What Does Russia Want in Ukraine?

Russian officials said they are backing off of Kyiv. But that doesn’t mean the invasion is over.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian troops after a battle against Russian troops
Ukrainian troops after a battle against Russian troops
Ukrainian troops after a battle against Russian troops near the Luhansk region of Ukraine on March 6. Anatoli Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The United States is seeing Russia starting to withdraw some combat forces near the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv for possible moves to other areas, the top U.S. general in Europe confirmed to Congress on Tuesday, in what could mark a major strategic shift from the Kremlin a month into its mostly stalled war.

The decision, confirmed during a Senate hearing by Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander, marks a striking shift from Russia. U.S. and European officials previously believed Moscow had designs on taking the Ukrainian capital, home to over 2 million people, in a bid to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a pro-Russian puppet government.

Instead, in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have driven back Russian forces near the capital with determined counterattacks, contesting the cities of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday it had opted to “drastically reduce hostilities” in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv. CNN first reported that the United States had already begun to see movements of Russian battalion tactical groups toward the east.

The United States is seeing Russia starting to withdraw some combat forces near the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv for possible moves to other areas, the top U.S. general in Europe confirmed to Congress on Tuesday, in what could mark a major strategic shift from the Kremlin a month into its mostly stalled war.

The decision, confirmed during a Senate hearing by Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander, marks a striking shift from Russia. U.S. and European officials previously believed Moscow had designs on taking the Ukrainian capital, home to over 2 million people, in a bid to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and install a pro-Russian puppet government.

Instead, in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have driven back Russian forces near the capital with determined counterattacks, contesting the cities of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. The Russian Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday it had opted to “drastically reduce hostilities” in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv. CNN first reported that the United States had already begun to see movements of Russian battalion tactical groups toward the east.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday that Russia is refocusing its military campaign on the Donbass region, which includes two pro-Kremlin breakaway states, to regain negotiating leverage over Ukraine by cutting off troops in the east and establishing an occupying presence in the region. “It could be now that they are reassessing their strategy goals,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide a recently declassified battlefield update.

What’s behind Russia’s sudden retreat? Officials and experts outlined a few scenarios that could be motivating Russia to take pressure off the Ukrainian capital.

All-Out Assault on the East

Russia’s military has insisted that phase one of its so-called special military operation—the Kremlin’s code for the wider invasion of Ukraine—is over. In a military briefing on Friday, top Russian generals hinted that they would begin focusing on the east of Ukraine, possibly in an attempt to carve out wider breakaway regions than before.

A senior Russian defense official framed the drawback of troops as a way to lay the groundwork for peace negotiations. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul on Tuesday for the first time in two weeks.

“In order to increase mutual trust and create the necessary conditions for further negotiations and achieving the ultimate goal—reaching an agreement and signing of the aforementioned agreement—a decision was made to drastically reduce military activity in the Kyiv and Chernihiv directions,” Alexander Fomin, Russia’s deputy defense minister, said during remarks televised on Russia state media on Tuesday.

One month into the war, with Russia estimated to have lost several thousand troops already, talks on Tuesday indicated a slight softening in Russia’s initial efforts to subdue Kyiv and the rest of the country by force.

In addition to Wolters’s comments earlier Tuesday, British Defence Intelligence assessed earlier this week that Russia has been reinforcing the Donbass with foreign fighters, including redeploying thousands of fighters from the private military contractor Wagner Group from Syria and Africa to join the fight.

“We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal,” U.S. Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing. “We should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.” British Defence Intelligence said in a statement on Tuesday that throughout Ukraine, Russian forces are holding up “blocking positions” while attempting a military reset.

Leverage for Diplomatic Talks

Russian diplomats indicated on Tuesday that the move to call off the offensive against Kyiv was a possible olive branch to the Ukrainian government to end the fighting.

Speaking to the state-owned RT outlet, Vladimir Medinsky, a key aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who is leading Russia’s diplomatic delegation in Belarus, said that the Kremlin did not want to put Ukraine’s capital at further military risk, because the people who “make decisions” about diplomatic negotiations reside there.

