Ruined Ukranian city surrounded
Ruined Ukrainian city: Destruction and terror is intended to force capitulation. Credit: Shutterstock

Expert Comment. Ukraine war: Putin’s masterclass in delusion, denial and defeat

It should have been obvious. Vladimir Putin made clear he was going to do it. He said Ukraine was not a legitimate country. He maintained NATO was a threat. And his invasion plans were leaked, just before it started. But for all the warnings, the months of planning, the stockpiles of weapons and overwhelming superior force, the worst kept secret strategy has not worked out the way the Russian president intended.

By Dr Robert Johnson, director of the Changing Character of War programme, University of Oxford History faculty.

Russia has become the reviled aggressor in a war it seemingly cannot win, rather than the clever player of international strategy and diplomacy it set out to be. Putin clearly cares nothing for public opinion or heavy civilian casualties, but his original strategy has failed. It is clear, he had intended:

  • To create a new world order with Russia as a dominating power, a rival to the US and NATO. 
  • To be in control of Kyiv in two days.
  • To present NATO with a fait accompli: it would have to accept a ‘greater Russia’.
  • The Ukrainians would capitulate, and get no support.
  • Russia would return almost to its Cold War size and strength.
  • China would lend support in a new Asian axis.

As the world looks on in horror at events in Ukraine, it was clear the Russian army’s failure to take Kyiv in a blitzkrieg campaign, the foundation stone on which Putin’s strategy rested, has led to a very different war – one of attrition rather than one of decision.

As the world looks on in horror at events in Ukraine, it was clear the Russian army’s failure to take Kyiv in a blitzkrieg campaign, the foundation stone on which Putin’s strategy rested, has led to a very different war – one of attrition rather than one of decision

Russia’s miscalculations had long been there. In Moscow, there was a growing sense of grievance and fear – grievance at the west’s ‘global domination’, and fear that Russia was going to be next. But few took Russia’s consequent threats seriously, simply because they were based on false premises.

Last summer, the Russian leader wrote an essay on Ukraine which diminished its significance as a nation through his own falsified history. He demanded it should never be permitted to join either the European Union or NATO.  This was followed, in December, with a list of demands, and accusations that the West had ‘aggressively expanded’ NATO, even alleged ‘assurances’ in 1990 were an invention. Putin simply could not accept that small nations could voluntarily join an alliance: in his world view only strength, and strong powers, matter.  

The West hoped diplomacy could resolve the crisis, but the majority opinion was that Russia would never take the risk of launching a war. After all, what Russia wanted was impossible to deliver: the demand to withdraw all allied forces back to a line established before 1997, effectively demilitarising Eastern Europe and creating a realm of influence and control for Moscow that, in effect, would re-establish the Soviet sphere.

In Moscow, there was a growing sense of grievance and fear – grievance at the west’s ‘global domination’, and fear that Russia was going to be next. But few took Russia’s consequent threats seriously, simply because they were based on false premises

What Putin was aiming for was no less than the end of Western global domination [as he saw it]. Once Ukraine was conquered, conventional forces would be placed on borders of Ukraine and Belarus, and nuclear forces moved into Belarus to counter NATO.

Putin evaluated Western power as geographical ‘expansion’, not the result of Eastern European popular opinion. For him, democratic movements were merely the orchestration of covert forces, not genuine public uprisings; they were the products of US and Western intelligence - because that is exactly how he would make use of them.

In Putin’s eyes, the West has been dismantling any threats to its global domination, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran, through revolution, invasion, or economic tools. He believed Russia was next. In his calculus, the only powers that can stand against the West are Russia and China. It explains Putin’s demands of December 2021.Those grandiose ambitions were supposed to be expressions of power, but they look very much like statements of fear

If Putin wanted to make Russia a great and respected power, then the economic consequences of his decision have been disastrous and the reputation of the country lies in tatters. Failure to reach Kyiv in two days, meant the strategy had to change to the deliberate destruction of cities and towns, as happened in Syria. Mariupol is a particularly tragic case, but it points to the intimidatory optics with which Putin sought to replace his original strategy. Destruction and terror here is intended to force capitulation across Ukraine.

In his calculus, the only powers that can stand against the West are Russia and China. It explains Putin’s demands of December 2021.Those grandiose ambitions were supposed to be expressions of power, but they look very much like statements of fear

The deterioration of the Russian economy and resupply of Ukrainian resistance has put Putin in a race to reduce the cities, and take Kyiv, before the economic damage at home worsens to the point where potentially it could no longer be stabilised. The Ukrainians need to hold on, and draw as much support as they can from the West, in the hope that the Russians will become exhausted and the attrition of their manpower grinds their army to a halt.

The Russian army has shifted to a ‘rubblisation strategy’: terrrorised civilians would either flee or capitulate, Putin reasoned. Anyone showing fight would be flattened. Despite the evident failures, Putin believes he could still win, simply by grinding on. And most of the Russian public appear to be completely unaware of the details of the conflict, being fed purely a diet of military successes.

In terms of cost-benefit analyses, Putin’s war is no longer worth the military success that might be achieved. It could prove to be a classic example of operational achievements failing to turn into strategic victory. Putin has failed to grasp that for Ukrainians, this is now in an existential war and they will resist. Russia cannot now achieve its strategic ends and risks a culminating point of stalemate.

The Russian army has shifted to a ‘rubblisation strategy’: terrrorised civilians would either flee or capitulate, Putin reasoned. Anyone showing fight would be flattened. Despite the evident failures, Putin believes he could still win, simply by grinding on

Putin will be calculating that the West will never intervene for fear of nuclear retaliation. But Ukraine may be able to compel the Russians to make a choice: to persist and suffer irreparable losses, or desist and achieve some compensatory peace.

Some hope that, faced with a catastrophic war, elements within the Russian regime will act to depose Putin?   In the short term, this seems unlikely, but, as with sanctions, time is a strategic resource, and Putin’s time may eventually run out.

From the original article The First Phase of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine CCW 2022 (1) (squarespace.com)