After 102 Days of War, Is Russia Looking Beyond Ukraine’s Donbass?

After 102 Days of War, Is Russia Looking Beyond Ukraine’s Donbass?

As the war in Ukraine passes its one-hundredth day, Moscow, Kyiv, and the West brace for a protracted conflict.

As the war in Ukraine passes its one-hundredth day, Moscow, Kyiv, and the West brace for a protracted conflict.

“America’s goal is straightforward,” President Joe Biden wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this week. “We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.” Biden, quoting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote that the war “will only definitively end through diplomacy.” But, he added, “Every negotiation reflects the facts on the ground. We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.”

Yet what exactly must the facts on the ground be for the White House—which is keeping the Ukrainian war effort afloat with a historically unprecedented program of weapons transfers and intelligence sharing—to conclude that it is time for a negotiated settlement? Biden provides few concrete answers. And would Kyiv readily accept such a conclusion?

In fact, Biden’s essay does not fully appreciate the maximalist position being staked out by the Ukrainian government. Zelenskyy and top officials in his administration have repeatedly made clear in recent months that they will accept nothing short of a decisive military victory over Russia—meaningful peace talks can only commence once those conditions have been achieved. “It would be good if the European and U.S. elites understand to the end: Russia can’t be left halfway because they will [develop] a ‘revanchist’ mood and be even more cruel ... They must be defeated, be subjected to a painful defeat, as painful as possible,” Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters

And Kyiv has spelled out what “victory” looks like. “The war must end with the complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. That is, our victory,” tweeted Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

Zelenskyy said in May that he sees the restoration of pre-February 24 borders as a pre-condition for any substantive negotiations with Russia. “They have to fall back and go beyond the contact lines, and they should withdraw the troops,” he said. “In that situation, we’ll be able to start discussing things normally. But for them to withdraw, they have to say something and we have to start talking.”

But the invading Russian forces have shown no willingness to abandon any of the territories they have seized in eastern Ukraine. To the contrary, early signs indicate that Moscow is planning to consolidate its long-term control in the Donbass and Kherson regions. Occupation officials from the latter said they are preparing to become part of Russia proper. “We are looking at the Russian Federation as our own country because it is under the control of the [Russian] Armed Forces and later will be transformed into a federal subject,” Moscow-appointed Kherson governor Volodymyr Vasylovych Saldo told Russian state media. Local officials said Kherson has begun sending grain to Russian territory, with exports of other commodities to follow shortly thereafter.

The latest conflict mapping indicates that at least 20 percent of Ukrainian territory is under Russian control. Russian forces reportedly now hold almost all of Severodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian stronghold in the eastern Luhansk region, and are advancing toward the neighboring city of Lysychansk in an attempt to complete their encirclement of any Ukrainian troops that have not yet retreated from the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk salient.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the invading Russian forces will not return to the prewar borders unless compelled to do so by force of arms, though the full scope of Russia’s war aims remains unknown.

Ukrainian officials say the Russian military is resuming its offensive in the direction of the strategically situated eastern cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, control over which would all but solidify Russia’s presence in the Donbass region. But, despite the fact that Moscow framed the war from its outset as a “special military operation” to “defend” the pro-Russian breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbass, it appears highly unlikely that the Kremlin would be willing to cease hostilities once it establishes control over Donbass.

It was speculated in prior months that Russia’s next major war aim will be to keep advancing westward toward the city of Dnipro as part of a broader attempt to cut Ukrainian forces off along the lower sections of the Dnieper River. However, a growing chorus of Russian politicians, Kremlin insiders, and military experts have recently suggested that the Russian military will instead mount a massive southern offensive in the direction of Odessa. The southwestern port hub, explained State Duma member Konstantin Zatulin, is a bigger strategic prize for Russia than even the capital city of Kyiv. The loss of Odessa would complete Ukraine’s transformation into a landlocked, economically crippled rump state. Control over Ukraine’s Black Sea coast would not only multiply Moscow’s influence over key maritime shipping routes but provide Russia’s military with a forward staging post from which to threaten NATO’s southeastern flank. The ability to take and hold Odessa will be a first step in the ambitious plan, floated by Russia’s top military brass in April, to establish a land-sea corridor to Moldova’s breakaway pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria.

But the Russian military’s road to Odessa runs through the fortified Ukrainian-held city of Mykolaiv, which would take considerable time and resources to capture. Even with ongoing fire support from Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the slog of Russian ground forces to Odessa from the Kherson-Mykolaiv axis will be long and costly. Regardless of its outcome, the battle for the city itself could drag on for many more months—it would pose one of the war’s biggest military bloodbaths and provoke a humanitarian disaster potentially dwarfing the tragedy that unfolded over the course of three torturous months in Mariupol.

With the war entering its hundredth day, the aims being pursued by the belligerents are as incompatible as they have ever been. Neither Russia nor Ukraine and its Western backers appear so much as willing to entertain a swift negotiated settlement and proposed pathways to regional de-escalation. The facts on the ground all point to an inescapably grim prognosis: the worst is yet to come.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.