Institute for the Study of War: Russian nationalists call for declaration of war against Ukraine, expanded war aims

July 19, 2022

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Calls among Russian nationalist and pro-war voices for Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand Russia’s war aims, mobilize the state fully for war, and drop the pretext that Russia is not engaged in a war reached a crescendo on July 19. Former Russian militant commander and nationalist milblogger Igor Girkin presented an extensive list of military, economic, and political actions that he argues the Kremlin must take to win the war in Ukraine; first among this list is abandoning the rhetoric of the “special military operation” and defining the official goals of the war in Ukraine.[1] Girkin advocated for expansive territorial aims beyond the Kremlin’s stated ambitions in Donbas, including the reunification of the entire territory of “Novorossiya” (which Girkin maintains includes Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts as well as Kryvyi Rih) with the Russian Federation and the creation of a Malorossiya state (all of Ukraine up to the Polish border), which Girkin claims should be reunified with Russia through the Russia-Belarus Union State. Girkin also called for the Kremlin to shift the Russian economy fully to a war footing and to carry out extensive mobilization measures including forced conscription and the (further) suspension of Russians’ rights.[2] Girkin has often criticized what he views as a lack of ambition and decisive action in the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine through his calls for maximalist objectives and measures to support territorial gains. His newest list of demands adds to the growing discontent within the Russian pro-war nationalist zeitgeist.[3]

While Girkin’s July 19 post is an acerbic critique of the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine, other Russian milbloggers sought to shape a narrative favoring Putin while advancing the same maximalist aims by suggesting that the Kremlin has been purposefully setting conditions for a protracted war in Ukraine since the war began. Russian milblogger Yuri Kotyenok claimed that Russia has been pursuing the “Syrianization” of the war in Ukraine by never articulating specific deadlines or goals for operations in Ukraine.[4] The explicit invocation of protracted Russian operations in Syria suggests that certain Russian nationalist voices are setting conditions for a long war in a way that saves face for the Kremlin given Russia’s failure to secure its military objectives in Ukraine in the very short period that the Kremlin initially planned.

Putin could simply ignore the milbloggers, although he has shown concern for their positions in the recent past, or he could play off their narratives in several ways.[5] He might wait and see what resonance their calls for full mobilization and broader war aims have within the portions of the Russian population he cares most about. He might hope that their semi-independent calls for more extreme measures could fuel support for an expansion of aims and mobilization that he desires but feels Russians remain unprepared to accept. He may instead reject their calls for grander ambitions and greater sacrifices, thereby presenting himself as the moderate leader refraining from demanding too much from his people.

US officials reported that Russia plans to annex occupied Ukrainian territory as soon as autumn 2022, confirming ISW’s May 2022 assessment. US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the Kremlin is beginning to roll out a version of its 2014 “annexation playbook” in Ukraine and is “examining detailed plans” to annex Kherson, Zaporizhia, and all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, citing newly declassified intelligence.[6] Kirby confirmed ISW’s long-running assessment that the Kremlin has installed illegitimate proxy officials, forced use of the ruble, replaced Ukrainian telecommunications and broadcast infrastructure with Russian alternatives, and forced Ukrainians to apply for Russian passports to accomplish basic tasks in occupied territories.[7] As ISW wrote on May 13, Putin’s timeline for annexation is likely contingent on the extent to which he understands the degraded state of the Russian military in Ukraine.[8] He may intend to capture the remainder of Donetsk Oblast before annexing all occupied territories, which would likely force him to postpone annexation. Russia’s degraded forces are unlikely to occupy all of Donetsk Oblast before Russia’s September 11 unified voting day for local and gubernatorial elections across the country, the most likely date for annexation referenda to be held.[9] The Kremlin could also postpone these Russian regional and local elections to limit expressions of domestic dissatisfaction with the Russian invasion of Ukraine—independent Latvia-based Russian language newspaper Meduza reported in May that members of Russia’s Federal Security Service and National Security Council were lobbying to postpone the September 2022 elections.[10]

Putin could leverage nuclear threats to deter a Ukrainian counteroffensive into annexed Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts.[11] After annexation, Putin may state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. Putin may believe that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would restore Russian deterrence after his disastrous invasion shattered Russia's conventional deterrent capabilities, although previous Russian hints at Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons have proven hollow. Ukraine and its Western partners may have a narrowing window of opportunity to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive into occupied Ukrainian territory before the Kremlin annexes that territory.[12]

Russian milbloggers are increasingly openly criticizing the Russian military for failing to address structural problems with Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), highlighting the VDV’s failure to fight the war as it had trained in peacetime, a failing that played no small role in the general Russian failures during the initial invasion. Russian milblogger Military Informant stated that Russian VDV has not adopted force structure and tactics reforms that the Russian military already knew were necessary prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.[13] Military Informant stated that lightly armored Russian VDV vehicles (such as BMD and BTR-D) are too heavy to enable effective airborne mobility—especially in contested airspace—and too light to provide sufficient protection in maneuver warfare. Russian milblogger Alexander Sladkov similarly noted that Russian VDV forces‘ structural reliance on a small number of lightly armored fighting vehicles is a liability.[14] Military Informant praised how the Russian VDV previously practiced using light unarmored vehicles for higher mobility in three consecutive years of annual capstone command staff exercises (Tsentr 2019, Kavkaz 2020, and Zapad 2021) but noted that these adaptations did not have time to “take root” before the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.[15]

The Russian military’s failure to implement lessons learned—or to learn the right lessons—from previous exercises or combat is an ongoing trend that ISW has observed.[16] The most prominent example of this phenomenon was the Russian military’s failure to create a cohesive command and control system for the amalgamation of approximately 120 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) assembled for the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine after experiencing successes operating smaller numbers of BTGs in Ukraine in 2014 and in Syria in 2016.[17]

Key Takeaways

  • Calls made by Russian nationalist and pro-war voices for the Kremlin to officially define operations in Ukraine as a war, conduct general mobilization, and pursue expanded territorial goals reached a crescendo on July 19 with some criticizing the Kremlin and others claiming that Putin has been preparing for the “Syrianization” of the war all along.

  • The Kremlin will likely attempt to illegally annex occupied Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk oblasts into Russia as early as September 11, 2022.

  • Russian milbloggers highlighted the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) failure to fight as they had trained—a critique that helps explain the general Russian failures during the initial invasion of Ukraine.

  • Russian forces continued efforts to resume offensive operations toward Slovyansk from southeast of Izyum and around Barvinkove.

  • Russian forces continued ground attacks to the east of Siversk and had partial success in ground attacks to the east of Bakhmut.

  • Russian authorities are continuing to leverage unconventional sources of combat power to avoid general mobilization.

  • Russian occupation authorities are escalating law enforcement measures to protect administrative control of occupied areas.