There can be little doubt about the initial meaning that in the mind of Vladimir Putin had the word victory, when he decided to invade Ukraine: to overthrow the Government of Volodymyr Zelensky, replacing it with a puppet in charge of reforming the Constitution to remove any reference to NATO integration Y recognize Crimea as Russian territory. However, the harsh reality of a dismal performance of its troops on the ground and the extraordinary defensive will and capacity of the Ukrainian population and armed forces They have forced him to reformulate his claims. And nothing assures him that, based on the current panorama on the battlefield, he will not have to do the same thing again.
After the blitzkrieg that sought to control kyiv failed in just a few days, Moscow had to rethink its offensive, abandoning a good part of the attack fronts it had established in the early stages of the invasion. Unable to progress in any of them, with a high level of casualties from the outset and with a notable logistical fiasco, feigned a withdrawal that, in reality, was a redeployment to prepare to start a new stage with Donbas as a priority objective. Thus, while he was trying to ‘sell’ that everything was going according to plan and that he had already achieved ‘successes’ such as the neutrality of a Ukraine that, in fact, was already neutral, he went on to reinterpret downwards the idea of victory. Donbas -understood as the whole of the Donetsk and Lugansk ‘oblasts’, with 53,000 km2 and some 6 million inhabitants until the start of the invasion- is a essential objective for Moscow, to the extent that it guarantees him a land connection with a Crimea that he is not willing to give up again under any circumstances; in addition to coal and the main industrial base of Ukraine.
This explains why Russia has concentrated some 80 tactical groups (with an average of 1,000 troops each) around Donbas, with the idea of launching a new offensive that seeks to control the entire region, combining a frontal attack with a pincer maneuver from the north, based on the Kharkov-Izium area, and from the south, based on the Berdyansk-Mariupol area, which at its maximum would converge in the city of Dnipro. In this way, it seeks to pocket the Ukrainian forces that are trying to avoid the loss of that region and prevent them from receiving reinforcements from the rest of the country.
The problem for Moscow is that has not managed to accumulate troops and means to have sufficient superiority as to guarantee success. Nor has it achieved airspace superiority nor dissuade the dozens of countries that have progressively decided to supply arms to kyiv, exposing himself to Russian retaliation. In parallel, the Ukrainian forces are also expanding their targeted attacks deep into Russian territory, further complicating their logistics and operations.
In any case, Putin cannot leave Ukraine without declaring victory. And for that there are only two ways left. On the one hand, he can lower his level of ambition even further and be content to say that he has already managed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and that he has degraded its military capacity enough that it poses no threat to Moscow’s security. On the other, much more disturbing, it can use the tricks that still remain – a general mobilization to attack with more means or dare to use the weapons of mass destruction that it has.