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What Does Putin Want? On First Anniversary of Russian Invasion, Five Questions about the War in Ukraine

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Against a US backdrop of some GOP leaders increasingly questioning the amount of military aid that the US is providing to Ukraine—and just days prior to the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion—US President Joe Biden visited Kyiv, Ukraine. He appeared at a war memorial and a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and promised nearly half a billion dollars in additional security and emergency assistance.

One day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he was suspending Russia’s participation in the New START Treaty, the last surviving nuclear arms control agreement between the US and Russia.

In a January 9, 2023, piece for Foreign Affairs, SIS professor and former dean Jim Goldgeier wrote that, given no evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin will give up his desire to control Ukraine and little likelihood that Ukraine would agree to cede territory to an occupying force, the outcome may be “a prolonged, grinding war that gradually becomes frozen along a line of control that neither side accepts.”

A piece in the Washington Post on February 19, 2023 said, “…no one really knows the current military goal or what Putin might consider a victory.”

Looking ahead, we asked several SIS foreign policy experts a few questions about the war, Russian intentions, and Chinese support.

One year in, what does Vladimir Putin want, what will he settle for, and what is he likely to get?
A quick and decisive victory is clearly not in the cards, but Putin's basic war aims seem to be intact after a year of difficult and costly fighting. Putin still wants to annex parts of Ukraine and to have the government of the rump Ukraine be less integrated into Western military structures —to have it "demilitarized" and neutral. It's possible that he would "settle" for just taking more Ukrainian territory, such as completing the annexation of the four provinces that Russia has already claimed, but unlikely. The hope in the Kremlin seems to be for a long war that taxes the resources and resolve of the US, and which ultimately leads to Russia being integrated into a stronger non-Western bloc. What will he get? That depends on how many resources the US and Europe choose to devote to this conflict. –SIS professor Keith Darden
Above all, Putin wants to remain in power, and he still seems to want to destroy Ukraine’s existence as an independent state. Since he has had many opportunities to call a halt to his aggression against Ukraine, it’s not clear what it will take to get him to call off his war. It’s still too soon to say what the outcome of the war will be, but we should be prepared for a long war. Even if fighting stops, as long as Putin is in power, Ukraine will be threatened by Russian aggression. –SIS professor and former dean James Goldgeier
The question of what Putin wants is a rather tricky one because he has shown himself to be very flexible and malleable. At the start of the war, he spoke vaguely of ‘de-Nazifying’ and ‘demilitarizing’ Ukraine, while the initial brunt of the war, with an attack against Kyiv, suggested that he was also keen to topple the Zelenskyy government. After initial setbacks, Putin pivoted to the more modest goals of ‘liberating’ Donbas and consolidating Russian goals in eastern Ukraine. Looking forward, Putin’s speech on February 21, 2023, suggests that he is all in this conflict and prepared to wage a long war, on the belief that Ukraine and the West will blink first and lose patience. He is determined to be able to spin the conflict as a ‘Russian win’, even if what that looks like might not be completely defined. As to what he gets, facts on the battlefield will play a major role. At present, there seems to be no real space for peace talks or negotiations, as the positions on both sides are so far apart. And Putin does not seem to yet face any strong domestic pressure to end the conflict. That may change, but in all likelihood, it will require many more casualties and periods of fighting before we get to that point. –SIS professor Garret Martin
The mercenary Wagner Group is a particularly brutal example of the way in which Putin is prosecuting this war: with government-endorsed mercenaries fighting with Russian troops over resources and authority in the field. What does this say about the decline of Russian military capability since the dissolution of the Soviet Union?
In the USSR, all males had mandatory military service, and approximately 50% of GDP was devoted to the military. It was, in some ways, a garrison state. In the 1990s, Russia tried to establish a largely civilian-oriented market economy. And in the 2000s, Russia made an effort to transition to a smaller, more nimble, professional military away from the Soviet mass army. What we see now is a step back towards that Soviet model, but only a small step. The reformed Russian military proved to be capable in a variety of conflicts, but it was not capable of mounting a successful invasion of Ukraine. They are now trying to pull together enough of a force to defeat a western-supplied Ukraine. The jury is still out on whether they will be able to accomplish that. –Keith Darden
Putin’s rule is marked by efforts to play off members of the elite against one another, and the ways in which he encourages Wagner and the military to work against one another fits the pattern. –James Goldgeier
Are the US and NATO getting closer to crossing their own “red line” of supplying Ukraine with fighter jets?
