Vladimir Putin’s exit strategy for the Ukrainian War gained more defined contours this Wednesday (28), when the Kremlin said that the conflict will last “at least until the liberation of the People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
The statement was made by spokesman Dmitri Peskov, in his usual conference call with reporters covering the day to day of the Russian government. It is the first time that a goal of the war that began on February 24 has been put so objectively.
The self-proclaimed republic is one of two Ukrainian provinces that make up the Donbass, the Don River basin, a mostly Russian-speaking region that has been partially under the control of pro-Kremlin separatists since the civil war that followed Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. .
His recognition and that of his sister, Lugansk, was one of the pretexts for the invasion — they asked Moscow for help against Kiev, just as their two leaders are now in Moscow to finalize the formal annexation of the areas to Russia, in a kind of closing cycle.
Denis Puchilin, from Donetsk, and Leonid Psetchnik, from Lugansk, flew to the Russian capital after the referendums in the two regions ended on Tuesday (27). As in the southern areas of Kherson and Zaporijia, all the more suspiciously because they are newly occupied regions, a near-unanimous majority voted in favor of joining Russia in what was described as a farce in Kiev and the West.
Psetchnik took to Telegram to ask Putin to “consider the issue”, which was followed by the other local leaders – another step in a choreographed ballet that should have the next step with the president’s speech to Parliament on Friday (30). Red Square, the heart of Moscow, dawned with big screens being mounted under placards with the words “Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporyzhia, Kherson – Russia!”, suggesting an event to commemorate the annexation.
Peskov’s speech makes it clear that the border the Kremlin plans to call its own is not yet under its control. The problem for Moscow is that, while control over Lugansk is almost complete, as in the southern areas, Donetsk still lacks something like 40% of the territory to take. According to the Defense Ministry, the Ukrainian counteroffensive to try to retake Liman, a strategic city in the region, failed on Wednesday.
There are no independent reports of this yet, but the fact is that the recent military successes of Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, which regained around 5% of its territory by capturing back the Kharkiv region earlier this month, are stalling.
“Thank you very much for your unequivocal support and for understanding our position. Ukraine cannot and will not tolerate any attempt by Russia to take part of our land.
The retreat there forced Putin to change his strategy in the war, decreeing a delayed partial mobilization of at least 300,000 reservists and accelerating the annexation of the parts he already dominated in Ukraine. It is a risky move, as the war hitherto depicted on state TV has become part of the reality of Russian cities, with protests and young people fleeing to neighboring countries.
It should not take effect immediately, given that at least two months of training are needed, says the Defense, to send troops to the front. But it opens up the prospect of a reinforcement whose lack made Putin fail in the initial attempt to take Kiev by storm, then forced a retreat to focus the fight on Donbass and led to the loss of Kharkiv.
Prior to the mobilization, popular support for Putin was at 83%, according to the independent institute Levada, and most Russians felt that the occupied areas should either be declared autonomous or be absorbed as entities of the Russian Federation.
No one spoke about the costs of this, of course, especially at a time when the Russian economy struggles to circumvent sanctions imposed by the West over the war. The annexation of Crimea, which took place without war and with a referendum among a largely pro-Russian population, cost the Kremlin hundreds of billions of dollars.
The subsidy to the budget of the two federal entities of the peninsula alone, the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, cost Moscow BRL 7.7 billion in 2021. And it is a region that has almost four times fewer residents than the occupied areas. they had before the war.
That said, Peskov has politically set a benchmark that previously did not exist. On the day of the invasion, Putin spoke of “protecting the peoples of Donbass” and promised to “demilitarize and denazify” his neighbour.
Over time, officials admitted territorial interests: a general spoke of uniting Russia with the breakaway Russian area of Transnistria (Moldova), annexing the entire Ukrainian coast, and Chancellor Sergei Lavrov admitted he wanted to see Zelensky deposed.
Hence the obvious distrust about the limit set by the spokesperson, which in any case will not be immediately accepted by Kiev and the West. But Putin can still play on the energy crisis of the coming winter season and the reduction of Russian gas supplies to the mainland to undermine support for Zelensky among Europeans – which raises suspicions about the attack on the Baltic Sea gas pipelines on Monday.
The US, in turn, announced another US$ 1.1 billion (R$ 5.4 billion) military aid package to Kiev, bringing the volume of weapons committed to war.
On the other hand, Peskov may suggest the exhaustion — albeit momentary and awaiting the effect of mobilization — of the Russian campaign. Moreover, once considered Russian, the occupied areas became part of the atomic blackmail against the West: Putin has already recalled that his nuclear doctrine allows the use of this type of bomb in the event of conventional attacks that threaten his territory.
This has raised fears in the West that the Russian could use such a device, perhaps of lesser power, against Ukrainian troops. On Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau said NATO must prepare a “devastating reaction”, albeit a non-nuclear one, if that occurs.