War goals in Ukraine: what do the Russians want, what does the USA want?

Neither the USA nor Russia have clearly defined goals for an outcome to the war in Ukraine.

War goals in Ukraine: what do the Russians want, what does the USA want?

Neither the USA nor Russia have clearly defined goals for an outcome to the war in Ukraine. This is also due to the fact that war goals are constantly being adapted to the realities on the battlefield. Nevertheless, there have been a number of statements in the past few days that allow conclusions to be drawn.

What political goals does the USA have in this war?

At the end of March, US President Joe Biden said in a speech in Warsaw about Russian President Vladimir Putin, "For God's sake, this man cannot stay in power". The White House immediately put this statement into perspective - it was probably more of a spontaneous expression of a feeling than a political goal. In his op-ed piece in The New York Times, Biden explicitly writes that the US would not try to bring about his downfall. He also writes a lot about what the US is not aiming for in Ukraine. Three sentences are central to this: "As long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not interfere directly in this conflict, either by sending American troops to Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging Ukraine nor allow it to attack beyond its borders. We don't want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia."

As recently as April, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the US wanted to see Russia "weakened to the point where it can no longer do the things it did when it invaded Ukraine." Biden's guest post is now apparently intended to make it clear that this is not a US military goal. The weakening of Russia to prevent further wars of aggression is more a goal of the West's sanctions policy.

Biden cites a democratic and sovereign Ukraine that can defend itself against future aggression as one of the goals of the United States. He quotes Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as saying that this war can only be ended through diplomacy.

What are Russia's war aims?

What Moscow wants to achieve in Ukraine has changed over the course of the war. At the beginning of the war, Putin threatened the neighboring country with annihilation, he denied Ukraine its own statehood and wanted to "denazify" the country - that is, to depose the government in Kyiv. But the course of the war has made these goals obsolete, at least for the moment.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it clear a few days ago what the Kremlin is now aiming for. On the French broadcaster TF1, he described taking the Donbass as an "unconditional priority". The aim is to push the Ukrainian army and battalions out of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which Moscow recognizes as independent states. However, the self-proclaimed "People's Republics" already comprised only a small part of the administrative units of Donetsk and Luhansk at the time of Russian recognition at the end of February. Most of the two oblasts were under Ukrainian control. Moscow apparently wants to change that - and at least the Luhansk Oblast is on the verge of being completely occupied by Russia.

But what is Moscow planning in the other Ukrainian regions? Even if the entire Donetsk Oblast were taken over, there would still be no land access to Crimea - which Russia is certainly striving for in order to ensure better supplies to the peninsula. Lavrov said that in the other areas where Russia is conducting a "military operation," residents should decide their own future. In the Cherson Oblast, which borders directly on Crimea, Kyiv is therefore expecting a referendum steered by Russia - at the end of which another "people's republic" could be proclaimed. A similar scenario is conceivable for Zaporizhia Oblast between Donetsk and Kherson. He estimates "that the liberated areas will hold a referendum more or less at the same time, which would be logical," said the chairman of the Duma's foreign policy committee, Leonid Slutsky, on Wednesday. According to him, the referenda could take place in July.

An open question so far is whether Moscow wants to occupy the entire Ukrainian coastline. This would mean direct access to Moldova's breakaway, pro-Russian Transnistria. This would require, for example, the capture of the city of Odessa. Driven by the successes in eastern Ukraine, a renewed advance towards Kyiv would also be conceivable. According to the independent Russian news platform Medusa, which referred to several pro-Kremlin sources, there are still plans in the Kremlin. While the complete occupation of the Donbass is the minimum goal, the conquest of Kiev is the maximum goal. "In the end we will crush them. The whole thing will be over in the fall," one of the Kremlin sources is quoted as saying.

How far does US military support for Ukraine go?

It is not limitless; However, where exactly the limit for the aid is is not clearly defined. In a widely publicized piece in the New York Times on Tuesday, Biden announced that he had decided "that we will provide the Ukrainians with more advanced missile systems and ammunition that will allow them to more accurately target key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine hold true".

Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl later provided concrete figures: On Wednesday, Biden instructed the Pentagon to provide Ukraine with equipment worth 700 million dollars: four mobile HIMARS-type multiple rocket launcher systems with matching guided munitions with a range of up to 70 kilometers, five anti-artillery radars, two air surveillance radar systems, 1,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles with 50 launchers, 6,000 unspecified anti-tank weapons, 15,000 155-mm caliber artillery shells, four Mi-17 helicopters, 15 "tactical vehicles" and spare parts and equipment.

That sounds a lot and extensive, but the delivery of the HIMARS in particular gives an indication of the limits of US aid: Normally, these rocket launchers can attack targets with a range of up to 300 kilometers. However, the US is not providing Ukraine with the necessary ammunition. "We do not expect that they will need systems with a range of hundreds of kilometers for the current fight," explained Kahl in a press briefing. When asked if it is true that Ukraine would then not be able to attack missile devices on Russian territory with this system, Kahl said: "We believe that we are giving them [the Ukrainians] the capabilities they need at this stage of the fight. " Zelenskyy assured the US that these systems would not be used for attacks on Russian territory.

Are there still negotiations between Ukraine and Russia?

Talks between representatives of Moscow and Kiev have been on hold since March 29, for which the two sides blame each other. There is currently no sign of a revival of the negotiations. Russia did not rule out a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy on Wednesday (see below). However, Moscow sets conditions for this. According to Zelensky, he has tried several times to organize direct talks with Putin - but apparently Russia is not yet ready for serious peace talks, but is only making ultimatums, he said a week ago.

Ukraine also rejected an immediate ceasefire at the end of May. They are not ready to make territorial concessions to Moscow. "The war must end with the full restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty," Presidential Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak wrote on Twitter. In addition, Ukraine has already stated that an annexation of Ukrainian regions by Russia would end the peace talks. Ukraine's chief negotiator Mykhailo Podoliak does not believe that an agreement with the Kremlin is trustworthy anyway. "Any deal with Russia isn't worth a penny," the presidential adviser wrote on Telegram last Saturday. "Russia has proved that it is a barbaric country that threatens world security," Podoliak said. "A barbarian can only be stopped by force."

At the same time there are attempts to come to an understanding on individual points. For example, attempts are being made to enable grain exports from Ukraine in order to avert global food shortages and famine. But Russia is demanding the lifting of Western sanctions, which is considered impossible. Both sides have also brought up talks about a prisoner exchange - this could also involve the fighters from the Mariupol steelworks.

Who ultimately decides when to negotiate?

Biden says his principle in this crisis has always been that nothing is decided about Ukraine without Ukraine. "I will not pressure the Ukrainian government - neither privately nor publicly - to make any territorial concessions. That would be wrong and would go against well-established principles." Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressly adopted this position: "Ukrainians decide on Ukraine and nobody else," he said on Wednesday in the Bundestag.

Depending on the situation, the Ukrainian government would have to decide whether a Russian offer to talks is meant seriously. At the same time, it is clear that Kyiv is dependent on arms supplies from the West. The United States in particular has leverage here. On the other hand, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly demonstrated that it only adheres to the traditional discretion of international diplomacy to a limited extent. That applies to the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, but also to Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and, of course, Zelenskyy himself. At the end of March, Kuleba quoted Biden as saying: "Ukraine will definitely win, and we will work on it every day that this will happen soon." However, like Scholz, Biden has never publicly said that a victory for Ukraine is the goal of the United States. In short, should Biden force Ukraine into a ceasefire against Zelenskyy's wishes, he would have to fear that it would become known.

There are already signals from Moscow that Russia might be interested in resuming negotiations. "We are open to talks," said Valentina Matviyenko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, on Tuesday. Russia is ready to sign agreements ending the "civil war in Ukraine." She blamed Ukraine for the fact that no talks were taking place at the moment: "We don't see any reaction from Kyiv," said Matviyenko.

Military expert Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations sees these statements as the first indication that the Russian Donbass offensive is nearing its peak. He assumes that Russia does not really want to negotiate, but wants to buy a break to regroup and resupply Russian troops. "In my opinion, Putin will continue the offensive for as long as possible, probably until late summer," Gressel said in an interview with ntv.de. "Then he will see if he can soften up the West - if he can enlist advocates in the West to force Ukraine into an immediate ceasefire before they are mobile and powerful enough to launch successful counter-offensives."

Could Ukraine recapture the territories of the "People's Republics" or Crimea?

Under international law, both the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia, and the two self-proclaimed "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk belong to Ukraine. Their recapture by Ukraine would not be an attack, but legitimate. Apparently there are also different views in Kyiv about the war aims. Yuriy Zak, an adviser to Ukraine's defense minister, recently said that the return of Crimea is an issue "that needs to be dealt with diplomatically." His country's main goal is to ensure that Russia withdraws "beyond the February 24 line." In contrast, the head of the Ukrainian military intelligence service, Kyrylo Budanov, saw the end of the war as "access to our administrative borders" - which include Crimea and Donbass. However, Zelenskyy contradicted Budanov. For him, the possible costs of recapturing Crimea are clearly too high. "I think that will mean hundreds of thousands of casualties on our side," said the head of state at the end of May.

This is mainly because there are only two connections between Crimea and the mainland, so the peninsula is easy to defend. In any case, recapturing the Russian-occupied territories would not only be a question of political will. Rather, it depends on several factors. Military expert Gressel expects in the medium term that the Russian army will become weaker because of the high losses, while the Ukrainian army will become stronger because of the general mobilization in the country. In the fall, Kyiv could be "outnumbered" by the Russians, he said. Two points would then be decisive: "Will the Ukrainians have sufficient mechanized infantry to carry out offensives themselves? And what condition will the Russian troops be in then?"

But even if Ukraine has enough troops and material, there is still a strategic difficulty: "Militarily, Ukraine has been able to hold the so-called contact line in the Donbass since 2015 because the area can be defended well," says Gressel. Conversely, this also applies to the Russian troops. In the event of an offensive in the Donbass, Ukraine would first have to overcome this line of defense - and accept the corresponding losses.

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