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ISW analyses Putin’s statements about “demilitarised” zone

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The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has analysed Russian president Vladimir Putin’s statements regarding the idea of a “demilitarised zone” which he believes would separate Russian territory from the combat zone in Ukraine.

Source: ISW

Details: Russian president Vladimir Putin reiterated his maximalist and deliberately blurred territorial goals in Ukraine on 31 January.

During a meeting with his election “proxies”, the Russian leader stated that advancing the current front line deeper into Ukraine is the most crucial goal of the Russian military across the entire combat zone.

Putin pointed out the idea of a “demilitarised” or “sanitary” zone in Ukraine, which, as he said, would move Russian territory, including occupied parts of Ukraine, out of the reach of both frontline artillery systems and long-range systems provided by the West.

The ISW analysts noted that Putin’s stated goal of moving the front line so that the claimed and actual Russian territories are beyond the reach of Ukrainian fire range is blurry and practically unattainable as long as there is an independent Ukraine capable of conducting combat operations.

Putin is likely to annex any Ukrainian territories Russia manages to occupy in pursuit of this illusory goal (including the four oblasts which Russia has declared it has annexed but which are only partially under its control), thus placing new Russian territories within the reach of Ukrainian systems.

The Russian president also included the city of Kharkiv, which he has previously referred to as “Russian”, in this hypothetical “demilitarised zone,” presumably to exploit discussions surrounding the unlikely possibility of a Russian offensive along Kharkiv Oblast’s northern border from Belgorod Oblast.

Putin may intend to amplify these discussions to turn Ukraine’s attention away from the ongoing Russian offensive along the contact line in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts. However, ISW continues to assess that Russian forces in Belgorod Oblast may only engage in tactical actions aimed at diversion and entrenchment of Ukrainian troops along the border.

Putin is also likely trying to appeal to new calls from Russian ultranationalists to create a “buffer zone” between Kharkiv and Belgorod oblasts to push Ukrainian multiple-launch rocket systems and artillery away from the border with Belgorod Oblast.

The ISW assessment noted that Putin has previously stated he would consider the possibility of creating such a “buffer zone” during large-scale dissatisfaction over cross-border raids conducted by pro-Ukrainian forces into Belgorod Oblast in the summer of 2023. However, Russian military forces have not taken any actions indicating that Putin is seriously considering these calls.

Putin also highlighted Russia’s offensive efforts near the settlement of Avdiivka, likely to present these efforts as successful to the Russian audience and further justify the war in Ukraine.

He once again used the standard narrative that the Russian war in Ukraine is a struggle for Russian sovereignty, which is cleansing Russian society of those who oppose this sovereignty and therefore attempting to unite Russian society.

To quote the ISW’s Key Takeaways on 31 January:

  • Ukrainian forces struck Russian targets in the vicinity of Belbek airfield in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on 31 January.

  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a prisoner-of-war (POW) exchange on 31 January, exchanging 195 Russian POWs for 207 Ukrainian POWs.

  • The European Union (EU) will reportedly fall short of its promise to provide Ukraine with one million artillery shells by 1 March 2024.

  • Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russian-Chinese relations are at their “best period in their history” in a 31 January call with Chinese Defence Minister Admiral Dong Jun.

  • Kremlin officials and mouthpieces continued rhetorical efforts to prevent Moldova’s integration into the EU and to set information conditions to justify future Russian aggression against Moldova.

  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that it recently conducted a cyberattack on a Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) communications server.

  • Estonian Defence Forces Commander General Martin Herem stated that Russia may be behind recent GPS jamming in the Baltic region.

  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, and southwest of Donetsk City amid positional engagements along the entire line of contact on 31 January.

  • Russian forces reportedly formed a “secret” battalion of penal recruits to conduct offensive operations in western Zaporizhzhia Oblast but are reportedly disbanding the battalion.

  • Russian and occupation officials continue efforts to erase Ukrainian cultural and ethnic identity in occupied territories.

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