In a meeting with his hand-picked election proxies on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated vague and expansive territorial ambitions in Ukraine.
The statement comes ahead of Putin’s reelections in March where he is all but guaranteed a victory, and may indicate that he is in need of a justification for continuing the war, which was launched with the goal of “demilitarizing Ukraine.”
Putin claimed Russia needs to push Ukrainian forces farther back to ensure occupied areas are out of artillery range, according to excerpts of his remarks published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on Thursday.
“Pushing the current frontline deeper into Ukraine is the most important goal for Russian forces across the theater,” Putin said, as quoted in the ISW report. He called for a “demilitarized” or “sanitary” zone that would place occupied Ukrainian land safely beyond the reach of Kyiv’s Western-supplied weapons.
“Putin’s stated goal of pushing the front line so that Russia’s claimed and actual territories are outside of Ukrainian firing range is a vague goal that is actually unattainable as long as there is an independent Ukraine with any ability to fight,” ISW noted.
This is because any new annexed Ukrainian territories will be brought into range of Ukrainian systems in whatever remains of an independent Ukraine.
In addition to the Donbas region, Putin mentioned the city of Kharkiv as part of the envisioned buffer zone, in what analysts believe is an effort to divert Ukrainian attention from Russia’s ongoing offensive further south.
“Putin is also likely trying to appeal to resurgent calls from Russian ultranationalists to create a ‘buffer zone’ between Kharkiv and Belgorod oblasts,” the ISW report stated. But the Russian military has shown no real interest in advancing toward Kharkiv.
The rhetoric appears aimed primarily at justifying the war to domestic audiences and blocking Western military aid to Kyiv, rather than indicating a shift in actual Russian capabilities or strategy, ISW experts said.
Putin also praised Russian gains around the eastern town of Avdiivka, which he claimed would be among the most important.
“The goals he laid out…are rather likely intended to capitalize on existing narratives in Western media that could…compel the West to negotiate with Russia on Russian terms,” the ISW report concluded.