Despite all the losses from 20 months of war against Ukraine, Russia’s strategic aims remain the same. These amount to the elimination of Ukraine’s statehood and culture; the establishment of a new global order where US strength and influence are nullified; and the subordination of its vast borderlands and the cowing of Western Europe.
Putin’s regime has sought to do this with two seemingly contradictory tactics. Firstly it has tried, so far with very limited success, to subjugate Ukraine by force of arms. At the same time, it periodically indicates a willingness to consider a ceasefire.
This reflects a recognition at the highest levels that the war has caused the Russian armed forces to blister and bleed — whatever the true casualty numbers, and they are certainly horrendous — its confirmed losses in heavy war-fighting equipment, including tanks, combat aircraft, and warships are meanwhile notarized and huge.
The regime needs a pause of several years before re-starting the next round of hostilities from an improved position (Hamas is employing the same reasoning, though from a weaker position, as Israel’s ground offensive erases its military base in Gaza.)
There have been three identifiable attempts to float the idea of a pause in hostilities. The first came in September–October 2022, when Russia executed a partial mobilization, intensified missile attacks against Ukrainian cities, and worked to raise the Ukrainian army’s combat costs for its liberation of the Kharkiv and Kherson districts. The campaign was spiced, as always, with threats of far worse to come — on this occasion through evidence-free accusations that Ukraine planned a “dirty bomb” and associated nuclear saber-rattling.
Russia’s leadership also hoped that the tensions between the United States and communist China around Taiwan would increase and that it would win enough room for diplomatic maneuvering (through a Chinese peace plan) with a prospect for ceasefire negotiations by the end of 2022. As it was, when it eventually emerged, the Chinese plan was free of detail and soon forgotten.
The second attempt took place in February–March 2023 when Russia froze the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, completed the seizure of Bakhmut, and conducted unsuccessful offensive operations against Vuhledar.
Also, in March 2023, Xi Jinping visited Moscow. The Kremlin sought to present this as heralding a new era of Russia–China partnership or even alliance. The purpose was the same: to win local but symbolic successes on the battlefield together with a strengthened diplomatic position against the West to initiate a ceasefire negotiation process, to prevent the extension of Western military assistance to Ukraine, and so disrupt its impending counter-offensive.
The third attempt came at the beginning of October, when Russia declared its revocation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and then launched a massive attack on Avdiivka. There were also acts of sabotage on the Balticconnector gas pipeline and undersea optical cable between Finland and Estonia and Sweden and Estonia, respectively. The three countries say the attacks were deliberate and are further investigating.
Whether or not the Kremlin was aware of the Hamas plan to attack Israel on October 7, it sent a clear signal by subsequently hosting a visit by a Hamas delegation in Moscow on October 26. At the same time, there has been a wave of antisemitic incidents across Russia and anti-Jewish propaganda on Russia’s state-owned media.
The Kremlin may well believe the Middle East conflict will soak up US diplomatic and military assets and again revive discussion of a ceasefire in Ukraine. Besides the sticks, there are also small Russian carrots: Russia has demonstrated its readiness to exclude the occupied territories from presidential elections in March 2024. And, of course, Russia is more than happy to once again become a cost-effective gas supplier for Europe.
But while the Kremlin needs a ceasefire to regroup and rearm, it is determined to achieve this on favorable terms. These include Russia’s control over the whole of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions (parts of which are still held by the Ukrainian armed forces) and maintaining the ground corridor to Crimea, so permanently ending Ukrainian access to the Sea of Azov.
This would allow Russia to hold onto large swaths of Ukrainian territory, while keeping major industrial cities like Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, and Kharkiv under artillery fire control. This would freeze any significant investment in these regions, and consequently prevent Ukraine from restoration and modernization.
As during the initial phase of Russia’s war of aggression from 2014-2022, there is no doubt that Russia would continue to strike Ukraine even after a ceasefire while employing the familiar propaganda language of necessary retaliation and the prevention of “dangerous military activity.”
Russia’s tactics of missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian cities are similar to the tactics of missile strikes that Hamas uses against Israel. And given that Russia has a deep industrial base, unlike Hamas, it is easily able through advanced missiles and loitering munitions to threaten all Ukrainian areas at all times. Ukraine will use air defense systems of course, but such a defense will require significant resources and anyway would be insufficient to achieve sustainable economic development.
It has been suggested that a “Korean scenario” is possible in case of a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine. North Korea has never shelled Seoul since 1953 despite the short distance between South Korea’s capital and the border.
But the reason is that North Korea was completely dependent on the Soviet Union then, and is completely dependent on China now. The Soviet Union did not want to continue the war on the Korean peninsula in 1953, and China has not wanted the new war there, as yet. Nor does North Korea itself want a real war, for now.
In contrast, Russia’s strategic purposes are still the same: eliminating the Ukrainian state and the national culture, undermining the existing rules of the global order and US global leadership (and this point also means the undermining of NATO), and establishing Russia’s dominance over its neighborhood and over continental Europe, something it has been developing since 1993–1995.
Such an achievement is necessary to insure the Kremlin when the inevitable “party of the stolen victory” appears (this is invariably a weapon in the armory of ultranationalist hardliners after an unsuccessful war.) It would also open Ukraine to the risk of domestic political turbulence in the following years. Together with the Kremlin’s bet on growing instability in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific, Russia could afford to await a better moment to fight again.
There are multiple additional benefits. Perhaps most important to Putin and his people is the lesson to democratic Europe that Russia cannot be defeated on the battlefield despite its economic and technological weaknesses. This would cause significant demoralization among the European elites and make at least some of them more compliant in relations with Russia.
The only way to make Russia stop its aggression against Ukraine and give up its radical strategic goals and attempts at destabilization around the world is through systemic military and financial aid to Ukraine, which allows the Ukrainian army, the army representing all democracies, to eliminate Russia’s military power and its will to fight.
Russia must be defeated. Russia cannot be allowed any relief. Russia must be made to fail. It really is as simple as that.
It is essential that the United States and its allies continue and increase their efforts. As was clearly demonstrated by Hamas during recent weeks, long breaks for radicals only stimulate deeper cruelty and the extent of subsequent aggression.
Dr. Pavel Luzin is a non-resident senior fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.