‘We’ll grind them down in the end’ Sources tell Meduza that the Kremlin is considering another assault on Kyiv and planning victory in Ukraine by the fall
Despite failing to capture Kyiv at the outset of the war, the Kremlin is reportedly considering a second assault on Ukraine’s capital, as Russian troops appear to be on the verge of seizing the entire Donbas region. Sources tell Meduza that advances in the east and expectations that Moscow can win a war of attrition against Kyiv and its Western allies have revived hopes in the Putin administration that a full-scale victory is possible in Ukraine before the end of the year.
Two sources close to the Kremlin and another source inside the Putin administration itself told Meduza that Russia’s leadership has “minimum” and “maximum” thresholds in Ukraine for declaring a successful and completed “special military operation.”
The bare minimum needed to declare victory is the complete capture of the Donbas region, which Russian troops have nearly accomplished already. According to recent estimates, the Ukrainian government remains in control of only five percent of the Luhansk region and less than half of the Donetsk region.
The Kremlin’s maximum goal remains the seizure of Kyiv. Moscow’s initial assault on the Ukrainian capital collapsed back in March, after which Russian troops withdrew (leaving behind evidence of numerous and shocking war crimes). From the very start of the invasion, military experts assessed Russia’s attempt to capture the city as elusive, given the insufficient military force deployed against Kyiv.
But Meduza’s sources in the Kremlin say Russia’s top leadership hasn’t abandoned this goal. “We’ll grind them [the Ukrainians] down in the end. The whole thing will probably be over by the fall,” one source told Meduza.
Others told Meduza that this confidence has spread not only in the Kremlin but in the leadership of United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak regularly visits the Donbas and even raised the Russian flag over the administration building in a small town of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region after Russian troops captured it.
The Kremlin’s domestic policy czar and new point man in Donetsk and Luhansk, Sergey Kiriyenko, has also visited the Donbas. Sources told Meduza that he is still preparing referendums that will give Russia technical grounds to annex the occupied territories. Kiriyenko publicly describes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “battle with Nazism and fascism.”
Meduza’s sources could not say how military leaders in the Defense Department assess the prospects for another attack on Kyiv. As Meduza reported previously, however, Russia’s military leaders have apparently resigned themselves to the fact that Ukraine’s capital cannot be “captured with little bloodshed,” meaning that any second offensive would need more troops.
The Kremlin reportedly believes that it has room for maneuver here. For example, Russia could start sending conscripted soldiers into battle en masse. While reports of Russian conscripts fighting and dying in combat have persisted since the beginning of the February invasion, it remains a fairly rare occurrence, say military analysts. “So far, it’s mainly contract soldiers who are fighting. There are enough of them for a relatively slow advance [across Ukraine]. But you can use conscripts if you need to move faster. It’s an army, after all,” said one source with close ties to the Kremlin.
The same source cautioned, however, that the Putin administration won’t announce a general mobilization. Kremlin officials fear that a public escalation like this could undermine support for the authorities and damage the president’s popularity.
Additionally, Kremlin officials are skeptical that Western nations can sustain their massive financial and military support to Ukraine if the war drags on. “Sooner or later, Europe will tire of helping. This is both money and arms production that they need for themselves. Closer to the fall, they’ll have to negotiate [with Russia] on gas and oil, before the cold season arrives,” one source told Meduza.
“Right now, it seems like little is happened at the front. The Russian army is capturing some minor settlements, and it’s encountering various problems. But it only feels that way because the Ukrainians didn’t surrender immediately, like many thought they would. So, yeah, blitzkrieg failed, and certain miscalculations are evident. But that doesn’t mean victory isn’t possible,” explained another source with close ties to the Putin administration. “Russia clearly has more resources [than Ukraine without the West’s support],” said another source.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s official rhetoric about Russia’s goals in Ukraine remains vague and open to interpretation. The Defense Ministry still says the primary objective of the “special military operation” is the “liberation of the Donbas,” though Russian troops have already entrenched themselves beyond these boundaries in Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Recently, the president even signed an executive order expediting the process of granting Russian citizenship to residents of these areas.
At Moscow’s Victory Day parade on May 9, Vladimir Putin repeated, “All plans are being implemented,” and said, “The result will be achieved,” but he did not explain any further. Previously, the president described Russia’s goals as the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, whatever that means.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock