Article published in The Daily Express, 26 February 2022. © Richard Kemp
Putin’s immediate objective is to put in place a puppet regime to bring Ukraine under Russian control. His forces are now on the outskirts of Kiev, preparing to besiege or assault the city and hack down the government. Ukrainian authorities are handing out guns to untrained volunteers to help defend the capital. Urban combat is notoriously bloody and if Ukrainian troops and civilians put up stiff resistance against the Russian attackers, street-to-street fighting will be very costly for both sides. In this scenario Putin would also sabotage cellphone towers and water mains, launch cyber attacks, and cut off electricity supplies to the city, helping spread panic among the people.
While Putin will not balk at inflicting and sustaining heavy casualties he would prefer to achieve his goal without such carnage — he does not need a stream of body bags going back into Russia. That could be avoided by capturing or killing President Zelenskiy using Russian agents in the city or driving him out of the country, or at least into western Ukraine — he knows he is at the top of Putin’s kill list. The intention would be to force the president and his government to renounce their own legitimacy, paving the way for an interim regime installed by Putin. Alternatively, Zelenskiy might decide to end the bloodshed by coming to terms with Moscow and there are already reports of a potential meeting in Belarus between Ukrainian and Russian delegations. This would not be an agreement among equals but Putin dictating terms as Hitler did to the French in a railway car in Compiegne in 1940.
What next? It will be Putin’s hope that the Ukrainian armed forces stop fighting and are either stood down or give their allegiance to his new regime in Kiev, following the precedent of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet when Russia took over Crimea in 2014. That is perhaps more conceivable among the people of eastern Ukraine. Reports coming out of Ukraine suggest Moscow might be planning to divide the country into two, perhaps broadly along the line of the River Dnieper, leaving the east of the country including Kiev under his power, with the west becoming ‘neutral. That might avoid a costly fight and harsh resistance in the more patriotic west. It would effectively restore eastern Ukraine to Russia, with ports and military bases. But Putin must also fear the eventual build-up of an insurgency from the west of the country, supported by Britain, the US and Poland, and becoming a thorn in his flesh, perhaps necessitating a future invasion to subjugate it.
These may be Putin’s intentions, but in war nothing is ever certain. A well-used military axiom tells us that no plan survives contact with the enemy.