Take a careful look at presidential statements from Russia and the United States this week, and you’ll see that the leaders of the two countries appear to be clarifying their goals in Ukraine — as the war shifts to a concentrated, bitter fight for control of the eastern part of the country.
The latest statements by President Vladimir Putin and President Biden don’t preclude a dangerous escalation. But they do offer public descriptions of each side’s goals in ways that may reduce the risk of miscalculation — perhaps setting parameters for what Cold War strategists would have called an “agreed battle.”
Putin’s new message, implicit but unmistakable, is retrenchment. Having failed in his initial push to seize Kyiv and topple the government, he now speaks of controlling the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, known as Donbas, and neighboring areas along the coast. Biden’s message, by contrast, has become more assertive: stepping up U.S. military aid to Ukraine and vowing to resist Putin’s hegemony over Kyiv, even as he quietly recognizes certain limits.
Putin focused in two statements this week on the priority of securing the Donbas region, which Russia views as independent of Kyiv. Protecting the separatists in Donbas from the central government was Putin’s pretext for invasion when he launched the war Feb. 24. But in the opening weeks of the war, he also appeared to be seeking the overthrow of President Volodymyr Zelensky, with his nonsensical talk of the “denazification” of Ukraine. With Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv, that broader goal seems to have receded.
Putin emphasized the Donbas mission on Wednesday, at a choreographed meeting with a group that included a 12-year-old girl from that region. “As I said at the very beginning, the purpose of this operation is exactly to help our people living in Donbas, people like you. We will act consistently and achieve a situation where life will gradually return to normal there,” he said.
Putin amplified this message in a meeting Thursday with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Putin claimed victory in the southern coastal city of Mariupol and praised the Russian troops there who have assaulted the city for weeks, asserting that they “sacrificed their lives so that our people in Donbas live in peace and to enable Russia, our country, to live in peace.”
But he ordered Shoigu not to storm Ukrainian fighters still entrenched beneath a steel complex outside Mariupol, telling his defense minister to instead “prioritize preserving the lives and health of our soldiers and officers.” That didn’t sound like a president ready to pay the butcher’s bill for a bloody campaign to capture all of Ukraine.
Biden offered a similarly pointed summary of American priorities in remarks Thursday at the White House. He announced another $800 million in military aid for Ukraine, matching a similar package just a week ago, and praised the “fearless and skilled Ukrainian fighters” resisting Russia’s invasion. He said that the United States could sustain its military support to Ukraine “for a long time.” But Biden avoided, as he has since the beginning of the war, any suggestion of direct U.S. military involvement.
Biden underlined NATO unity against Russia, another bedrock theme of U.S. policy. The alliance, he said, was “sending an unmistakable message to Putin: He will never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine. He will not — that will not happen.” Biden’s statement, though resolute in tone, left open the possibility that Putin might occupy some of Ukraine, in the southeastern region where Russian attacks are now concentrated.
The comments this week in Moscow and Washington illustrate the way in which war can sometimes clarify choices and reduce uncertainty. Finding such stability was the premise of the “agreed battle” formula discussed by some Cold War strategists. Herman Kahn of Rand Corp., famed as a “wizard of Armageddon," once postulated a specific “escalation ladder” for superpower conflict. The ladder had 44 rungs; nuclear weapons were to be used only at rung 15.
Putin’s renewed emphasis on Donbas, with its implicit message of limited war aims, could reduce some of the pressures for escalation. But paradoxically, if Putin’s forces fail in Donbas over the next few weeks, as they did in the battle for Kyiv, the situation could become more unpredictable and potentially dangerous. The odds of escalation might increase again.
As if to remind the West of his other options, Putin this week watched by video the test of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile. This nuclear-weapons delivery system “will be a wake-up call for those who are trying to threaten our country in the frenzy of rabid, aggressive rhetoric,” Putin warned. It was a staged event, more chest-thumping about Russian capabilities than specific threat. But it offered another glimpse of the dangers that lie beyond the current parameters of the Ukraine conflict.
Finally, an unlikely personal footnote: As I was drafting this column, Russia announced that I was among 29 Americans who are banned indefinitely from traveling to Russia. This sanctions list is an unusual group, including Vice President Harris and her husband, fellow journalists George Stephanopoulos of ABC and my Post Opinions colleague Robert Kagan, and tycoons such as Mark Zuckerberg of Meta.
I guess that means the Foreign Ministry won’t be issuing the visa granted last fall for me to travel to Russia. But, hey, at least my columns are being read in Moscow.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.