It is not too hard to guess what Putin’s goal was when he initiated the current mess in the Donbas. No doubt, he figured he could repeat what he did in Crimea in most of Ukraine’s eastern regions. Find some local malcontents, arm them heavily, insert some professional “green men” from his special forces to organize and command, deploy professional Russian army soldiers as reserves to be surreptitiously sent in whenever necessary, mount a massive propaganda campaign about local freedom fighters liberating territory from “fascist Kyivan oppression”, and stage fake referendums to give it all a veneer of legitimacy. The local Russian speaking masses would all rise in strong support and all of Eastern Ukraine would fall as easily as had Crimea. The Ukrainian military was weak, poorly led, corrupt and incapable of mounting much resistance. In this way he figured he could probably annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Poltava, Zaporyzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolayiv, Kherson and Odessa oblasts. Good plan he thought, except it didn’t turn out that way.
Most of the local “separatists” were a disorganized rabble more interested in pillaging the locals than fighting. They were also prone to internal squabbles and lacked any real discipline. The local population were, by and large, tepid in their support of “Russian liberation”. Although Putin was right about the ineptitude of the Ukrainian military he did not count on the rapid mobilization of volunteer battalions from the Euromaidan movement, nor their motivation, the ferocity of their resistance and their fighting abilities.
In the end, after almost a year of fighting, the “separatist” forces, aided, abetted and armed to the hilt by the Russian military, have managed to occupy only about a third of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and have failed miserably in any of their initiatives in the other eastern regions. The conflict has now degenerated into a stalemate that is causing a huge strain on the Russian economy. Aside from the millions it costs Russia daily to keep the conflict going, the sanctions imposed by the West, as limited as they may be, have thrown Russia into a recession that gets worse each month. On top of that, Russia has basically sacrificed all of its political capital and become a global pariah, all for the sake of what is increasingly appearing to be a lost cause.
It is also becoming increasingly obvious that Putin has no exit strategy from the mess. He cannot capture more of Ukraine without committing more of regular Russian forces, as that would undoubtedly bring in more serious sanctions and risk fueling domestic opposition as the Russian body count would mount rapidly, and the country’s economy would face complete collapse.
The smart thing would be to cut his losses and retreat, leaving Ukraine with the need to rebuild a devastated territory, while Russia gets to keep Crimea. But he is unlikely to do that either, as that would completely shatter the carefully constructed myth about his strength and invincibility, too great a blow to his ego. The mindset of petty dictators like Putin does not allow for the concept of defeat. They know too well that their shrewdly crafted “popularity” is based almost entirely on their ability to maintain the illusion of invulnerable leadership.
The end result of all this is what the international press is now calling a “frozen” conflict. While he tries to figure out what to do, he will keep the conflict simmering and us guessing about his future intentions. He will probably try and shift attention from the Donbas by creating other conflicts elsewhere. He will likely shift to more terrorist activities in other areas of Ukraine, aimed at destabilizing the government and demoralizing the population. He will try to create rifts in the western alliance.
He will find, though, that people have gotten wise to his tactics. The Ukrainian military and security services have been busy purging their deadwood and traitors, and are becoming more effective. The authorities in the Baltics and other neighbouring countries have been alerted and are prepared to repel any sign of “green men” in their domains. NATO has begun to bolster its forces in Eastern Europe. There is no more low hanging fruit for Putin anywhere he now looks.
At the same time, the clock is ticking on Putin as he tries to save his skin. The Russian economy is crumbling, the western anti-Russian alliance is strengthening and internal opposition is building. The longer this conflict continues without an acceptable resolution, the weaker becomes Putin’s popularity. He has a very limited time window to devise an exit strategy. Should one not materialize in the next 6-12 months, the only strategy remaining may involve his joining his despotic predecessors in the afterlife.