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Russia’s Ukraine Victory Goal Is Simple: Conquer Donbas (And Annex It?)

Ukraine War
Ukrainian service members fire with a self-propelled howitzer 2S1 Gvozdika, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in unknown location in Kharkiv region, Ukraine May 7, 2022. REUTERS/Serhii Nuzhnenko

Russia in Donbas – Moscow Consolidates its Gains and Ponders Annexation: While Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine began as a broad assault that targeted a variety of Ukrainian regions and cities across northern, southern, and eastern Ukraine, Russian forces have since concentrated their attention on an offensive in the Donbas region. Ukraine’s Donbas, which had previously been the location of fighting between Ukraine and Russia as well as the forces of the Russian-supported LNR and DNR pseudo-states, is now the focal point of Russia’s invasion.

While it is unclear how Russia’s military and political leadership may see the present operation within its overall strategy, it is clear that Moscow seeks to consolidate its position in Donbas in the short term.

At the time of writing, Russian forces have seen modest gains at several points in Donbas in recent days. As noted by the Institute for the Study of War’s May 30 assessment, Russia is focused on pinching off the Ukrainian salient between the towns of Izyum, Sievierodonetsk, and Popasna, thereby encircling or otherwise forcing out the entrenched, experienced Ukrainian troops stationed there.

As part of this, Russian troops have reportedly made some progress in advancing toward the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Ukraine needs in order to maintain ground supply and communication links with its forces in Sievierodonetsk. On May 27, Ukrainian military officials confirmed that Russia had taken the town of Lyman on the northern edge of the Ukrainian salient, but that Ukrainian troops had also blocked Russian advances towards the city of Sloviansk for the time being.

However, although Ukraine’s political and military leadership has expressed concern that the relative concentration of Russian forces in Donbas outmatches that of Ukraine in the eastern region, there is little to suggest at the moment that even a significant victory for Russia in Donbas would precipitate a deeper thrust into Ukraine in the short-term future. The Russian armed forces have suffered significant losses in manpower and materiel in Ukraine thus far, including significant casualties among its already-small non-commissioned officer corps, which will negatively impact the tactical proficiency of the Russian armed forces for some time.

Despite these wider headwinds, recent Russian advances in Donbas appear to have encouraged more optimistic thinking in Moscow on Russia’s prospects in the war. Pro-war Russian social media has seized on recent victories as a sign that Russia’s fortunes in its “special military operation”  to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine” were changing in Russia’s favor. Despite the original wide scope of Russia’s invasion, which opened with an audacious (yet ultimately scattered and overstretched) attempt to seize Kyiv and other key Ukrainian cities, Russia was forced to narrow its present operations to Donbas after facing dim prospects of success in its sieges of Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Nonetheless, Moscow reportedly still nurtures hopes that it can seize Kyiv despite its recent failure to do so. According to Meduza, the Kremlin considers the seizure of Kyiv to be a “maximum threshold” of victory in its invasion of Ukraine, a victory Russia hopes to win by wearing down Ukraine’s military and banking on Western fatigue for support to Kyiv, based on reports from anonymous sources in the Russian Presidential Administration.

Despite these ambitious ideas, Russia’s leadership appears to be considering the idea that it may only be able to present the seizure of Donbas and southern Ukraine as evidence of its success in its invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s military leadership continues to maintain that the “liberation” of Donbas is a principal goal of the invasion, a victory which Russia could potentially claim soon, as only small pockets of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts remain under Kyiv’s de facto control still.

In the absence of more substantial victories, Russia could seek to integrate the LNR and DNR statelets as well as the parts of Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhia Oblasts which it controls as an identifiable victory which could be presented to the Russian people. Moscow has already begun to tie the populations of the occupied territories of Ukraine to Russia through a variety of familiar and unfamiliar means. Presidential decrees to “simplify” the granting of citizenship to orphans from Ukraine, LNR, and DNR, or the issuing of Russian passports to Ukrainians living in Kherson and Zaporizhia are a step in this direction, and mimic Russian efforts to integrate the Crimean Peninsula after its 2014 seizure. Likely with the guidance or approval of the Kremlin, individual Russian federal subjects have begun to provide “assistance” to municipalities in Donbas, which could in part be an early experiment in such municipalities’ future as part of Russia.

Messaging from DNR head Denis Pushilin on May 26 that it would be “expedient” for his statelet to hold a referendum on joining Russia after the “constitutional borders” of the DNR and LNR are seized (the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts) is a strong indication that Russian leaders in Moscow are preparing the option to annex Donbas directly if they estimate that further gains are not likely in the near-term following Russia’s Donbas offensive. Moscow has been quick to shoot down similar referendum schemes that it doesn’t support (such as outgoing South Ossetian leader Bibilov’s Hail Mary plan to hold a unification referendum), so the Kremlin’s tolerance of Pushilin’s stated plans can be a signal of support it itself. The Russian Presidential Administration’s appointment of former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko as the Kremlin’s point-man for Moscow’s relationship with the Donbas statelets has also been interpreted as a sign of top-level interest in the integration of occupied Ukrainian territories, given Kiriyenko’s primary expertise in domestic policy issues.

As Russia’s offensive into Ukraine’s Donbas continues, Russia appears to be preparing a menu of options for the Kremlin to choose from based on the fortunes of its latest assault. While Moscow’s final choice on the matter is not yet known, it is clear that Russia seeks to consolidate its position in Donbas militarily and politically in the immediate term.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.