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Russia Signals They May Scale Back Scope of War; Main Interest Is the Donbas

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As the war in Ukraine enters its fifth week, we’re hearing words like “stalled,” “stalemate” and “bogged down.” Clearly, this wasn’t where Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected to be by now.

Bloomberg reported on comments made by Sergei Rudskoi, the first deputy chief of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff, during a military briefing on Friday.

His words signal that Putin may be searching for a way out of the military and humanitarian disaster he created. Rudskoi essentially told reporters that, from the beginning, all the Russians really wanted were Donetsk and Luhansk. They sure could have fooled us.

Rudskoi said, “Our forces will focus on the main thing – the complete liberation of Donbas.”

He told reporters that the invasion is “successful.”

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According to Bloomberg, he “claimed Russian troops have surrounded several major cities but deliberately didn’t seek to take them, instead aiming to pin Ukrainian troops down.”

Right.

This was a message for domestic consumption. Although we’ve heard about antiwar protests in the country, there are many Russians who believe the government’s propaganda, particularly those in rural areas whose access to news may be limited.

The briefing was also a message to the world. My take is that Putin is searching for an off-ramp, but it must be one that allows him to save face. If Ukraine is willing to surrender the Donbas region, he may be open to ending the war.

Is Putin looking for an off-ramp?

The fighting has gone badly for the Russians. They grossly underestimated their enemy. They hadn’t anticipated the resistance they would face from the Ukrainians, nor were they properly prepared for a long slog. Frostbite, lack of supplies, including food, warm clothing and ammunition, insufficient training and lack of progress have all contributed to the low morale among the troops.

Rudskoi said that 1,351 Russian troops have been killed and 3,835 wounded and that they currently control 93 percent of Luhansk and 54 percent of Donetsk, according to Bloomberg.

Although we have no way of knowing the actual troop losses, estimates have ranged between 7,000 and 15,000.

Initially, Putin’s stated goal was the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. He had massed troops around three-quarters of the country’s border and they quickly sprang into action.

If Putin could have easily conquered the whole country, he would have. Now, a month has passed and he’s feeling humiliated. NATO has united against him. The Russian economy is in shambles and he needs to end this. But he’d really like to walk away with Luhansk and Donetsk.

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Financial Times reporter Polina Ivanova hits some of the highlights from the briefing in the following posts.

Memo to the Russians: No one’s buying it.

Whether Putin’s decision to invade was based on bad intelligence or a chorus of yes-men telling him what he wanted to hear, he’s well aware that he’s made the biggest mistake of his presidency.

“Literally no one believes that Russia’s nationwide offensive against Ukraine was some sort of elaborate decoy operation to make it easier for their military to seize Luhansk and Donetsk,” wrote HotAir’s Allahpundit. “The cost to Russia from such a campaign is far too extravagant, militarily, diplomatically, and economically, to justify such a modest objective. But this is the sort of nonsense they’re apparently going to ask the world to believe in the name of letting them save face while retreating.”

He continues: “What happens now, though? If Russia was serious in today’s briefing about pivoting towards the Donbas, we should expect the forces in or around Kiev and Kharkiv in the north and Kherson and Melitopol in the south to withdraw east in order to consolidate Russia’s position in Luhansk and Donetsk. Maybe they’ll continue the offensive in Mariupol, as that city abuts the Donbas and might logically be part of Russia’s demand for control over the region.

“But the justification for continuing to pound Kiev etc. after today will be thin under Russia’s own logic. If this is all about the east, supposedly, and if Russia is now close to asserting control over the east, why continue to punish the Ukrainians elsewhere? Why not offer a settlement immediately — the Donbas plus Mariupol, maybe, in return for withdrawal — and see what Zelensky says?”

We know the message sent by the Russians was deliberate. The military hasn’t held a briefing since March 2.

Will Zelenskyy and the rest of the world allow Putin to save face and hand over the Donbas region for the sake of peace? Ukrainian negotiators are saying that Russia’s demands are “becoming more acceptable,” according to NPR.

Or was Friday’s briefing merely a bluff?

We’ll see.

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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