But in Western capitals, there is significant skepticism about the Kremlin’s olive branch, after Russia has fired missiles into the capital and reportedly sent Federal Security Service hit squads on multiple occasions to try to assassinate Zelensky. Instead, the Russian military, which was pushed back significantly by Ukrainian counterattacks last week, could continue to hit Kyiv with artillery while Kremlin diplomats go to work to extract concessions at the bargaining table.

Veteran Western diplomats also voiced skepticism over Russia’s overtures about peace talks, arguing that the Kremlin has previously used peace talks since its 2014 annexation of Crimea as political cover to solidify its gains over breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

In a statement on Tuesday, British Defence Intelligence assessed that Russia still poses a “significant threat” to Kyiv with strike capability. Just over a week ago, a Russian airstrike on Kyiv on March 20 leveled a downtown shopping mall and hit residential buildings in the capital, killing eight people. And while Kyiv has been spared the devastation of the hardest-hit cities in the war, such as the Russian-speaking regional hubs of Kharkiv and Mariupol, blasted-out windows from Kremlin strikes have become an unwelcome feature in a month of war.

On a call with U.S. President Joe Biden and several European leaders earlier Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the Russian diplomatic play might be a ruse. “Putin is twisting the knife in the open wound of Ukraine in an attempt to force the country and its allies to capitulate,” Johnson told other heads of state, according to a British readout of the call.

Getting Europe to Back Down

Russia’s war in Ukraine has already racked up a serious economic toll by sending gas prices skyrocketing around the world. There is already concern from Eastern European states that Western capitals may give in to the economic pressure to seek an offramp too early, even as Ukraine appears to be gaining an edge on the battlefield.

But just as Putin spent weeks building a case for the invasion of Ukraine using trumped-up claims of Ukrainian persecution of Russian-speaking groups in the Donbass region, the longtime Russian leader could also be trying to narrow his objectives to lull antsy European capitals into an unsavory peace deal.

“What he’s doing is laying the foundations for an explanation that he’s reached his objectives,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. “He’s going to improve his position around the Donbass so that when they do begin negotiations in earnest, he’ll have the upper hand.”

That could also manifest itself in Russian pressure to limit arms transfers to the Ukrainians. In an address to NATO countries over the weekend, Zelensky accused the West of acting too slowly to send tanks, missile defenses, and anti-ship weapons to Ukraine. Indeed, the United States has also held off on directly transferring Soviet-era Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, fearing that Russia could see the move as escalatory and retaliate against the NATO alliance.

And Wolters, the European Command chief, said Tuesday that the United States has yet to give Kyiv Switchblade drones, which could be effective in disabling Russian tanks.

“We should not be afraid of success in Ukraine,” Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine, told Foreign Policy in a text message. “We are afraid of Russian aggression being successful. But it seems that we are afraid that if Ukraine is successful then [a] losing Putin will escalate. We should not.”

Russian Bait-and-Switch 

Russian forces have become exhausted from more than a month of nonstop fighting in Ukraine, Western officials have indicated, with Moscow deploying into the conflict up to 75 percent of its battalion tactical groups, a backbone of the Russian military. And by taking the pressure off of Kyiv, where intense fighting has been taking place in the suburbs of the capital, Russian troops could lick their wounds to redouble their efforts—and perhaps lure more Ukrainian defenders toward the east and away from the capital.

“It’s like a magician—a sleight of hand,” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official. “The magician has you look over here when he’s doing something with his other hand—like resupplying and reequipping.”

U.S. and European officials have said for weeks that they’ve seen signs of Russia trying to bring in more supplies, after giving its forces little more logistical support than was needed for a lightning offensive against the capital.

Russia has also made efforts to reinforce its tanks, said Wolters, the top U.S. commander in Europe, which have become susceptible to strikes from American-provided Javelin anti-tank missiles and similar British weapons provided to Ukraine. Despite the strategic change, Russia is still leaving some military forces near Kyiv, officials have said, giving them the option for a further offensive against the capital later.

“What we don’t want them to do is move forces from Kyiv down to the Donbass,” Townsend said. “That would weaken their position, and maybe the Russians will try to take Kyiv again. Maybe they’re dangling bait over the Donbass to see if they can get Ukraine to move forces down there.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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