More pointedly, Moscow never bought into a wildly optimistic outlook of the Ukrainian population, let alone enough to construct its invading gamble on. Despite the fear and antagonism fueling the crisis, it’s hard to believe the intensification of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine was a blind spot. In fact, Putin explicitly stated his pessimistic predisposition of Ukraine’s population. “Ukrainian society is faced with the rise of extreme nationalism,” he said, just days prior to launching the invasion, “which quickly took the form of aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism.” Since 2014, a Russia-friendly government in Kyiv was overthrown, Russia annexed Ukrainian territory, a war was fought against pro-Russian separatists, the Ukrainian language was publicly mandated to suppress the use of Russian, the Moscow-favored Minsk II accord was popularly resisted, and anti-Russian rhetoric from Ukrainian elites surged. Moreover, such misplaced optimism would contradict Russia’s stated concerns that Ukraine’s far-right, which is staunchly anti-Russian, held too much sway in its government and society.
As far as its popular support goes, the Russia-friendly segments of society represent a small minority. Moreover, their geographic presence is concentrated in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. This alone constrains any political endeavor hoping to leverage societal forces to govern much of the country, most especially west of the Dnieper River, which is fervently nationalistic. Deprived of the requisite support of locals, the costs of conquering Ukraine are compounded, astronomically.
A War to Bargain, Not Conquer
For Russia, a maximum aim was not only out of reach, but it never even attempted the preparations to grasp it. Upon closer scrutiny, its invasion reflects a limited-aims war waged as an extension of Russian statecraft. In essence, Russia seeks not to conquer Ukraine, but to coerce it. Its use of military force is a mechanism to gain bargaining power so as to strong-arm Kyiv’s compliance and coxswain Ukraine’s orientation, whereby it doesn’t threaten Russia’s security or its geopolitical interests.
In the opening salvo of the invasion, Russia’s northern front, operating from Belarus, deployed a small but rapid military force that quickly arrived at Kyiv’s doorstep. In real-time, U.S. officials publicly proclaimed the maneuver was intended to “seize” the capital city of 3 million people and “decapitate” the Ukrainian government in 48 hours. In the West, the mad dash straight toward Kyiv had all but confirmed the purported theory that Russia’s intent was to enact regime change. And henceforward, the Western media fallaciously adopted it as an empirical fact.
The assertion, however, was an artifact of American distortion. Such a military endeavor was impossible with the size and type of forces deployed. Kyiv is a vast city of “broad, sweeping avenues, bisected by narrower streets often paved with lumpy cobblestones,” with “extensive basements and cellars” inhabiting many of its structures. By itself, this renders any task to establish control over the city to be a bloody slog, lasting many weeks, if not months. “None of our leaders, neither the president nor anyone else, has ever said that we would like to capture Kyiv,” said Russia’s ambassador to the U.K., “I do not believe that it is possible to capture or occupy Kyiv. It is a big city.”
In reality, Russia’s military maneuver toward Ukraine’s capital was about coercive signaling, not conquering it. The military invasion, in fact, paralleled a diplomatic track, which explicitly sought to coerce Kyiv to promptly enter into negotiations. The goal of Russia’s Plan A was to elicit a conditional-based surrender favoring its terms, while keeping the bulk of its mobilized forces on the horizon. In exchange to comply early, Ukrainian leaders could avoid a destructive and devastating war that plays out on their soil.
Furious and disappointed with NATO’s initial hesitancy to offer support, Zelenskyy, in fact, publicly signaled (and threatened) on February 25 that he might accept Putin’s delivered request earlier that day “to talk about Ukraine’s neutral status.” Days later, he called on a national resistance to fight the invader and rejected Russia’s proposed talks in Belarus, where a delegation from Moscow waited. Yet, he was forced to send a delegation the next day since his public rejection gave Putin a propaganda victory. Nevertheless, no agreement emerged, but further rounds of negotiations were expected, and each sought to improve their bargaining position on the battlefield.
In the West, Zelenskyy’s bravado was heroized. But this rash defiance wasn’t driven by an abrupt change in personal conviction. Instead, it was motivated by a Western commitment, along with unprecedented actions by Europe, to assist in Ukraine’s defense. Quite possibly, it represented an overpromise given the Ukrainian leader’s subsequent and public frustrations with the actual level of support delivered.
To be clear, Moscow’s plan for a so-called “quick-and-decisive victory” wasn’t about capturing the flag; it was about expediting, under duress, a negotiated settlement over neutrality. In effect, Plan A wasn’t spoiled by a military defeat, but rather because it failed to coercively extract political compliance. Immediately thereafter, Moscow initiated its Plan B, which sought to enhance its bargaining power.
But with the faulty assumptions of an unprovoked and maximum-aimed invasion still intact, Western observers initially perceived Russia’s follow-on military behavior as an effort to “double-down” on still conquering Ukraine. Later on, it was said to have “downgraded” its earlier ambition and now seeks control over partial territory as opposed to the entire country. Both of these misinterpretations are driven by confirmation bias, given the misplaced certainty in the prevailing narrative.
Thus far, there’s no indication that Moscow has relegated its original war aim. Plan B, in fact, seeks the same principal goal in shaping Ukraine’s orientation as Plan A. Essentially, the change hasn’t so much occurred in the substance of Russia’s primary aim, but rather in the type of military strategy to secure it. Having preferred to obtain an agreement and avoid a costly war, Russia has been in the process of inflicting those costs to force the desired submission.
As already demonstrated, Russia’s contingency plan embarked on the arduous endeavor to establish hard facts on the ground to first position its bargaining power. This parallels a separate coercive campaign to build pressure and squeeze the acquiesce of Kyiv (and the West) to begrudgingly comply with Moscow’s terms for peace. Having targeted global food and energy supplies, the compellence phase is likely to expand and exploit other vulnerabilities. This can include attacks on infrastructure in parts of the country largely left untouched, which could extend to targeting civilians.
Nevertheless, the plethora of contradictions on the battlefield hasn’t forced a reevaluation of the axioms that underpin the distorted interpretation of the war. Despite the persistent confusion over the Russian military’s behavior, the tendency in the West has been to uphold the maximum aim of conquest and then erroneously attribute any shortfalls and irregularities as symptoms of Russian ineptitude, irrationality, or weakness.
For example, the miles-long Russian military convoy, which entered Ukraine in late February from Belarus, was expected to encircle and enforce a siege of the capital and topple the government. Despite arriving promptly outside Kyiv, Western observers were then baffled by the convoy’s perpetual stagnation. Appearing to be “sitting ducks,” the convoy was alleged in the media to have been impeded by “logistical problems” and “fierce resistance.”
In reality, the purpose of the Russian convoy wasn’t to seize Kyiv. Instead, it served as a decoy operation to facilitate the efficacy of the contingency plan, initiated after Zelenskyy rejected talks.
Stationary-like, maintaining the convoy in striking distance from the capital city kept the Ukrainian military divided. Unable to prioritize and concentrate its maximum strength to defend against the other invading fronts, the decoy allowed Russian forces to make territorial advances in the south and east. Later on, the convoy’s withdrawal was misinterpreted by the West to be a sign of Moscow relinquishing its aim to “seize” Kyiv. But this optimism, which followed the closure of Russia’s northern front, was also misplaced. The convoy’s role was fulfilled and the purpose of its northern front phased out when it aided the completion of a land bridge that connected Russia’s southern and eastern fronts. With the Crimean Peninsula now reinforced from Russia’s own border, Moscow has hardened and entrenched its staying power, bolstering its bargaining position.
A Course Correction Toward Diplomacy
Today, the situation grows direr for Ukraine’s military. But there’s little appetite in the West to correct the narrative in making a pivot to diplomacy. The West continues to leverage a favorable, but fleeting, discourse to justify its policy of denial. Even as the narrative loses momentum, political elites will continue to propel it forward. “You can already see in the media that interest is going down, and that is also affecting the public, and the public is affecting the politicians,” said Ann Linde, the Foreign Minister of Sweden in July. “So, it is our responsibility to keep Ukraine and what Russia is doing high up on our agenda.”
The interest to preserve the narrative’s tenets prolong efforts to punish and degrade Russia. But it also shapes how victory is defined. Certainly, the war looks abysmal for Putin if his original aim is perceived as maximum. However, if interpreted through the lens of a limited aim, the war’s trajectory is reversed in favor of Moscow, not Kyiv—and advocates of pursuing “victory” ought to take notice.