As the conventional war in Ukraine continues and military operations intensify, Russian President Vladimir Putin is wrestling with the need to maintain his fight in Ukraine while demonstrating to the Russian people that he is winning in the following three key areas: land, security, and identity. For Putin to save face domestically, he must abide by specific demands, directly linked to these three pillars, that he has put forth since Feb. 24, 2022. The first two demands pertain to the security dimension, while the third is related to land and the fourth and final demand is rooted in identity. We will first describe Putin’s original demands and assess whether or not he is likely to backtrack on them. In the event that he is, we will then explore the possible set of strategies or tactics that Putin could use to save face domestically.
Putin’s original demands
- To demilitarize Ukraine and prevent it from receiving weapons that could threaten the Kremlin. In this context, demilitarization signifies the destruction of the Ukrainian military forces, entirely halting all of Ukraine’s military actions.
- To twist Kyiv’s arm into accepting neutrality, along the lines of the Austrian or Swedish models of military neutrality. Ukraine formally abandoned its neutral status in 2014 following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
- To recognize the independence of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as to recognize, once and for all, the final status of Crimea as sovereign Russian territory. This demand also entails seizing control of Ukraine’s coastline (through which 60% of Ukraine’s exports and 50% of its imports transit), evicting the Ukrainian army from the Donbas region, bringing clean water to Crimea, and connecting Crimea via a land corridor to Donbas.
- To achieve the so-called “denazification” of Ukraine. This particular demand encompasses several concerns. Firstly, through Putin’s prism, denazification will force Ukraine to abandon its nationalist ideology, while preventing any lingering anti-Russian “Nazi” propaganda among the military, Ukrainian society at large, and Kyiv’s ruling elite. Secondly, Putin believes that denazification will grant ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine their political and cultural rights. Thirdly, this demand is aimed at preventing Ukraine from mimicking Germany circa 1936-37, when Adolf Hitler began remilitarizing western German lands near the Rhine River and the eastern border of France. Fourth, in line with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks on May 1 during an interview on Italian TV, where in order to justify Russia’s portrayal of Ukraine as “Nazi” despite the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, Lavrov claimed that Hitler also “had Jewish blood” and moreover that “the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews,” it is clear that the modern Russian understanding of Nazism has no linkages to the 20th Century “Western” concept of the same name. The current interpretation posits that the original Nazi movement was not solely focused on the eradication of the Jewish population. Rather, viewed through the Russian perspective, Nazism is primarily concerned with the supremacy of one nation over another.
Following the largely failed “battle of Kyiv,” Putin has realistically — albeit perhaps not explicitly — recalibrated his original four demands outlined above. We can now plainly see how he is gradually backtracking on some of them. At the very least, there is an increasing probability that he may well be forced to backtrack even further on his original demands, and in doing so, readjust his strategy and ultimate aims in the war. Doing so may prove to be increasingly problematic for Putin because, as polling from the largely independent Levada Center shows, his domestic support within Russia has significantly increased following the invasion of Ukraine, jumping from 71% in mid-February to 83% by the end of March. It is therefore clear that Russian society is sympathetic to the objectives mentioned above. Thus, the question becomes why and, even more importantly, how can Putin backtrack on those demands to keep his agenda intact in a manner that ultimately consolidates his support in Russia, increasing the chances that he can retain his tight grip on power and substantial domestic popularity.
The most significant act of backtracking thus far has occurred on the demilitarization front after Russia’s loss in the “battle of Kyiv.” Since then, Putin has swiftly altered his strategy and, rather abruptly, shifted the focus from Kyiv to Donbas. There are several reasons for this. First, Putin recognized that he had lost the blitzkrieg and his effort to ensure a swift military victory had failed. Second, with Western powers continuing to equip Ukraine militarily, Kyiv’s capabilities are growing stronger over time. Meanwhile, the Russian army is visibly becoming demoralized. Third, the Russian commander-in-chief has acknowledged that his army is operating according to the old Soviet-era doctrine and is, therefore, not sufficiently well-trained to handle urban military operations, despite having conducted operations with varying levels of success in Chechnya and Syria. Fourth, unlike in the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-40, modern-day Russia does not possess a sufficiently large army to deploy endless waves of troops to steamroll enemy opposition in Ukraine. The fact that Russia lacks the “workforce” in terms of available boots on the ground has forced Moscow to involve South Ossetian battalions — ill-equipped and poorly led — in the fight. Therefore, due to these shortcomings, and in order to avoid getting trapped in an unwinnable war, Putin has decided to backtrack on demilitarization of Ukraine by changing his tactics and strategy, shifting his gaze from Kyiv to the Donbas region.
