Expert Comment: The Russian War against Ukraine: retrospect and prospect
Understanding the decision calculus of President Putin that led to his war against Ukraine, and his plans for the next few months and years, is challenging. Yet, to aid us, we can refer to the pattern of his behaviour, the statements he has made, and the sorts of individuals he has surrounded himself with.
By Dr Rob Johnson, the Director of the Changing Character of War Research Centre at Oxford's Pembroke College, currently on secondment to the Ministry of Defence as the inaugural Director of the Office of Net Assessment and Challenge, bringing critical thinking to bear on UK strategy. He has been intimately involved in assessing the conflict in Ukraine.
The deduction is that this is an individual who is prepared to use extreme violence to achieve his goals, whose view of his own country owes more to fantasy than reality, and who is effectively backed by individuals despised in Russia, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the notorious paramilitary Wagner Group.
The license Putin and his immediate entourage give to use extreme violence, propagate fantasies, and ride roughshod over others had generated a culture of extremism and barbarism, where atrocities are normalised
The license Putin and his immediate entourage give to use extreme violence, propagate fantasies, and ride roughshod over others had generated a culture of extremism and barbarism, where atrocities are normalised. In Europe, we have seen this culture before. It cannot be stopped by ‘a fear of escalation’ or attempts ‘not to humiliate’, as has been advocated by some commentators or politicians. It requires a more robust approach.
The invasion phase of February 2022, coming eight years after the first invasion of Crimea, was supposed to be a three-day seizure of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv where the presence of vast numbers of Russian troops was intended to deter resistance. But Ukrainians refused to submit. Their desire for a free, democratic nation inspired them to fight and enabled them to endure casualties and destruction on a very large scale.
It cannot be stopped by ‘a fear of escalation’ or attempts ‘not to humiliate’, as has been advocated...It requires a more robust approach
Under Russian bombardment, Mariupol suffered the same fate as Aleppo, but the defiance of the Ukrainians was inspirational. President Volodymyr Zelensky epitomised that indomitable spirit in his own conduct while demonstrating a real empathy with his people.
His appeals for assistance drew wide support, not least in the UN General Assembly. By contrast, Putin retreated into the Kremlin, remote from the Russian public. Russia’s attempts to brand their brutal and unprovoked attack as a ‘special military operation’ fooled no one. The symbol ‘Z’, supposed to be the icon of victory, appeared uncannily like the Swastika, particularly when it appeared on Russian army uniforms.
Senior Russian officers also tried to adopt the mantle of the Soviet Union, and Putin spoke about the restoration of Russia’s ‘great power’ status. The reality of the battlefield was nevertheless a disaster for the Kremlin. Russia lost tens of thousands of casualties, was driven away from Kyiv, and ended up locked in a desultory, bloody struggle for possession of miniscule areas of territory: a village, a crossroads, or a strip of woodland.
While Russia threatens a long-term conflict, and assumes it will take Kyiv, the odds have already shifted away from the Kremlin
Putin appeared to be looking for scapegoats, including his intelligence chiefs. The mercurial General Surovikin, who had been the architect of destruction in Syria, was given command of the Russian forces but lasted barely a few weeks before being demoted, probably for ordering the evacuation of Kherson, the only city to have been occupied.
One or two government or business critics then died under mysterious circumstances, and public demonstrations were suppressed with draconian gaol sentences. Russia moved steadily towards dictatorship as Putin ordered mobilisation, although there was too little equipment and arms for the men they sent to the front. Pitiful appeals by conscripted men appeared on social media, with periodic reports that those that refused to fight were punished severely.
What are the prospects, one year on? Ukraine is now getting a steady increase of arms, equipment, and funding. Recent conferences among international donor countries, led by the US and the UK, indicate that the largest flow of munitions since the 1940s is now underway.
Ukrainians would never accept an occupation now, so even if Russia could orchestrate ‘ethnic cleansing’, it could not hold on to whatever it seized
The wave of resources will give Ukraine the opportunity to defend itself not only through 2023, but permanently thereafter. While Russia threatens a long-term conflict, and assumes it will take Kyiv, the odds have already shifted away from the Kremlin. Ukrainians would never accept an occupation now, so even if Russia could orchestrate ‘ethnic cleansing’, it could not hold on to whatever it seized.
Russia’s economy has been badly damaged, and while it has used high energy prices to offset its costs and third party countries to evade some sanctions, the long term damage is beginning to surface. Diplomatically, Russia has given itself a pariah status, and its campaign of terror makes the likelihood of a legal reckoning much greater.
In stalemated conflicts, historically, we normally see a search for new allies, the development of novel weapons, the full mobilisation of the economy, and the opening of new fronts. We have seen all of these emerging towards the end of 2022. Russia’s fear of NATO intervention means it is likely there will be a significant increase in stealthy attacks on Europe and the UK, from cyber to sabotage.
Diplomatically, Russia has given itself a pariah status, and its campaign of terror makes the likelihood of a legal reckoning much greater
Russian propagandists continue to boast that they could wipe out the West in nuclear attacks, but we are seeing a new phenomenon in Russian media: the cracking of Russia’s resolve.
Russians are expressing doubts, and even the most eager supporters of Putin are questioning the conduct of the war. Families are beginning to suspect the official death tolls are wrong.
Businesses are concerned about the duration of the damage to the Russian economy. Putin thinks he can tough it out.
Russian propagandists continue to boast that they could wipe out the West in nuclear attacks, but we are seeing a new phenomenon in Russian media: the cracking of Russia’s resolve
But Russia has often suffered defeats when its soldiers reject the conditions they are forced to endure, when the economy is placed under intolerable pressure, when the truth of the waste in lives starts to come home, and when their leaders are exposed as incompetent. Those conditions are now emerging. If the end comes for Putin, it is likely to be swift.