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Filling the void Putin’s administration no longer hopes to take Kyiv. The Russian president has yet to make a final decision.

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Klimentiev / TASS

Earlier this week, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a shift in its stated military objectives in Ukraine. Russian forces, the ministry’s spokesman claimed, would “drastically reduce” their assault on Kyiv and Chernihiv (this has yet to materialize) and concentrate on seizing the Donbas. According to Meduza’s sources, this decision was made for both military and political reasons. For one, Russian officials aren’t sure how the country can survive under harsh Western sanctions. 

Changing tack

By the end of March, a month into Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s military leadership finally resigned themselves to the fact that Kyiv couldn’t “be taken with little bloodshed.” That is, Russia couldn’t take the Ukrainian capital with the forces already involved in its so-called “special military operation.” This was reported to Meduza by three sources close to Vladimir Putin’s Executive Office (the Presidential Administration or AP) and two sources close to the Russian government.

According to Meduza’s sources, during the early days of the invasion, both the Russian military and President Putin himself believed the “special operation” would be a fairly easy task — they did not expect so much resistance from the Ukrainian side.

Indeed, in late February, a Meduza source close to the AP was convinced that the biggest problems for Russia wouldn’t be the seizure of major cities, but getting “new administrations” up and running in occupied areas. This person had little doubt that Russian forces would conquer these territories (including Kyiv). “There’s nowhere to get personnel to manage complex, urbanized territory,” Meduza’s source worried at the time. “There weren’t even enough of them for Crimea and Sevastopol.” 

By early March, however, Meduza’s official sources had started to change their tune. Now, they believe Russia bringing just the Donbas under its full control is the most “likely scenario.” 

No less than five of Meduza’s sources attributed the softening of Russia’s positions in the peace talks with Kyiv to the military’s failures at the front. After the Russian and Ukrainian delegations met in Istanbul on March 29, the Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Colonel General Alexander Fomin, announced that Russian forces would “drastically reduce military activity in the directions of Kyiv and Chernihiv.” In turn, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu declared the “liberation of the Donbas” the “main goal” of Russia’s military operations. 

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Ukraine's 10-point plan Journalist Farida Rustamova obtained the full list of Kyiv's proposals to Moscow on March 29

read more about the negotiations

Ukraine's 10-point plan Journalist Farida Rustamova obtained the full list of Kyiv's proposals to Moscow on March 29

Moreover, Meduza’s sources claim that in late March, government officials showed Putin their calculations about the state of the Russian economy. According to these documents, one source said, “the country will not be able to live even remotely normally under such sanctions.”

“There are [government] meetings going on in various sectors with approximately the same content: we can hold out on old reserves for several months. What will happen after, if at least some of the sanctions aren’t lifted, isn’t clear to anyone. Rather, it’s clear that everything will be very bad. Infrastructure problems will begin, and problems with transport,” explained a Meduza source close to the Cabinet of Ministers. 

The party of war

Three sources close to the Presidential Administration all underscored that Putin has yet to make a final decision on what to do next. 

According to one of these people, the president is currently “influenced by different groups and people.” And he himself “would like to see a semblance of public discussion” about the war in Ukraine. This desire for “public discussion” implies that Putin is ready to hear out those who insist on peace with Ukraine, as well as those who call for the continuation of a full-scale war. 

“People close to the Kremlin’s political block are inclined to support the negotiations, and their capabilities on the Internet will be deployed for this. The party of war is, for example, [Chechnya’s head Ramzan] Kadyrov and [State Duma Speaker] Vyacheslav Volodin. They believe that Putin himself is in favor of fighting until victory, so they’re sort of following him,” said a source close to the AP. 

At the same time, officials in the Presidential Administration now fear that a “possible truce with Ukraine will impact Putin’s ratings.” “The citizenry has been overheated by the propaganda. Let’s say a decision is made to stop at the territory of the Donbas. What about the ‘Nazis’? Are we no longer fighting against them? This word has been hammered into people so much that I can’t imagine how we can stop at the Donbas without losing the authorities’ ratings,” said a spin doctor working with the Kremlin. 

A Meduza source close to the AP foresaw problems stemming from another propaganda line — the swift “capture of Kyiv” and holding a “parade on Khreshchatyk” (the city’s main street). “And what do you say after that? That we changed our minds about taking Kyiv? Why? Yes, there aren’t so many real, staunch supporters of war to the very end, but this is a very vocal part of society, it’s already begun to make noise [after the negotiations in Istanbul],” he explained, pointing to the many comments from outraged “patriots” after the announcement about scaling back the assault on Kyiv. 

Russia’s propaganda blitz

‘Z’ How Russia transformed a letter of the Latin alphabet into the official (and ominous) symbol of its invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s propaganda blitz

‘Z’ How Russia transformed a letter of the Latin alphabet into the official (and ominous) symbol of its invasion of Ukraine

As Meduza reported previously, since mid-March, Putin’s administration has been using sociological surveys to determine how the population really feels about the war and which problems concern Russians most. A Meduza source familiar with the AP’s findings said that Putin’s ratings have actually gone up against the backdrop of the “special military operation.” (Similarly, a recent poll conducted by the independent Levada Center shows that Putin’s approval rating hit a whopping 83 percent in March, and his trust rating reached 44 percent.) 

Nevertheless, what will happen next remains unclear. And whether the possibility of “abandoning” the plan to take Kyiv will provoke opposition from the pro-Kremlin electorate is unclear, as well.

“Among the [supporters of the war] are ‘armchair patriots’ who say they support it, but won’t take to the streets for the continuation of hostilities. Women 40+ make up another portion of the core support for the ‘operation.’ They support it, but when asked the question: ‘Are you prepared to send a member of your family to fight?’ they immediately declare that they aren’t prepared to do so,” said Meduza’s source, referencing the results of the Kremlin’s opinion polls. The source added that most often, Russians cite the “threat from the West” as the reason they support the war — echoing “what they’re told on TV.” 

Against this backdrop, the AP held a meeting to discuss strategies for explaining possible peace talks with Ukraine to the Russian population, Meduza’s sources said. Allegedly, no “effective strategies” came out of this meeting. “So much coal has been thrown into the locomotive’s furnace, it won’t be possible to stop it right away,” one political strategist said at the meeting, according to Meduza’s information. 

The way the AP sees it, the difficulty lies in the fact that some Russian propagandists are openly demanding that the war continue: “For example, [state] television host Vladimir Solovyov dragged [Russia’s head peace negotiator Vladimir] Medinsky through the mud.” Other propagandists “don’t understand how to backpedal so as not to lose face.”

Two Meduza sources close to the AP stressed that the disappointment among the “patriotic public” may be very great: “Notionally, for them, it’s like watching a TV series with a spoiler: in the last episode they’ll take Kyiv. And now, in the middle of the series, there’s some negotiations — and it already seems Kyiv won’t happen.”

Accordingly, the domestic political bloc is already preparing for an inevitable drop in the authorities’ ratings after the end of the war and amid the worsening economic crisis. Especially in Russia’s largest cities — namely, in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. According to the results of the AP’s classified polls, no more than half of the residents of these cities currently support the war. 

According to Meduza’s sources, political strategists close to the authorities have already been tasked with dreaming up a “new ideology for the country” and “some new national idea.” As one source put it: “There will be peace in some form anyway, and people will ask questions: what was this for? Kyiv hasn’t been taken, the majority of the sanctions haven’t been lifted, living under them [sanctions] is bad. Why put up with all this? This void needs to be filled so that it won’t be filled by someone else.” 

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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart