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Putin’s New Ukraine Strategy: Create Fake Republics and Declare Victory?

Ukraine Chernihiv
Russian MLRS firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Putin’s Likely Ukraine Goal Now is Breakaway and Pseudo-Republics in Eastern Ukraine – The Battle of Kyiv is over, and Russia has suffered a surprising and significant defeat. A middle power has inflicted a stinging loss on an ostensible great power. Russia’s status as a world power is obviously in question now. Despite its size and weight, it cannot reduce a significantly smaller neighbor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must now – if only to impress his Chinese backers and justify the war to his own people – win some kind of battlefield victory elsewhere in Ukraine.

It increasingly looks like the Russian effort will be a tank surge in the Donbas. Rumor suggests that Putin is looking to end the war quickly, ideally by May 9, which is VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the day the Nazis finally surrender to the Soviet Union.

This would be a wise choice. Putin pretty clearly cannot take over all of Ukraine at this point. And the sanctions will soon bite deeply into the Russian economy. This war is breaking Russian power and pushing its economy into a major contraction. Putin himself will become persona non grata, unable to travel or access his overseas assets.

Set Up Some Fake ‘Republics’ in Eastern Ukraine and Call it Quits

Putin’s decision to fully invade Ukraine and try to take it over was a surprise. Much of Putin’s reputation as a master strategist is based on his well-honed skill of pushing the boundaries of Western tolerance for bad behavior, but then stepping back before provoking a serious NATO/EU backlash. That Putin cast aside his traditional ducking-and-weaving, salami-slicing tactics for a blatant cross-border invasion in World War II-style is a major aggressive shift in Russian foreign policy.

One school of pre-invasion thought suggested Putin would use his old tricks – used in Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine itself previously – to carve up eastern Ukraine into fake, breakaway statelets. Putin’s playbook, well-established by now, is to stir up conflict in former Soviet state where he feels Russia deserves a sphere of influence. Local proxies, funded and equipped by Russia, then demand local autonomy or alignment with Moscow. Accusations of genocide and Russophobia are thrown around to generate a pretext for Russian involvement. Resistance is damned as a Western intervention to reduce Russian power. Russian ‘peacekeepers’ are then sent in, or a micro-state in the contested area declares its independence and is recognized by Russia and just a few of its roguish friends like Belarus or Syria. The conflict settles into a stalemate, allowing Russia to project power into its ‘near-abroad’ and prevent the consolidation of westward-leaning regimes in its periphery. Russia does this so much, we even have a political science term for this – ‘frozen conflicts.’

A Ukrainian ‘Frozen Conflict’ is Probably the Best Putin Can Hope for Now

In 2014, Putin snatched the Crimea from Ukraine in a snatch-and-grab operation similar to his ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine today. And in the lead up to February’s invasion, Putin ginned up a pretext for invasion by recognizing two breakaway pseudo-republics in eastern Ukraine – Lugansk and Donetsk. This was a clever move. Eastern Ukraine is heavily Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian. Putin-supported rebels has sought greater autonomy there for almost a decade. Before the war, Russia’s conventional military weakness was not recognized, so the West was deeply split over how to respond to years of Putin’s creeping pressure. NATO probably would have grudgingly accepted Russia tearing away of yet another piece of Ukraine – along with Crimea – in yet another frozen conflict.

Putin choose instead to launch a major war which has destroyed his reputation forever and will breed distrust of Russian intentions for a generation. Even if Russia somehow manages to win the war, the West will never accept over Russian sovereignty over Ukrainian territory, especially after the revelation of war crimes. The West will sanction Russia indefinitely to prevent that outcome, as well as flood Ukraine with weapons to fire an insurgency. Russia’s best move to avoid such a long, grinding war is a reversion to the old playbook of fake, pro-Russian statelets in the east followed by a cessation of the unsustainable war.

Is it Too Late to Subvert Eastern Ukraine?

This strategy was possible before the war. Ukraine would not have enjoyed Western support to push back, just as the West made no effort to block Russia’s 2014 anshcluss of Crimea. Now though, Ukraine and the West might not even accept this. Indeed, if the Ukrainians fight the looming Battle of Donbas to a stalemate, as they did the Battle of Kyiv, there will likely be hopes to re-take the Crimea, which loss Kyiv has never accepted.

But the ‘frozen conflict’ gimmick is still Putin’s best way out of the mess he has created. His economy cannot sustain a long way under heavy sanctions. His military probably cannot strategically defeat Ukraine anymore; that window has closed. The West increasingly wants Putin himself out of power because of the atrocities. The smart play for Putin now is to revert to the Lugansk/Donetsk break-away scheme of February, declare ‘victory’ on May 9, and then rebuild his battered regime and military before this rolling catastrophe creates fissures in his own regime.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 



  1. sprinter

    April 14, 2022 at 3:40 pm

    Putin has opened Pandora’s box, so it’s too late for him and his supporters.To put it simply the ball is in the control of ukraine, so Putin can’t resort to his playbook.
    Russia will require to hand back stolen ukraine territory, Crimea, and Donetsk. Either that or Putin would have to accept the economic destruction of Russia through western sanctions. The effectiveness of western sanctions validates the gulf between Russia one of the most corrupt countries in the global index of corruption and the upright western democracies.

  2. Joe

    April 14, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    Tut, tut, Robert. You need a grammar checker and German spell checker as well.

  3. Alex

    April 15, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    The fact is that for the republics of Donbass their republics are real. Do you think it is important for them that someone from other countries calls their republics fake? No, it doesn’t matter. Crimeans feel like Russians. They don’t care what people who are not in their country think. One thing is clear: the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have announced that after Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, they will hold a referendum on joining Russia. Those. even this suggests that Russia’s minimum plans will be fulfilled. Now there is a purge from Bandera Nazis and the whole world is sure that everything will be done.

  4. Lance B Joe

    April 16, 2022 at 5:43 am

    The Ukraine people have never accepted the annexation of 2014 and have become more unaccepting since Russian tried to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine. The fight is on and statelets won’t cut it anymore as it is unacceptable to Ukraine.

  5. vmikid

    April 16, 2022 at 5:40 pm

    Dr. Kelly needs to read his history. The Don Republic (Russian: Донская Республика, later known as the Almighty Don Host, or Russian: Всевеликое Войско Донское, Vsevelikoye Voysko Donskoye), was an independent self-proclaimed anti-Bolshevik republic formed by the Armed Forces of South Russia on the territory of Don Cossacks against another self-proclaimed Don Soviet Republic. The Don Republic existed during the Russian Civil War after the collapse of the Russian Empire from 1918 to 1920.[1]

    The assembly of the Don Cossacks — the Krug — proclaimed the independence of the Don Republic on May 18, 1918. This occurred after the liquidation of the Bolshevik-controlled Don Soviet Republic in the territory of the Don Host Oblast on May 10, 1918.

    The Don Republic claimed the territory of the Don region with the city of Novocherkassk as its capital. Administratively, the Don Republic was divided into ten okrugs, covering an area located in the Rostov and Volgograd Oblasts of RSFSR and in the Lugansk and Donetsk Oblasts of the neighboring Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic.

  6. DT

    April 16, 2022 at 6:53 pm

    Russia needs to quit mucking about and take out all the transportation and utilities, air, rail and road. they have the firepower to do this, but I guess they don’t want to crush the Russians in Ukraine. Ukrainians are not 100% against Russia.

  7. Misha

    April 16, 2022 at 7:48 pm

    Given that Russia has a million man army and two million reserves and can project any or all of that power into the Ukraine at will, not to mention tactical nukes, this war is Russia’s to lose.

    The above piece is filled to the brim with self delusion.

  8. Alex

    April 16, 2022 at 8:16 pm

    Ukrainians are mostly for Russia. But there are other peoples in Ukraine in the west of the country who have been praying to Bandera and Satan for generations.