Changing his military strategy away from pursuing security aims through complete demilitarization, Putin is now forced to focus on what is, in effect, a land grab, something he is very well versed in, as prior “performances” in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine itself have demonstrated. For Putin, the goal of the Donbas operation is to create a land corridor to Crimea. His aim is to obtain a quick win with long-term positive consequences by no later than May 9, “Victory Day.” Victory Day commemorates Moscow’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II and what the Putin regime frequently refers to as the day when the USSR succeeded in the global fight against the evil of Nazism. Thus, on this historically significant day, Putin hopes to tell his citizens that Russia has achieved victory once again, this time in the battle of Donbas. It is fair to predict that this would boost domestic support for the conflict — and Putin himself — even if Russia continues to suffer battlefield casualties going forward.
As we play devil’s advocate, the ultimate question remains, what happens if Putin fails to achieve a “conventional victory” in the Donbas operation? Should Russia’s “inevitable win” fail to come to pass, a scenario is possible whereby Moscow may, in line with its previous tests in Syria, turn to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including chemical, biological, or even tactical nuclear weapons. Russia still holds the largest arsenal of nuclear warheads in the world. According to this scenario, WMDs could help Putin achieve his immediate and mid-term political objectives of swift consolidation of domestic support, especially if he suffers an excruciating loss in the battle of Donbas. In this scenario, he could consolidate public support by framing a narrative that posits that Ukraine is taking an offensive stance in eastern Ukraine, which, according to Putin and his supporters, rightfully and historically belongs to Russia.
Additionally, we also cannot forget that Putin’s objective is to force Ukraine into accepting military neutrality, which brings us to the second point on neutralization of Ukraine. Putin does not necessarily need to backtrack on this demand, as Kyiv itself proposed neutral status in late March, setting aside its aspirations to join NATO, while Zelenskyy agreed to backpedal on hosting of foreign bases and pursuit of nuclear weapons, at least for the foreseeable future. The fact that Ukraine is willing to sacrifice its aspirations to join NATO does meet one of Russia’s original demands, which in turn would limit NATO’s further eastward expansion as a Russian national security imperative, a topic the authors discussed in greater detail in a previous article for MEI.
Finally, there is Putin’s signature demand of Ukraine’s denazification. At this time, we cannot predict with any degree of certainty whether Russia might consider backtracking on this issue, which was at the core of the initial invasion and the beginning of what Putin and his military cronies referred to as “a special military operation.” According to Putin, there is a growing tendency among Ukrainians to speak Ukrainian (not to mention learn English as a preferred foreign language), which undeniably undermines the supremacy of the Russian language and, therefore, of Russia itself as an imperial power in the occupied country. In light of his Georgian fiasco, whereby Georgians today neither want to speak Russian nor have the ability to do so, Putin is very reluctant to face a similar situation in Ukraine. This is precisely why he is focused on maintaining and strengthening pro-Russian sentiment in Ukrainian society, including among non-Russian-speaking populations. Therefore, he will be forced to backtrack on this demand, particularly as extreme anti-Russian sentiment continues to increase in Ukraine. Instead of speaking Russian, a growing number of Ukrainians will continue to make any and all efforts to speak Ukrainian, irrespective of their ability to do so fluently. After all, at the very core, language is ultimately a matter of identity.
If in the coming weeks Putin loses the battle of Donbas, much like he lost the battle of Kyiv several weeks ago, in order to save face in Russia, he has very few tools left in his arsenal other than turning to the use of WMDs. By using such weapons, he would be able to justify to his domestic audience that Russia’s original goals pertaining to the areas of land, security, and identity have been achieved.
Natia Gamkrelidze is a fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Linnaeus University, Sweden, and a Visiting Scholar at the Russia and the Caucasus Regional Research (RUCCAR) Center at Malmo University. She is an expert on Russia, the United States, European Union, and NATO policy toward the post-Soviet region.
Tinatin Japaridze is the author of the critically acclaimed Stalin’s Millennials: Nostalgia, Trauma and Nationalism (Rowman & Littlefield, March 2022) and currently serves as the Director of Policy and Strategy at The Critical Mass in Washington, DC. She previously worked for the City of New York in various capacities. Japaridze was formerly the United Nations Bureau Chief for Eastern European media, and simultaneously hosted and produced her own show on U.N. Radio. The views expressed in this piece are their own.
Photo by YEVGENY BIYATOV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
 This is partially true for the generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union but more so, those who came of age after the Rose Revolution.