Geoffrey Roberts – How far will he go?: Putin’s territorial goals in Ukraine

From a total victory for Ukraine we have arrived at the question of what Ukraine’s defeat will look like.

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy



As the prospect of a Russian military victory in Ukraine looms ever larger, speculation is growing about the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions. How far westward into Ukraine will his tanks, drones and troops roll?

There is also a lot of lobbying. Russian hardliners are pressing Putin to seek Ukraine’s total defeat and occupation, while Western moderates hope for a peace that will limit Russia’s territorial acquisitions to Crimea and the already-occupied provinces of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporozhe. Such a settlement would leave Ukraine with 80% of its prewar territory, a buffer zone against Russia east of the Dnieper river, and economically vital access to the Black Sea.

The stated goals of the so-called Special Military Operation (SMO) launched by Putin in February 2022 were to demilitarise, denazify and neutralise Ukraine. There were no territorial demands or claims. Russia’s official recognition of the secession from Ukraine of Donetsk and Lugansk and the signing of defence pacts with the two statelets provided the pretext for war but they didn’t join the Russian Federation until October 2022.

When Russia attempted to negotiate a ceasefire and a peace deal with Ukraine in March 2022 the proposal on the table was that Donetsk and Lugansk would remain independent. There was even a suggestion the Donbass rebels could eventually return to Ukrainian sovereignty, albeit with a very high degree of regional autonomy.

It was the failure of the Istanbul peace negotiations and the continuation of the war that made Russia’s annexation of the Donbass inevitable; same was true of Kherson and Zaporozhe. Occupied as part of Russia’s military operations to safeguard the Crimean peninsula’s strategic situation, these two Black Sea coastal provinces, also contain large numbers of ethnic Russians who want to secede from Ukraine, though far fewer than those in the Donbass.

in September 2022 all four provinces staged referendums that, predictably, produced astronomical majorities in favour of uniting with Russia. Putin signed the accession decrees on 30 September and was adamant the referendum results reflected the free choice of millions of people. He called on Kiev to return to the negotiating table but told Russia’s Federation Council: ‘the choice of the people in Donetsk, Lugansk. Zaporozhe and Kherson will not be discussed. That decision has been made, and Russia will not betray it’, he proclaimed to rapturous applause.

Yet the boundaries of these newly incorporated territories were not specified. Had Russia annexed the entirety of the four regions or just those bits it currently occupied? In the case of Donetsk, for example, 40% of the province remained under Ukrainian control. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, further muddied the waters when he stated the borders of Donetsk and Lugansk would be those extant in 2014, while the precise boundaries of Zaporozhe and Kherson would be determined following local consultations.

On this matter Putin has kept his own counsel, but for symbolic as well strategic reason, he will certainly strive to complete the conquest of the two Donbass territories, though the question of whether that area is co-terminus with the provincial boundaries of prewar Ukraine remains unclear.

Russian hardliners hope he also harbours ambitions to capture the Black Sea port of Odessa and, in the north, to seize Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkov. But while both cities fall within the territorial boundaries of what Putin regards as historical Russia, they are also populated by large numbers of ethnic Ukrainians as well as Russian speakers, many of whom continue to support the Kiev regime.

Notwithstanding Russia’s many military successes in Ukraine, so far its armed forces have managed to capture and hold only one very large city – Donetsk’s Mariupol. Absent a complete Ukrainian military collapse, the battles for Odessa and Kharkov would be long, hard and costly to the Russian side. There would also be massive civilian casualties, including among pro-Russia Ukrainians.

Some observers believe that sooner or later Russia will seek to occupy all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper including the provinces of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Sumy, Chernihiv and Poltava – the aim being to reduce Kiev-controlled Ukraine to a rump dysfunctional state that, even with continuing Western support, will no longer constitute a strategic threat to Russia. Such is the fervent hope of many Russian nationalists, but the conquest and sustained occupation of that much territory would require further rounds of Russian military mobilisation and could take years to complete.

The Russian army’s current actions and dispositions indicate an intention to maintain the war of attrition with Ukraine all along the line of contact, to capture Avdiivka and then advance 100 kilometres or so to the Kramatorsk-Slavyansk line, thereby occupying most of Donetsk. Russia is also steadily building up its armed forces and armaments to a level that would enable it to execute large-scale, war-winning offensive manoeuvres, but probably not before summer 2024.

At the Valdai Club annual meeting in Sochi in early October, Putin described the Ukraine war as primarily a ‘civilisational’ rather than territorial a conflict, the SMO’s initial main aim being to protect the people of the Donbass, who were being bombarded by Ukraine’s armed forces.

At that same gathering, Margarita Simonyan, the RT TV chief, asked Putin where the SMO would stop, specifically whether its territorial bounds would include the historically Russian city of Odessa. Putin replied:

“As for where we should stop, it is not about territories, it is about security guarantees for the peoples of Russia and the Russian state, and this is a more complex issue than some territory. It is about the security of people who consider Russia their Motherland and whom we consider our people. This is a complex question that requires discussion.”

Another Valdai question for Putin was: wherein lies Russia’s ‘greatness.’ Again, he sidestepped the territorial issue:

“With regard to Russia’s greatness, it currently lies in strengthening its sovereignty. Sovereignty is based on self-sufficiency in technology, finance, the economy in general, defence and security.”

At a meeting of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation on 3 November. Vladimir Rogov, the head of occupied Zaporozhe’s regional government, pressed Putin to commit to capturing the province’s namesake capital, which remains under Ukrainian control:

“I come from the city of Zaporozhe which is occupied by a gang of drug addicts and Nazis at the moment. When other locals learnt that I would attend a meeting with you, they wanted to relate to you that the city of Zaporozhe is waiting for Russian troops. Zaporozhe residents say: “Russians Help Russians”, and “Everything for the Front, Everything for Victory.”

Putin refused to be drawn. Instead he restated his well-known views about the arbitrary historical formation of modern Ukraine’s frontiers and reminded his audience that the root causes of the war were Ukrainian persecution of its ethnic Russian citizens and NATO expansion into Ukraine. Pointedly, he added that had Russia’s relations with Ukraine remained ‘fraternal’, it would not have been necessary to take any action at all, not even in relation to Crimea. But ‘we had to protect people from this Nazi scum. What were we supposed to do? They simply forced on us a choice where we could do nothing else but stand up in defence of the people living there. The same thing happened with Donbass and with Novorossiya [i.e. Kherson & Zaporozhe].Of course, we need to do everything we can to ensure that the entry of these territories is smooth, natural, and that people feel the result as quickly as possible.

Another local politician keen to commit Putin to specific territorial goals is Vladimir Saldo, the chief of the Russian-occupied parts of Kherson province. In a speech to a conference on the theme of ‘Proud Russia’ organised by Putin’s United Russia party at the end of November, he pledged that Kherson’s namesake provincial capital – from which Russia’s armed forces had been forced to retreat a year earlier – would definitely return to Russian control. On his Telegram channel he went even further, writing:

“I  spoke on Friday with the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Putin] and with the military – everyone is determined to return to Kherson. We will liberate our land. Next will be Nikolaev, Odessa and Izmail”.

So far, there has been no Kremlin confirmation that Putin said or indicated any such thing, or that the SMO’s aims include the capture or re-capture of these cities. In all likelihood Saldo’s claim is no more than his wishful thinking, which is not to say his dreams will remain unfulfilled.

On the basis of Putin’s stated position, his territorial ambitions in Ukraine could be quite limited and he may be willing to forego future territorial gains for the sake of peace terms that will guarantee Russia’s security and safeguard the welfare of his compatriots that remain part of Ukraine. However, his security before territory stance keeps all options open, including the occupation of far more Ukrainian territory.

The longer the war goes on, the further into Ukraine that Russia’s armed forces advance, the more Ukraine’s defences falter – the greater will be the temptation for Putin to listen to the siren voices of his so-called turbo-patriots and grab as much Ukrainian territory as he can.

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