Can Ukraine be divided into two?
"Top military leaders must now carefully prepare Putin to accept a variety of different possible outcomes," says reseacher Pavel Baev.
Ukrainian intelligence recently reported that they could see a shift in Russian targets with the war.
Going forward, the Russian plan will be to divide the Ukrainian state into two, according to General Kyrylo Budanov, quoted in the newspaper The Guardian.
There is reason to believe that Putin wants a ‘Korean scenario’ for Ukraine, the Ukrainian general is said to have expressed, according to the newspaper.
The Donbas region
The Donbas region is in southeastern Ukraine. This consists of the oblasts (counties) of Donetsk and Luhansk. Here you will find the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol. The latter has become a well-known and terrible battlefield during the invasion.
The Donbas region is central to the conflict as there are large areas controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the area. This led to Russia recognising breakaway republics in both Donetsk and Luhansk. Helping these republics gain independence was part of the rationale for invading Ukraine.
According to Russian General Sergey Rudskoy, Russia’s objective for the near future will be to secure the Donbas region. This is in line with the official Russian narrative: the main goal of the invasion was always to ‘liberate’ the Donbas region from Ukrainian oppressors.
“This statement was, at best, deliberately misleading; capturing Kyiv was certainly the primary goal of the Russian full-scale invasion at its outset,” writes Pavel Baev, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
“Kyiv is beyond reach, and so are large parts of eastern Ukraine. Now the focus is on Donetsk, Luhansk and the land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula,” Baev tells sciencenorway.no.
Dividing Ukraine into two
If Putin would like to split Ukraine in two, it seems that the country can be divided roughly down the middle along the Dnipro River.
This solution poses multiple problems however. One such problem is the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
“It could have been possible to take Kharkiv during the first days of the war, but not now,” says Baev.
Kharkiv is the second-largest city in Ukraine and is located right on the Russian border.
Attention is directed south
“Donetsk, Luhansk, and the land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula are now the target. They want to take a piece of Ukraine,” says Baev.
To do this, Russia must be able to secure the entire Donbas region. This includes the city of Mariupol, where they have encountered major problems.
5,000 people have been killed in the bombing of the strategically important port city. 90 per cent of the city's buildings have also been destroyed, according to the city's mayor, writes the BBC.
Should Russia be able to control both Mariupol and the port city of Kherson further west, they may have achieved control of the Crimean land corridor.
“To take Mariupol, however, Russia will need reinforcements, which will be difficult for them to organise,” Baev says.
Russian forces are currently in control of Kherson, but they have also moved into the neighbouring city of Nikolayev (also known as Mykolaiv).
According to Baev, crossing the river from Kherson to Nikolayev was a strategic blunder. There is a real chance that the retreat will be disorderly, which will have huge consequences for Russia.
Rout - a disordered retreat
A disorderly retreat is what in English is called a rout. It is a military term for when the troop breaks up during the retreat, often due to low morale among the troops. This chaos often occurs after the retreating side has lost a battle. A disorderly retreat thus makes it worse.
The military must convince Putin
“It has been difficult to assess what the Russian plan really has been,” says Baev.
What is beginning to become clear is that Kyiv is out of Russia's reach and that the top commanders of the Russian military are aware of this.
“It is possible that even the Minister of Defense is involved in trying to convince Putin of this. But Putin does not like reckoning with reality. His plan was always beyond common strategic sense,” Baev says. “Now the question is whether he is able to make pragmatic decisions or not.”
"When there is only one person making the decisions, he may have trouble gaining focus. Topp commanders in the military must now prepare Putin to accept a few things here and there", says Baev.
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The war against the West
As an authoritarian leader, Putin is alone in making the most important decisions. Thus, it is crucial that his focus is solely on the war if Russia is to emerge victorious from it.
However, Baev believes that Putin is likely to be distracted by international developments.
“I think he is becoming distracted by the politics. The political and economic war with the West. The sanctions are getting tougher, and Zelenskyj is doing a good job on the international scene,” Baev says.
According to Baev, President Biden's recent comments have also influenced Putin. The president said that “this man cannot remain in power", as quoted here in Aftenposten (link in Norwegian).
The future of the war relies heavily on Russia being able to recruit new conscripts this year.
“We might see more draft-dodging this year,” says Baev.
According to him, if new recruits and those who are now fighting in Ukraine do not fight of their own free will, it could damage morale and the war effort as a whole.
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Translated by Alette Gjellesvik.