  9. wesley bruce

    April 16, 2022 at 9:34 pm

    Eastern Ukraine and Crimea only have a Russian majority because of systematic Tsarist, Soviet and German ethnic cleansing. Before hand ethnic Russians were a minority, rich in wealth, culture and honor but not numbers. If ethnic cleansing is tolerated then there is no value in diplomacy or the law of war. No hope of peace and trade. If ethnic cleansing is treated as just foundation for a nation then wiping out all of Russia becomes an option. However Dictatorships do not define a nation, a land or an ethnicity. The Kremlin could be destroyed with all in it and Russia would still exist. Its only because of the huge nuclear arsenal that stops this war ending with a Moab on Moscow. Given how badly maintained some parts of the Russian military equipment has been there is a legitimate question how much of the Russian nuclear arsenal will work? How much with blow up in the launch silo or sub? How much of the maintenance money has been spent on the generals dacha and his holiday house in France?
    Putin has a country suffering demographic decline. Russians are not marrying and having children. Throwing thousand of soldiers at Ukraine will only kill off more men, accelerating the process. Some of the units sent into Kyiv were not ethnic Russian; Putin may be trying to wipe them out to balance the demography. Another form of ethnic cleansing.
    Putin can’t win. His loss, his end saves Russia. All the Russians do not die if he dies or retires.

  10. Alex

    April 17, 2022 at 12:06 am

    Very interesting. When I was in Russia three weeks ago, I saw how people live. Everyone is walking, having fun, the shops are overflowing with goods. None of those whom I met even mentioned the special military operation. The people of Russia are not interested in it. And only Bandera Nazis squeal, hysteria, shit their pants all over the Internet. This is what distinguishes the inhabitants of Russia – they don’t give a damn about you, because everyone already knows the result: Ukraine will never again be within the borders that were after 1991. The population has been reduced from over 40,000,000 to about 30,000,000 and it’s not over yet. Ukraine will be left with approximately 15-20.000.000 people and that is an overestimated expectation. Nobody because of the most impoverished country of Ukraine will start a nuclear war. Ukraine now acts as a prostitute where the US and Russia test their tactics, weapons and information warfare. I immediately see a Bandera Nazi – he always starts shouting that there are no Ukrainians in the east of Ukraine. Although it is there that there are purebred Ukrainians. The West of Ukraine has never belonged to Ukraine and even Russia. It is in the west of Ukraine that a mixture of different peoples lives – Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks, Gypsies, Jews. The confusion has led to the fact that they do not know who they are, their language faintly resembles real Ukrainian, but they shout that they are the real Ukrainians, but this is not so. Their envy, anger and satanism turned them into nothing more than petty animal-like servants – Bandera Nazis.

  11. Vladolph Putler

    April 17, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    Wow, this is a real troll orgy going on here. Oh joy, can I join?

    Oh yes, the great Mother Russia will prevail. Sending waves of waves upon more waves of bumbling conscripts to their deaths. Losing jet after jet, tank after tank, ship after ship.

    The great Russian fleet will be able to traverse land though glorious floods of Russian conscript blood. Bridges across rivers will be built with carcasses of perforated Russian armor. Supply lines are meaningless to the great army of Russia, conscripts will continue to live long enough to expend the ammunition they carry. No need for resupply. Excellent strategy of the great and noble Putin. Leading from the front, sending his own children. All going exactly to plan.

    The complete stall of tank and naval asset manufacture due to missing western components, and lack of funding will be shored up as Russian war protesters in the Gulag beat together microprocessor chips with rocks and forge ships over campfires to float in tears for their conscripted children. Astounding and shocking casualty and equipment loss rates do not bother Putin, he is above such concerns. All going exactly according to the plans of the great Putin.

  12. Roger J. Buffington

    April 19, 2022 at 12:57 pm

    Wow, lots of pro-Putin pro-Russian trolls here.
    Fact is that so far Russia is showing itself to be two things. 1. Russia is a reckless and warlike power; a menace to all of its neighbors and to peace-loving nations everywhere. 2. Russia is not a true great power and certainly no superpower. Its military is an incompetent botch, with poor and primitive equipment and poorly trained and incompetent troops. It is highly questionable whether Russia can prevail in the Donbas region.

  13. John

    May 2, 2022 at 1:27 pm


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