and successful resistance to the enemy. Moreover, the Russian troops need to capture several important cities and regional centers that they still haven't managed to do.

No Afghanization 

This leads to a more tactical understanding of the current situation: it is difficult for the Russian army to fight in northern Ukraine now, in such weather, when it rains, snows and frosts begin. It is much more convenient to attack the southeast of the country next month.

Russia will leave everywhere except the south and the east, and will try to dig in.

Mykhailo Podoliak, the adviser to the Ukrainian Presidential Office, recently said, “There will be no “Afghanization” and a long, exhausting conflict for Russia, as someone expects. Russia will leave all territories except the south and the east, and will try to dig in tightly, put up air defense, sharply reduce losses and dictate terms.”

It was a guerrilla war in Afghanistan, while in Ukraine it is traditional, following the example of the great clashes of World War II. In Afghanistan, both Soviet and later U.S. troops were deployed on a network of military bases (this is not the case in the territory controlled by Ukraine). Patrols and protracted battles took place on Afghan territory at the expense of local forces. In Ukraine, this is possible only in the Donbas and the Crimean direction.

Russia wants to avoid further sanctions from the West that threaten to block bypass routes for big Russian capital. The Kremlin did not expect two things – such fierce resistance from Ukrainians and harsh sanctions from the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia. Moscow wants to slow down this dynamic.

Putin needs a sign of victory

At the same time, the Russian leadership needs to offer its domestic audience at least some sign of victory, which means trying to seize the entire Donbas and reach the southern Ukrainian borders. Then it will be possible to justify the so-called special operation. It is no coincidence that in recent days the key propaganda resources of Russia have begun to write: “special operation to protect Donbas.”

Those who deny the importance of Russian sociological research on Russian support for the war do not understand the political realities of Russia. They are as follows: Putin is focused on retaining power now, and extending his term after 2024 — and for this, he believe he needs a high popular rating and the support of society. Moreover, the head of the Kremlin is convinced that such support will allow him to continue to mobilize the war effort, and explain why the country has switched to an exclusively military economy with all the consequences.

And so what do the Russians think? There is no need to be under any illusions: Russian society massively supports the war and wishes the destruction of Ukraine in its current form. Only if the east of Ukraine is not captured, if the result is not achieved, the government in Russia may falter. Because those whom Putin sidelined by starting the war will raise their heads: the “middle class” and part of the oligarchs who could support the protests.

A photo of a Ukrainian soldier standing on a Russian tank

A Ukrainian soldier stands on top of a captured Russian APC pulled from the Irpin River near Demydiv.

Matthew Hatcher/SOPA/ZUMA

The problem of neutral status

So it is within this context, and in order to take a tactical military and political pause, that Russia decided to join the process of negotiating a peace treaty with Ukraine.

There is a significant difference in the negotiating positions of Ukraine and Russia. Kyiv wants to end the war as soon as possible by pushing Russian troops back to at least those territories occupied by Russia before February 24, 2022, before Putin declared a major war. Moscow, on the other hand, wants to prolong the negotiations to improve its position, regroup its troops and attack the southeast, while slowing down the sanctions process (primarily from the European Union).

So far, we know only fragments of the proposal of the Ukrainian side. They should not be regarded as a constant, because everything will still continue to change.

First, the Ukrainian leadership proposed to declare a neutral status, refusing to join NATO, especially since the Alliance made it clear that in the coming years it would not consider the issue of our country's membership.

An alternative to NATO

Ukraine is trying to get guarantees from Moscow and a number of capitals in exchange for neutrality. An international treaty would secure these guarantees. According to the Office of the Ukrainian President, the commitments made by the guarantor countries must be no weaker than Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which provides for collective defense in the event of an attack against one of the signatories.

Russia equates the neutrality of Ukraine with its non-bloc status. However, it is not the same. Neutral status is the refusal of one country to attack another. Ukraine can be part of any alliance, but it states that it will never attack a particular state.

In addition, let me remind you that it is not NATO that forms the main international agenda, but the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power over any negative collective decision. Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty does not provide for an exclusively military response in the event of an attack against a NATO member: it states that each member state, at its discretion, takes measures to protect an ally, from sending military troops and weapons to sanctions or even simply declaring great concern.

There is another important point: for Russia, Ukraine's neutral status is the refusal of our country to join NATO and all alliances, including those with Western countries or other rivals of Russia. (The pro-Moscow CSTO is not included in the list - we should always remember this.)

In order to resolve the issue of non-bloc status, the Ukrainian government must abolish the final provisions of nation's Constitution, which clearly sets out the strategic course for joining NATO. To this end, Ukrainian negotiators propose to hold and nationwide referendum, which, of course, should take place after the cessation of hostilities.

Salami tactics in Donbas

Some Western countries want Russia to be stuck in Ukraine, under massive economic pressure and unable to threaten Europe: not just for the next year or two, but for five, 10 or 15 years. Other countries, such as Germany, want Ukraine to sign any peace treaty, to agree to most of Russia's demands in order to return to the usual trade with Russia.

All that Russia is doing now is organizing a tactical pause for itself in order to concentrate its forces and begin advancing in the southeast of Ukraine. "Salami tactics" - this is how the gradual Sovietization of territories, slice by slice, used to be called. In today's reality, this term takes on a similar meaning. And this is exactly what Russia is going to do in Ukraine, since the blitzkrieg failed.

The longer Russia is stuck in Ukraine, the more tightly it zeroes in on Donbas; the more pressure it gets from the West and its allies, the sooner we will get to the real negotiation process, where Ukraine will receive real, legally binding security guarantees.

A treaty like Versailles or Potsdam?

Such a scenario is possible only in the case of a grand treaty like Versailles or Potsdam. Meanwhile, due to the actions of the Russian Federation, Ukraine will keep moving closer to the European Union — we are already talking about specific actions to gain candidate status for EU membership. Ultimately, Putin's actions launched a process of uniting the political nation, a process that Ukrainian society had not achieve for centuries.

Moscow's strategic goal will not change: it will still try to seize Ukraine. Russia will not manage to do this only under one scenario: if it is weakened and we are no longer its main concern.

And what would happen if an agreement is reached? The opportunities for peace that would be created, would themselves only be temporary. Ukrainians and the rest of the world must understand that Russia is a neighbor that is constantly at war, a neighbor that does not see its future without the heart of the empire, Ukraine. And that means the task of Ukraine is to become the central artery of Europe.

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