The National Times - Plan 'B'? What Russia plans next in Ukraine

Plan 'B'? What Russia plans next in Ukraine

Plan 'B'? What Russia plans next in Ukraine
Plan 'B'? What Russia plans next in Ukraine

Russia appears to have abandoned for now the initial aim in its invasion of Ukraine of seizing Kyiv and ousting the Ukrainian government, but is still pressing attacks in the east and south.

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Even under this plan 'B' forced by Ukrainian resistance and military setbacks, Moscow has multiple aims that risk prolonging the conflict and causing yet more death and destruction.

Here AFP looks at five aims Russia has for the next phase of the war against Ukraine, almost one and a half months into the conflict.

- Symbolic victory

Even with full control over the media after a series of draconian measures, President Vladimir Putin will want to report some kind of success on May 9 when Russia marks its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

"Putin is obsessed by symbolic dates and history so he desperately needs a victory picture before May 9," said Alexander Grinberg, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy (JISS).

Sergei Karaganov, honorary chair of the Moscow think-tank the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy and a former Kremlin adviser, said Russia "cannot afford to 'lose' so we need a kind of a victory."

"The stakes of the Russian elite are very high –- for them it is an existential war," he told British weekly The New Statesman.

- Take Mariupol

While Russian forces appear to be moving away from Kyiv and other regions of the north, Russia is making no such move around the southeastern city of Mariupol, which has been besieged for weeks in defiance of an international outcry.

Seizing Mariupol would be a crucial step for Russia in realising its apparent aim to control territory linking the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014, to Russia.

"I expect intense fighting until the final retreat of the (Ukrainian) resistance from Mariupol," Grinberg said.

To the north lie the two pro-Moscow separatist Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, so taking the city would give Moscow control of a swathe of territory in Ukraine's east.

With Mariupol, Russian forces could "go north up to grasp the rest of the Donbas and have continuous control of the south of Ukraine and the coast of the Sea of Azov," Pierre Razoux, academic director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

- Seize more territory

The breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk regions -- recognised as independent by Russia in February -- did not control the full extent of those two areas within Ukraine.

Moscow has insisted their breakaway rulers should have full administrative authority, and fully controlling them appears to be a key war aim.

"The war is far from over and could still turn Russia's way if the Russian military can launch a successful operation in eastern Ukraine," said analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Russia at the weekend launched strikes at the Western port of Odessa and Western sources have never ruled out an amphibious attack on the city, though this appears less likely.

"If a cease-fire is imposed under the principle of 'keep what you hold,' Russia could retain its hold over several new parts of Ukraine," said Ivan U. Klyszcz, a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Tartu, Estonia.

- Gain time

The invasion has proved hugely costly for Russian in terms of both human losses and destruction to military hardware in the face of Ukrainian resistance that was far tougher then the Kremlin expected.

Military analysts have noted that Russia's spring draft started on April 1, and while Moscow insists conscripts are not sent to Ukraine, the new recruits could enter battle once they sign contracts and are trained.

"The war is far from over... Further offensives are to come," said Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), adding that personnel is the "key resource" in short supply for Moscow.

But analysts also say that a long war of attrition would also be dangerous for Russia, given the success of Ukrainian guerilla tactics over the last weeks.

"If this eventually becomes a prolonged war of attrition, Ukraine seems overall in a more favourable position," said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses in the US.

- Divide the West

The longer the war grinds on, the more the Kremlin is expected to press one of its favourite tactics of seeking to divide the West between those states who want to take the hardest line against Moscow, and those with more conciliatory stances.

Putin on Monday was fast to congratulate one of his closest allies within the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, after his party won elections that saw him gain fourth term in office.

In a possible harbinger of strains to come, US President Joe Biden said that Putin should not remain in power but French President Emmanuel Macron retorted that such rhetoric was unhelpful.

Macron said Monday that the EU would consider more sanctions against Russian oil and coal industries but did not mention natural gas, on which Europe remains deeply reliant.

"The aim of the game is also to divide public opinion," Razoux said.