December 8, 2022

Institutte for the Study of War: Putin still seeking ‘regime change’ in Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz stated that the risk of Russian nuclear escalation is currently low, partially supporting ISW’s previous assessments. Scholtz stated that “Russia stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons” because an international “red line” contributed to “putting a stop” to Russian nuclear escalation threats on December 8. ISW has always assessed that Russian nuclear escalation in Ukraine was unlikely. Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Russia’s official position on nuclear weapons, including Russia’s non-first-use policy, on December 7. Both Scholtz’s and Putin’s statements support ISW’s previous assessment that while Russian officials may engage in forms of nuclear saber-rattling as part of an information operation meant to undermine Western support for Ukraine, Russian officials have no intention of actually using them on the battlefield.

The Kremlin likely has not abandoned its maximalist objectives in Ukraine despite Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s first-time acknowledgement that Moscow’s current territorial objective is to fully seize four partially occupied Ukrainian oblasts. Peskov took an opportunity to further capitalize on the Western desire for negotiations on December 8 when expanding upon Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 7 remarks regarding the acquisition of “new Russian territories.” Peskov stated that one of the main goals of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine was to “protect residents of southeastern Ukraine and Donbas” when responding to a journalist‘s question regarding the Kremlin’s original objectives for war. Peskov also noted that there are no talks about annexing new territories that are currently not under Russian partial occupation as there is “still a lot of work to be done” to fully occupy Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson oblasts. Peskov, however, reiterated that the Kremlin is still pursuing its “demilitarization” and “denazification” objectives in Ukraine, which confirm that Russia is still pursuing regime change (“denazification”) and the elimination of Ukraine’s ability to resist future Russian attacks or pressure (“demilitarization”). The Kremlin’s objectives, in other words, continue to remain unchanged from those set following the Russian withdrawal from around Kyiv. Peskov’s comments were not an inflection in Russian war aims or demands.

Putin’s invocation of Russian imperial history on December 7 and his recent remarks regarding Russia’s role as the only “guarantee of Ukrainian sovereignty” are further indicators that the Kremlin is setting conditions for a protracted war aimed at eradicating Ukrainian sovereignty. The Kremlin’s deliberately inconsistent messaging is part of a persistent information operation intended to mislead the West into pushing Kyiv to negotiate and to offer preemptive concessions.

The Kremlin’s Western-oriented messaging is continuing to anger the pro-war milblogger community that is increasingly accusing the Kremlin of deviating from its original war goals in Ukraine, however. A prominent milblogger stated that “the annexation of Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts was not among the declared goals of the special military operation on February 24.” Less prominent milbloggers claimed that Putin does not have the capacity to continue pursuing his maximalist goals following numerous withdrawals and unsuccessful offensive campaigns, forcing the Kremlin to accept protracted war as the means to wear down Ukraine. The Kremlin’s deliberately inconsistent rhetoric may have further ramifications on the appeal to Russians of Putin’s vision for the war in Ukraine.

Putin may be deliberately distancing his rhetoric from nationalists’ unrealistic demands for the Russian war efforts in Ukraine. Putin stated on December 8 that in order to help Russia complete its war goals Russians should stop engaging in confrontations on the information front and suppress their impulses to believe fake and leaked information. Putin added that there is “a lot of noise” within the information space regarding Russia’s missile campaign against Ukrainian energy infrastructure and falsely implied that Russian strikes are retaliatory measures following the claimed Ukrainian attack on Kerch Strait Bridge, shelling of the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant, and Ukraine’s uninterest in providing water to Donetsk City. A prominent milblogger — who had been calling on Putin to retaliate for Ukraine’s liberation of Russian-occupied territories and claimed Ukrainian strikes against Russia — found Putin’s comments disappointing and angrily interpreted Putin’s statements to mean that the Kremlin had not planned to strike Ukrainian infrastructure if the attack against Kerch Strait Bridge did not occur.

The Kremlin has been increasingly attempting to reorient public opinion to favor its official messaging, and Putin’s December 8 statement may aim to diminish or marginalize the milbloggers to re-establish the perception that the Kremlin maintains a “moderate” and authoritative position. Putin has previously publicly associated himself with nationalist milbloggers but still drawn criticism for failing to fully ideologize Russia.

Putin may be attempting to get the milblogger community under control by attacking its credibility and encouraging self-censorship. Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated on November 6 that Russians must listen to information about mobilization from Putin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) when responding to a question regarding Telegram channels. While Putin may also be considering actually censoring the milbloggers, such measures remain unlikely given Putin’s ongoing efforts to retain relations with select milbloggers. Putin’s December 8 statement may also be an example of poor messaging discipline that failed to account for Russian milbloggers’ growing complaints about Moscow’s failures to address the perceived Ukrainian threat against Russia.

Key Takeaways

  • German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that the risk of Russian nuclear escalation is low.
  • Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley stated that fighting may intensify in Ukraine during the winter.
  • The Kremlin has likely not abandoned its maximalist goals in Ukraine despite Dmitry Pskov’s comments on Russian territorial objectives.
  • The Kremlin’s Western-orientated messaging continues to anger the pro-war milblogger community.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin may be distancing his rhetoric from nationalists’ unrealistic demands for the Russian war in Ukraine.
  • A senior Kremlin official admitted that the Kremlin tolerates criticism from the pro-war milblogger community out of a desire to appeal to the wider nationalist community.
  • Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces further militarized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
  • Russian forces reinforced positions near Svatove and conducted counterattacks near Kreminna amid continued Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka–Donetsk City areas.
  • A Russian government official implied that Putin’s word is law when it comes to the military mobilization of Russian citizens.
  • Russian occupation officials increased security measures in Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine.

(For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-december-8      )

Share the Post: