A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 22, 2022

What Putin's Pivot To "Plan B" May Mean

Putin's 'Plan B' is now about leverage for end-game negotiation, with the Russian dictator using terror tactics to secure whatever advantage he can wring from Ukraine and its western allies so as to claim some sort of victory, as well as forestall any internal attempt to unseat him. JL 

Michael Gordon and Alex Leary report in the Wall Street Journal, image Maksim Levin, Reuters:

After Russian forces failed to secure a quick victory over Ukraine, U.S. officials see the Kremlin shifting to a new strategy to secure key territorial objectives while seeking leverage to compel the Ukrainian government to accept neutrality between Russia and the West. Having seized both Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, Russia seeks to secure a “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea, and to expand Russian control of the Donbas. Should Mr. Putin’s demands be rebuffed, he is expected to try to hold the ground his forces have taken, and fight on. The shifting strategy means weeks—possibly months—of attacks from a weakened Russian military content to fire missiles and artillery from a distance.

After Russian forces failed to secure a quick victory over Ukraine, senior U.S. officials see signs the Kremlin is shifting to a new strategy to secure key territorial objectives while seeking leverage to compel the Ukrainian government to accept neutrality between Russia and the West.

The U.S. and its allies had widely interpreted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial objectives to include the seizure of Kyiv in a matter of days, and the replacement of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government with a pro-Russian regime.

None of that has come to pass. A senior U.S. official said indications suggest more than three weeks of grueling combat—in which Ukraine has put up fierce resistance to Russian forces—has prompted Mr. Putin to adjust his tactics.

The new assessment of Mr. Putin’s intentions, which is shared by senior officials within the Biden administration, is to compel Kyiv to accept Russian claims to Ukraine’s southern and eastern territories. Having seized both Crimea and the region of Donbas in 2014, Russia seeks to secure a “land bridge” between western Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, and to expand Russian control of the Donbas region.

Mr. Putin would also continue his military pressure, including the pummeling of Ukrainian cities, calculating that it will lead Mr. Zelensky to abandon his hopes of joining the West and agree to a neutral status and other Russian demands.

Should Mr. Putin’s demands for territory and neutrality be rebuffed, he is expected to try to hold all of the ground his forces have taken, and fight on, U.S. officials said. “Based on our assessments militarily, it does appear that he is reverting to siege tactics,” said another U.S. official.

For Ukraine’s beleaguered citizens, the shifting strategy means weeks—possibly months—of attacks from a weakened Russian military often content to fire missiles and artillery from a distance, they said. This shift is designed to pressure Mr. Zelensky’s government into giving up territory and ceding security arrangements.

The assessment of Mr. Putin’s “Plan B,” as one official called it, comes with a number of important caveats. U.S. officials note Mr. Putin might expand his war aims, should his military begin to have more success against Ukraine’s forces. The status of the capital remains an open question, and given stout Ukrainian resistance, it is unclear whether the Russian military can marshal sufficient troops to tightly cordon off Kyiv and take the Ukrainian capital, some U.S. officials say.

The interpretation of Mr. Putin’s strategy isn’t the result of a formal intelligence community assessment, but is the view of some U.S. officials with access to classified information who are not saying the strategy will work. Some analysts note the difficulty of assessing Mr. Putin’s goals and objectives, and warn against reading too much into battlefield developments.

Russian invasion

Areas seized as of Saturday

Direction of invasion forces


Controlled by or allied to Russia

Primary refugee crossing locations

Ukraine territory, recognized by Putin as independent

Nuclear facilities



Not in operation











Controlled by








Sea of Azov






Black Sea

200 miles

200 km

Sources: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (Russia-controlled area in eastern Ukraine); Dr. Phillip Karber, Potomac Foundation (Russian incursions, refugee crossing locations); International Atomic Energy Agency, Energoatom (Nuclear facilities)
Max Rust and Emma Brown/The Wall Street Journal

“His objective has not changed at all,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior State Department official who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland. “What has changed is his tactics.”

“The quick decapitation of the Ukrainian government didn’t work,” Mr. Fried said. “Now he just wants to pound them because they are resisting and therefore it must be purged. It’s Stalinesque.”

At present, Russian forces are faced with enormous challenges, including faulty logistics, a shrinking supply of precision-guided munitions and growing casualties, which could include as many as 7,000 Russian troops killed in action, according to U.S. calculations.

In Mariupol and other cities, his forces have reverted to some of the siege tactics they employed in Grozny in 1999 and 2000 during the second Chechen war when Mr. Putin rose to power as prime minister and then president.

In Chechnya, Russian forces sought to gain control of a major city in a Russian territory that is smaller than New Jersey. In Ukraine, Russia faces the challenge of trying to gain control of multiple cities in a country that had a population of 44 million before roughly 3.4 million fled Ukraine and is larger than France.

After weeks of tough fighting, Russian troops have pushed into the streets of the port city of Mariupol, an important strategic objective for Moscow as it seeks to establish a corridor from the Crimean Peninsula to western Russia. Seizing control of the city would give the Russians a battlefield victory, though one achieved at a high cost.

“We’ve seen deliberate targeting of cities and towns and civilians throughout in the last several weeks,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Sunday to CBS News. “He’s taking these kinds of steps because…his campaign is stalled.”

After initial rounds of negotiations, Ukraine and Russia remain far apart on key issues, including the Kremlin’s demands that the Zelensky government recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, formally cede control of the Donbas region and renounce its longer-term aspiration to integrate with the West, including its goal of eventually joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, agreed that the Russian military had shifted its tactics on the battlefield, but said there was no indication that Mr. Putin had backed away from his maximum demands.

Mr. Putin’s main purpose in agreeing to talks with Ukraine, Mr. Herbst said, was to encourage the West to offer concessions while creating the impression for the Russian public that he is open to diplomacy. The talks, he added, aren’t being led on the Russian side by a top-level official.

“I think he began the negotiations at a much lower level because he realized things were not working out on the battlefield,” Mr. Herbst said. “He is still trying to win the war on the battlefield, but he has in no way publicly endorsed anything other than his maximalist checklist.”

President Biden is traveling to Brussels for a NATO summit on Thursday and will also participate in a European Council meeting. The trip comes as Mr. Biden has received both praise and criticism at home for his handling of the crisis. Some lawmakers continue to push a plan that would supply Soviet-built MiG-29 combat jets to Ukraine, an idea Mr. Biden and his advisers have rejected.

Mr. Zelensky has sought to apply pressure on Mr. Biden and leaders in other countries to establish a no-fly zone to shield his country from air attacks. The U.S. and NATO nations have rebuffed that proposal and are moving to send more air defense systems to Ukraine so the Ukrainians can better defend their airspace on their own.

Last week, Mr. Biden said the U.S. would send an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including Stinger antiaircraft systems to help Ukraine defend its airspace and Javelin antitank missiles.

Russia says that it has fired two hypersonic missiles in recent days in an apparent effort to show it could overcome a no-fly zone and any air defenses Ukraine might field, experts say. Mr. Austin said in his television appearance that he would neither “confirm or dispute” that the Russians had used such a weapon. But he added the missile wasn’t “a game changer.”


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