Putin has described Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation”.
Mikhail Klimentyev | AFP | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin is overseeing a change in military strategy for the Kremlin’s unprovoked attack in Ukraine and repositioning forces in the east of the country to take control of the Donbass region.
Analysts see the change in Russia’s approach as a tacit admission of failure, saying fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces has thwarted Putin’s bid to quickly seize major cities and overthrow the government.
The next phase of the war is likely to result in a dangerous stalemate and deepen an already devastating humanitarian crisis, analysts say, as Russia’s top army commanders seek full control of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister on Wednesday urged people in the eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk to evacuate amid growing fears of an imminent attack. “It is necessary now, because then people will be shot at and threatened with death,” said Iryna Vereshchuk.
It comes less than two weeks after Sergei Rudskoy, deputy chief of staff for the Russian armed forces, announced the armed forces were moving away from a nationwide attack. Instead, Rudskoy said the Kremlin’s goal is to focus efforts on the “complete liberation” of the Donbass region.
“It seems to me that this is the biggest single piece of news since the war began,” Christopher Granville, managing director of EMEA and global political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC by phone. “That’s what I thought at the time, and I haven’t changed my mind … since.”
Granville said Russia’s troop concentration in eastern Ukraine foreshadowed “some all too plausible horrors”. He expressed particular concern about Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, two large cities in northern Donetsk region.
Families have been queuing in front of the train station in Kramatorsk for days.
Fadel Senna | AFP | Getty Images
Thousands of people have tried to flee the Donbass region and dozens of families queued for days at Kramatorsk’s main train station to seek safety.
The situation is all too familiar to some.
Ukrainian forces fought Russian-backed separatists in Kramatorsk in 2014, and Granville said the nearby city of Sloviansk was known to have “totemic importance” to Donbass separatists.
According to analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, Russia has not yet committed the forces withdrawn from the so-called “Battle of Kyiv” to an eastern offensive, but it is believed that the troops are preparing to attack Sloviansk.
“I think from a military point of view there has to be a question of success and morale. Russia has soldiers sitting around Kyiv being shot at, what is the purpose? What are you trying to do?” said Granville.
“It’s just common sense that soldiers have to have a goal, and the natural goal of soldering is to gain territory. This is the campaign in Donbass,” he continued. “The fighting soldiers can see what they are fighting for, they can see progress. And I think that goes from the higher levels of the Russian general staff to the commanders and men in the field.”
A fork in the road
Jonathan Flint, a military strategist and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, believes there are two ways for Russia to try to achieve its new military goals.
“One would be for Russia to withdraw to relative safety and seize this opportunity to upgrade, reorganize and reinforce its forces for a more organized and competent advance back into Ukrainian-held territory,” Flint told CNBC.
However, this approach is not without risks, especially given that Ukrainian forces could cross borders to engage with Russia and a second invasion attempt could fail like the first attempt, he said.
“The other option would be entrenchment in these areas, which makes them all but impossible to be recaptured by Ukrainian forces and brought back under Ukrainian control,” Flint said. “This may ultimately prove to be the wiser path for Russia, because by entrenching a frozen conflict it would essentially prevent Ukraine from joining the EU or NATO in the future, despite all the pledges made during the peace talks.”
Bruno Lete, senior fellow for security and defense at the German Marshall Fund, told CNBC that while Russian forces lost the battle for Kyiv, the Kremlin’s nearly six-week-old war is not over yet.
“Beyond the east, we also have to look at the south of Ukraine. Large parts of the Ukrainian coast east of Crimea are already occupied,” said Lete. “Russia is clearly trying to establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia. If Mariupol falls, Russia will have succeeded.”
Heavy fighting and Russian airstrikes continue in Mariupol, British military intelligence reported on Wednesday, a move likely aimed at pressuring Ukrainian forces in the encircled southeastern city into surrendering.
The UK Ministry of Defense estimates that most of Mariupol’s remaining 160,000 residents lack access to light, communications, medicines, heat or water – underscoring the deepening humanitarian crisis there.
Lete said Russia may also consider stepping up attacks on the strategic port hub of Odessa on the Black Sea coast in a bid to establish a coastal bridge from Crimea to Transnistria – a breakaway Moldova region occupied by Russian forces.
“Ukrainians have the ability to defend themselves on land, but far less in the air… Therefore, the first phase of these next battles will be characterized by Russia conducting missile strikes and air strikes on critical and civilian infrastructure,” he added.
Putin faces ‘a moment of truth’
Russia’s retreat from the Kyiv suburbs coincided with a wave of international condemnation as world leaders reacted in horror to the mounting evidence of war crimes.
The Kremlin has denied allegations of executions of civilians and accused Ukraine, without evidence, of pursuing a cynical ploy to vilify the Russian army.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of genocide in Ukraine, while US President Joe Biden has called for Putin to be tried for war crimes.
Russia has said the country’s military will now focus on the “complete liberation” of Ukraine’s Donbass region.
Bulent Kilic | AFP | Getty Images
Fabrice Pothier, CEO of policy consultancy Rasmussen Global, said Russia’s goal appears to be to consolidate the Kremlin’s territorial hold in eastern Donbass since 2014.
“I think that’s a game of who can last longer and who can basically convince the civilian population that the fight is worth the cost,” Pothier told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Tuesday. “I think Zelenskyy is on strong ground at the moment as long as he gets the right kind of support from the West.”
Putin, on the other hand, is receiving strong support from Russia, Pothier said, but for how long is uncertain. “I think there will be a moment of truth [a moment] for the Russian leader to reckon with his people.”
Ultimately, TS Lombard’s Granville said Russia’s offensive was likely to become a war of attrition. “It seems to me that the Russian stance will become more defensive… and that is a formula for a very protracted conflict.”
Flint, too, was skeptical about an impending breakthrough in the peace talks. “Only when one side finds the pain unbearable do I expect a move towards peace,” he said.