What Can Russia Achieve in Ukraine?

January 18, 2022 Updated: January 18, 2022


Another build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders has caused its customary alarm, and more worryingly resulted in the deaths of two Ukrainian soldiers in isolated skirmishes. Yet what Russia hopes to achieve by its latest vulgar display of power remains a matter of speculation.

Most predictions fall within two camps: those who believe that this is the prelude to a general invasion of greater Ukraine, to be followed by the country’s occupation, and others that assert this is simply how Vladimir Putin conducts diplomacy in the near abroad.

Those in the latter category point to President Putin’s innate caution, and indeed there’s enough prior form to support their viewpoint; Putin has not built his base of power by indulging in mercurial impulses. For instance, after defeating Georgia’s army in the field and forcing a general retreat to Tbilisi during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the Russian forces withdrew from the country after moving within 12.5 miles of the capital. Perhaps the Kremlin could see that a fight for Tbilisi may have gone against them, or at least resulted in heavy losses. Furthermore, Putin had already achieved the objectives he set out to accomplish by assuring South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence after a bare week of fighting, as well as showing Georgia that its Western friends were partners, not allies.

Likewise, despite the thinly disguised (and then publicly admitted) presence of Russian regulars in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russia didn’t launch a broader invasion of Ukrainian territory after wrenching the Donbas and Crimean territories from Kyiv. Granted, this was a broader, lengthier deployment than that of Georgia six years earlier, but not the grand operation to militarily reassert control over the whole country that was initially feared.

It can be deduced, therefore, that Putin’s military ambitions have steadily grown in scope and scale, but not yet to the point that he’s confident of successfully invading another state without repercussions. Of course, the West’s responses to his actions in Georgia and Ukraine have hardly dissuaded him, but given his cautious approach, an invasion of Ukraine proper is unlikely to be attempted—Russia doesn’t have the economic resources to fight a protracted war against an adversary with land, numbers, and international support, especially as any casualties sustained may galvanize (and spread) support for Alexei Navalny.

The events of recent days in Kazakhstan have shown that Russia is not frightened to deploy its troops abroad; indeed, the Kremlin’s decisive action in sending its own forces to Almaty are undoubtedly intended to serve a secondary purpose in demonstrating to the West that Russia is serious in its consideration of “appropriate military-technical measures.” What, then, might Putin attempt to realistically achieve?

Mariupol is arguably the most logical target. Although part of the largely occupied Donbas region, this port city remains under Ukrainian control, and three earlier Russian attempts to take it have failed. In addition, the population is seen as being largely sympathetic to the Russian cause, which in the past has been an important factor in justifying military intervention from the Kremlin.

Capturing the city would also result in Russia having an important point of connection between its captured territories of Donbas and the Crimea. Mariupol sits on the north Black Sea coast, and as a land power Russia would benefit from having a direct link with the Crimean Peninsula.

Of course, this would not be an easy fight for Russia, but Mariupol could be taken with the overwhelming superiority Russia seems to be building on Ukraine’s borders. Add to this the improbability of a defeated Ukrainian army subsequently retaking the city, as well as Kyiv’s political unwillingness to engage in a drawn-out conflict, a campaign to claim Mariupol and roll up the coast to the Crimea seems a strong possibility.

Naturally, the political consequences of a Ukrainian military defeat would be disastrous for both Kyiv and the West. President Zelensky, who can charitably be dubbed a political amateur, would face the pressure that always accompanies military catastrophe in the former Soviet Union (as witness Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008 and Armenia’s Nikol Pashinyan in 2020), and any domestic turbulence of a pro-Western politician naturally suits the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, the EU and NATO would face difficulties of their own. The West has been badly split over dealings with Russia, with Germany’s unwillingness to confront the Kremlin due to its reliance on Russian gas putting Berlin at odds with Poland and the Baltic states, whose fears over military aggression are grounded in the experience of recent history. For its part, while America has generally taken a harder line against the Kremlin, its own domestic issues have taken political priority; whenever foreign policy has come to the fore, greater focus is on China.

A rapid, aggressive assault against Mariupol could achieve all that Russia is likely to aim for. While this falls short of the cataclysmic expectations of those who warn of an assault on Kyiv, even a comparatively small-scale campaign in sovereign Ukrainian territory would—like every regional conflict in the former Soviet Union—have disastrous results for Europe and the United States. Attempting to forcefully discourage Russia naturally stokes fear of escalating tensions, and while this in itself is hardly desirable, the argument can certainly be made that it might yield better results than the Free World’s current way of dealing with the Kremlin. In short, what the West is doing now simply isn’t working.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Tim Ogden
Tim Ogden is a freelance journalist with a particular focus on the former Soviet Union.