After heavy losses and few gains, Russia may be moderating its ambitions in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatist soldier in Mariupol
(Image credit: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Senior U.S. officials are coming to believe that Russia has moderated its war goals in Ukraine after stiff resistance inflicted heavy losses and shattered any hope of a swift and easy victory, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Per the Journal, international observers believed Russian President Vladimir Putin's initial objective was to capture Kyiv within days, depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and install a pro-Russian puppet regime.

Now, Biden administration officials told the Journal, Putin's goals appear to be less ambitious. If Putin can bully Ukraine into accepting neutrality, recognizing Russian claims on Crimea and the Donbas, and surrendering a "land bridge" connecting the two, he'll be able to spin that as a win back home.

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Securing this land bridge would require capturing the port city of Mariupol. Russian forces encircled the city weeks ago and have been pushing into its neighborhoods in recent days. On Sunday, Russia demanded that the city surrender, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk replied early Monday that "[t]here can be no question of surrender," Reuters reports.

Putin may well be looking for an off-ramp from this war. An assessment released Saturday by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., concluded that Ukraine has "defeated the initial Russian campaign" and that Russian forces must take a "lengthy operational pause" to regroup if they are to have any chance of capturing major Ukrainian cities.

In an address to the nation on Sunday, Zelensky said Ukrainian forces have killed over 14,000 Russian troops since the invasion began less than four weeks ago. The U.S., which estimates Russian military deaths at around 7,000, lost just over 4,500 troops during the nine-year Iraq War.

None of this is certain, however. The Institute for the Study of War released another assessment on Sunday reporting that Russia appears to be "preparing its population" for a protracted conflict by "implementing increasingly draconian mobilization measures."

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