The US and NATO have sent systems in recent months they never contemplated sending earlier in the war due to fears of escalation. At some point, they are likely to supply Ukraine with fighter aircraft. –James Goldgeier
While the US and NATO have said “no” so far to supplying Ukraine with fighter jets, it is certainly quite possible that they will reverse that stance eventually. First, this has been a familiar pattern with other forms of weapons—such as long-range rocket systems, Howitzers, or tanks—where Western reticence gave way to deliveries to Ukraine. Second, considering its performance on the battlefield so far, there is far greater confidence in the ability of the Ukrainian army to make good use of advanced weapons. And third, the West has been keen to showcase that they take the risks of escalation seriously, which explains to a degree the piecemeal increase in support for Ukraine. But the West remains, as evidenced by Biden’s recent visit to Eastern Europe and Kyiv, steadfastly committed to Ukraine. –Garret Martin
As the war in Ukraine has continued, the US and its European allies have repeatedly abandoned earlier reservations about providing particular weapons systems to Ukraine. For instance, at the beginning of the war, there was very little appetite among the US and its allies to provide Ukraine with battle tanks, but now the US and its partners are doing exactly that. The idea of providing fighter jets to Ukraine is also now gaining more traction, and it seems increasingly likely that the US or some of its allies will start providing such jets to Ukraine during 2023. –SIS professor Jordan Tama
I think the main red line was sending NATO jets, with NATO pilots, flown out of air bases in NATO countries. I do not think we are close to crossing that red line. If the trend lines continue on replacing Ukraine's Soviet-era military hardware with NATO equipment, eventually Ukraine will be supplied with US fighter jets. NATO has already been supplying Ukraine with Soviet-era jets from former East bloc members. –Keith Darden
Recent earthquakes in Syria and Turkey have killed thousands and displaced millions. This is a particularly heartbreaking example of how the world’s attention inevitably will be pulled away from Ukraine in days and weeks to come. Is Putin hoping for enough attrition in Western support and attention that Ukraine will be forced to cede territory?
It seems clear that Putin's endgame is to wear down Western resolve over time. He is surely hoping that the United States and its allies will tire of the conflict or get distracted from it, and then stop providing Ukraine with as much military assistance. But the resolve of the US and Europe is holding up very well one year into the conflict. –Jordan Tama
Yes, and there is already far more support for military assistance to Ukraine than for economic assistance—even though Ukrainian GDP fell by approximately 30% last year. The Russian strategy of striking Ukrainian infrastructure is also meant to increase the costs of supporting Ukraine and to make long-term US and European support politically untenable. –Keith Darden
Last spring, the Ukrainians offered a plan for Crimea to remain Russian-occupied for fifteen years with a determination of its final status at that time. If Putin had called for a cease-fire last summer, there would have been tremendous international pressure brought to bear on President Zelenskyy to accept, even if that meant Russian territorial gains. If all Putin wanted was some Ukrainian territory, he could have gotten that earlier in the war. He still seems to want to destroy Ukraine. –James Goldgeier
On February 20, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed China was considering supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia—and that Chinese companies have already been supplying Russia with “non-lethal support”. China has denied this. This comes on the heels of the notorious Chinese spy balloons that have been shot down over US territory throughout February. In your opinion, would the Chinese government like to see Russia prevail or withdraw?
The one thing that appears to worry Xi Jinping the most is Putin’s possible fall from power. With Putin, he has a firmly anti-Western Russian leader. If Putin falls, a new Russian government might seek a rapprochement with the West. I don’t think Xi Jinping cares one way or the other how or if the war ends. He’s invested in Putin, not a particular outcome of the war. –James Goldgeier
In some ways, Beijing may want the war to continue--with Russia neither prevailing nor withdrawing. The war is depleting US weapons stockpiles very rapidly, in ways that enhance China's relative military capability in Asia and in other parts of the globe. The US has failed to deliver on contracted munitions to Taiwan, for example, because of the need to supply Ukraine. This is a war that is draining the resources of two potential rivals while giving China monopsony purchasing power on key Russian resources because of Western sanctions. From Beijing's perspective, that has to be seen as a positive outcome. –Keith Darden
The Chinese government is almost certainly rooting for Russia in the war in Ukraine. The Chinese government knows that if Russia prevails in Ukraine, this will weaken the US, Europe, and NATO, and bolster the position of China. A Russian victory in Ukraine would also suggest that the West would not be capable of stopping China from taking over Taiwan by force. By contrast, if Russia is forced to withdraw from Ukraine, this would suggest that the community of Western democracies remains quite powerful and that China should think twice before invading Taiwan. –Jordan Tama