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Is Ukraine’s Endgame a Russian Land Bridge?

That may depend on how much coastal territory Moscow wants—and whether it can hold it.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov as they sit in front of a huge screen showing the map of Ukraine during the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov as they sit in front of a huge screen showing the map of Ukraine during the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov as they sit in front of a huge screen showing the map of Ukraine during the annual meeting of the Defence Ministry board in Moscow on Dec. 21, 2021. MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

After failing in its maximalist goals of overthrowing Ukraine’s government, Russia has had to lower its expectations and focus on limited outcomes. Russian President Vladimir Putin is redefining his war aims as he goes along, depending on Russia’s performance in the battlefield, and for now has turned all attention to eastern Ukraine. 

Russia claimed to have hit thousands of targets in the Donbas region this week across the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk as it launched a full-scale offensive to capture the eastern regions in their entirety. Russian troops have also surrounded the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, where the last defenders of the besieged city are hunkered down. Mariupol is the last city standing in the way of a Russian land corridor running from the Russian cities on Ukraine’s border straight to occupied Crimea. 

Whether the establishment of such a land bridge would satiate Putin and end the war is an open question. It has, however, already inflicted a huge humanitarian and economic cost to Ukraine and may prove difficult for Russians to control in the long run. 

After failing in its maximalist goals of overthrowing Ukraine’s government, Russia has had to lower its expectations and focus on limited outcomes. Russian President Vladimir Putin is redefining his war aims as he goes along, depending on Russia’s performance in the battlefield, and for now has turned all attention to eastern Ukraine. 

Russia claimed to have hit thousands of targets in the Donbas region this week across the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk as it launched a full-scale offensive to capture the eastern regions in their entirety. Russian troops have also surrounded the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine, where the last defenders of the besieged city are hunkered down. Mariupol is the last city standing in the way of a Russian land corridor running from the Russian cities on Ukraine’s border straight to occupied Crimea. 

Whether the establishment of such a land bridge would satiate Putin and end the war is an open question. It has, however, already inflicted a huge humanitarian and economic cost to Ukraine and may prove difficult for Russians to control in the long run. 

Such a land bridge would cost Ukrainians a large swath of their territory and impose a damaging setback to their economy, which largely depends on trade conducted through the region’s Black Sea ports. The Russians, too, would pay a heavy price in the form of lives, equipment, and subsequent sanctions. But even if they gain the territory now, they will likely struggle to hold it in the longer run in the face of Ukrainian resistance and diminishing popularity among Russian-speaking Ukrainians. 

Ukrainian officials say at least 21,000 people have died under Russian bombardment in Mariupol and at least 100,000 people are still stuck in the city and looking for safe passage out. The city’s defenses have mostly crumbled, with the city’s last defenders vowing to fight “to the last drop of blood” from their positions at the Azovstal steelworks industrial complex. Attempts to secure a humanitarian passage for civilians failed since “the Russians refuse to open a corridor,” said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. She later added that an agreement has been reached with Russia to evacuate women and children. 

Mariupol has long been a strategically important port on the Sea of Azov—which is a part of the Black Sea—and a center for trade in steel, coal, and grain. It has the biggest port in the Sea of Azov region and with its deep berths served as a perfect export hub for Ukrainian agricultural products to the Middle East and elsewhere. If Russia scores a win in Mariupol and gains a land bridge, it will have secured control of more than 400 kilometers (or 249 miles) of the Black Sea coast since the start of the war and denied Ukraine access to 80 percent of its previous coastline, further destroying its economy. 

Success in carving a land bridge would be a huge victory for Putin. Zachary Paikin, researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, said Putin will likely settle for a land bridge to Crimea and full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. “Of course, any cease-fire agreement that is reached may only last for so long, so it could allow for more expansive aims to be pursued over time,” he said. Some analysts wonder whether the land bridge would even encourage Putin to expand operations to cut off Ukraine completely from the sea. 

Russian troops have continued to sporadically bomb cities in southern Ukraine with the apparent aim of linking the areas of Ukraine already under Russian control to Transnistria, a Moldovan breakaway region under Russian control adjacent to Ukraine’s western border. The Russian president has referred to this massive stretch of Ukrainian territory, extending from the east to the south along the Black Sea coast, as Novorossiya or New Russia, which was a part of tsarist Russia in the 18th century. 

Putin has been pushing the idea of Novorossiya to stir nationalist feelings in the region since 2014, with the aim of setting up a buffer zone on Ukrainian lands. The idea is to create a string of pseudo-states under the leadership of Russian proxies and make their borders the new front line between Moscow and Kyiv. Experts believe it is a war goal one step ahead of claiming a land bridge and one goal short of toppling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Russia has already occupied the city of Kherson, Ukraine, from which it seems to want to launch a mission to capture the Ukrainian city of Odesa. The only city in the way of Russians in the south is Mykolaiv, once a bustling Ukrainian port city that is now regularly battered with Russian missiles. 

Nick Reynolds, a research analyst for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, said Russia’s operation in Odesa “would be dependent upon success in the Donbas.” Russia held two thirds of the Donbas before the recent invasion and has already occupied Izyum, a strategic Ukrainian town heading into the separatist-controlled east, and the small eastern city of Kreminna in its latest offensive. It is fiercely bombing Slovyansk, a city of more than 100,000 people, and is next expected to intensify bombings in a string of towns in Luhansk—including Rubizhne, Popasna, Lysychansk, and Severodonetsk. 

Reynolds said Russia stands a chance of taking the whole of the Donbas, but it will be difficult given the exhausted state of its forces, which have suffered significant attrition. “If the conflict protracts, the thing that I would be watching for is wider Russian mobilization,” he said. “So far, the Russian government has avoided putting their country on a war footing, but this may change. This would be domestically destabilizing and hard to sustain but could also enable Russia to conduct renewed offensive military operations.”

However, even if Russia militarily secures the east and carves a land bridge to Crimea, it will struggle to hold the territory. 

Eduard Basurin, a spokesperson for the pro-Kremlin breakaway forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the final assault on Mariupol was underway and claimed that a better future awaited the people of the city. “In the near future, the pseudo-defenders of the Ukrainian people will be forced to surrender, and the people of Mariupol will be able to breathe a sigh of relief,” he said. 

But Russia’s acceptability in the region has plummeted even among its supporters since its invasion. According to a recent survey, nearly 60 percent Ukrainians said they will resist the Russian occupation while more than a third said they would pick up weapons to fight troops and puppets Russia leaves behind. 

Russia has started to install its proxies in captured cities. On March 11, Melitopol’s mayor was escorted out of his office by Russian troops. Soon after, a pro-Russian separatist appeared on local radio and declared herself to be the interim mayor of the city. In Kherson, however, the Russia-backed mayor who had called for a new structure “to restore order” did a volte-face amid increasing nationalism in Ukraine and said he had been detained and forced by Russians to take a pro-Russia stand. He declared his opposition to the creation of a “Kherson People’s Republic.” 

Russians extended the deadline for Ukrainian troops in Mariupol to surrender to Wednesday at 2 p.m. local time. Whatever the outcome of the battle, the Russians will be challenged every step of the way to its desired land bridge. Russia may win the battle, but it won’t win the peace until it works out a possible long-term compromise with its Ukrainian counterparts.

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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