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It is now clear that President Putin alone is deciding Russia’s strategy in Ukraine. And his ambitions will almost certainly continue to dictate how the conflict plays out in the coming days. But he has lost the initiative.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 2 March 2022.

His plan to rapidly decapitate the government and force regime change has so far failed. And he seems surprised by the level of Ukrainian resistance, the speed and scale of Western sanctions and the spread of public criticism at home. The Russian military was also clearly overconfident in its warfighting abilities.

It is still too early in the conflict to conclude how the military situation on the ground may force President Putin to adjust his goals down from changing the regime in Ukraine. Some tactical victories for the Ukrainian military and emerging media reports of mutinies among Russian troops do not equate to a strategic failure for Russia, in our analysis. It still has a significant amount of armour, artillery and air assets that it can deploy. And a proportion of the Ukrainian military is now surrounded around Mariupol in the south.

Our most likely scenario over the coming few days is that Russian forces initiate indiscriminate artillery attacks on major cities ahead of ground assaults into Kharkiv and Kyiv. This would be with the goal of either forcing President Zelensky to surrender and resign or capturing him. As well as this being highly likely, this also is the worst-case scenario from a business continuity perspective, as it would probably see a protracted and violent political and security crisis take hold in Ukraine.

Other – less than probable – scenarios that we have included below involve President Putin adjusting his ambitions amid the unprecedented international response and criticism at home. This would probably involve a truce of some kind and Mr Putin accepting more limited concessions on Crimea and perhaps Ukrainian neutrality. We have included a highly unlikely outlier scenario where his goals remain the same but Russian forces become bogged down and a stalemate emerges with neither Mr Putin nor President Zelensky willing to concede.

Analysis of ambitions

It is highly unlikely that Mr Putin would broadcast any changes to his goals; to publicly revise these would encourage President Zelensky to hold firm in the face of the ongoing invasion. As such, our best indicators of his intent remain what we can gather from ongoing publicly-shared US and Ukrainian intelligence estimates, as well as the scope of and any changes to Russian force deployments inside Ukraine. We are also monitoring for any softening of tone from the Kremlin, particularly relating to the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine.

There have been clear indications in the past few days that regime change in Ukraine remains President Putin’s primary objective. The clearest of these has been some limited artillery fire and airstrikes by the Russian military on residential areas of Kharkiv and Kyiv and significant troop and armour build-up around these cities. Russian forces have also continued to move across the border into Ukraine over the past week. There would be little tactical or strategic value in these movements were Mr Putin to be instead aiming for more limited goals.

In further signs that Mr Putin’s goals remain unchanged, Ukrainian intelligence today, 2 March, reportedly warned that former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country during the Maidan revolution in 2014, is now in Belarus and Russia is preparing to declare him president. Ukrainian intelligence has not provided evidence to support their claim, but Mr Yanukovych is one of the few remotely plausible pro-Russian candidates. This news follows a claim by the Ukrainian security council secretary that they had foiled an assassination plot against President Zelensky in recent days.

Most likely scenario

In light of these developments, our current forecast is that the Russian military is highly likely to initiate widespread and indiscriminate shelling of major cities in the coming days. This has already begun in a limited format over the past two days as Russian troops and armour amass near Kharkiv and Kyiv for seemingly imminent ground assaults into these cities. Indiscriminate fires from Multiple Rocket Launch Systems and air strikes would significantly increase civilian casualties, with the aim of eliminating urban resistance.

In this scenario, we would anticipate that Russian special forces would try to capture President Zelensky and the core team of government officials around him. He is still doing press conferences from his bunker in the government quarter. Should Mr Zelensky refuse to surrender, urban combat in Kyiv, particularly against committed militia forces, would probably last a few days at least, even with close air support. Russia does appear to be building up the troop numbers around the city necessary for this kind of fighting.

Alternative scenario

To better assist clients to plan for longer-term business continuity in Ukraine, we have listed below a series of alternate objectives, short of regime change. In order of descending likelihood, these include:

  • Demilitarising Ukraine and gaining guarantees that it will never join NATO
  • Agreeing a truce with President Zelensky in return for a neutrality agreement and limited demilitarisation east of the Dnieper River
  • Signing a deal with President Zelensky that recognises Crimea and the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (Donbas) as Russian territory

It is plausible but unlikely that Mr Putin will dial down his ambitions from regime change at this early stage in the conflict. Should this happen, we assess that it would probably be driven by his apparent misjudgement of two key factors: the swiftness and scale of Western sanctions; and the spread of domestic public criticism of the war. But the only evidence that this has had an effect is US media citing intelligence officials that the Russian president has ‘lashed out’ at his staff.

The Kremlin did not seem to have anticipated the extent of international retaliation (that said neither did the international community). Sanctions have included expelling certain Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system and the blocking of exporting certain technology to Russia. On 28 February, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that ‘problematic’ sanctions had ‘considerably changed’ Russia’s economic reality. The Kremlin’s announcement that it was preparing a decree to introduce temporary restrictions on withdrawing foreign investment from Russian assets underscores its anxiety over capital flight, in our analysis.

Nor does the Kremlin appear to have foreseen the scale and spread of domestic public criticism of the war; its media narrative concentrated on a quick and easy victory. Several thousand people have attended anti-war protests, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg. And in a sign that this has worried the government, state regulators have already taken two major independent broadcasters, TV Rain and Echo of Moscow, off the air. Media watchdogs have also instructed all media to only use the information provided by official state sources when covering the offensive.

We assess any downsizing of Mr Putin’s objectives is unlikely before the end of this week at the earliest. Russian troops still appear to be advancing on some fronts, rather than being halted entirely. For his part, Mr Zelensky is proving a much more defiant and effective leader during the war than he was before it. And he is highly unlikely to offer concessions on demilitarisation or NATO membership until he faces the prospect of imminent defeat, given how popular he seems to have become and the strength of the Ukrainian resistance.

Outlier scenario

A highly unlikely but potentially high-impact scenario revolves around Russian forces failing to encircle Kyiv and Kharkiv and Ukrainian troops repeatedly disrupting their supply lines. This scenario stems from President Putin refusing to accept anything less than his primary objective of forcing regime change despite the military being unable to prosecute his war. For this to materialise, over the course of a few weeks at least we would envisage a stalemate taking hold, with Russian forces bogged down and Ukrainian troops holding major cities.

With neither President Putin nor Mr Zelensky willing to offer any kind of concessions, this scenario has the potential to become a prolonged military occupation of eastern Ukraine. But time would be on President Zelensky’s side. The longer the conflict goes on, the better-armed the Ukrainian army would probably become. And the Russian military would eventually need to rotate troops in and out of the country, amid mounting public anger at an unpopular and, with sanctions biting, costly war.#

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Council of Lawmakers at the Tauride Palace, on 27 April 2022, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Putin has arrived in Saint Petersburg to attend an annual meeting of regional parliamentary speakers, State Duma and Council of the Federation representatives. Photo by Contributor via Getty Images.