Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
In his September 21 speech about the steps he was taking to win his war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin had to explain why he had not already won. The culprit was NATO, which he faulted for the huge support it has given to Kyiv. When he said “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal” if Russia’s territorial integrity is violated, some saw a link with the earlier part of his speech when he referred to the proposed referendums in occupied territories. But that was left vague. It is hard to establish a redline in areas where the situation on the ground is so fluid. In line with all previous statements, it was toward NATO that his nuclear threat was directed, to deter it from getting even more directly involved in supporting Ukraine.
As for actually turning the tide of the war, his proposed remedy was more troops. He decreed all Russians who had received previous military training to report to service, a mobilization described as “partial” but still looking substantial. Men without past training appear to have been rounded up, including students, who were supposed to have been excluded. Nothing in the seven-minute speech removed the stench of failure surrounding the enterprise. While it remains unclear if the draft can make any difference to the outcome, it has already raised the stakes for Putin at home. As many men are herded sullenly into buses to go to war, others seek to flee the country or, in defiance of draconian security measures, take to the streets to protest.
Failure, however, is not something that Putin and his inner circle can acknowledge. At each stage—the thwarting of his initial offensive against Kyiv in February, the slow grind of the limited advances that Russian forces made in Luhansk in the summer, the sudden breakthroughs by Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv in September—Putin has doubled down. Instead of looking for a way to cut his losses and exit before matters got worse, he has continually insisted that his objectives will be achieved, although the precise nature of those objectives has fluctuated, and even modest gains of territory have taken far longer, and cost far more in troops and equipment, than could possibly have been anticipated at the outset.
In an article for Foreign Affairs in July, I argued that many of the problems facing Russia during the opening months of the conflict could be attributed to the higher direction of the war. The whole Russian chain of command struggled to cope with an enemy that resisted stubbornly and imaginatively, posing operational problems that had not been anticipated and that Russian forces were ill equipped to deal with. More important still was the delusional nature of Putin’s original decision to invade. As Russia’s supreme commander, Putin viewed the enemy in caricature, his assumptions untested against available intelligence on Ukrainian military preparedness and popular attitudes in Ukraine itself. His distorted understanding led to the arrogant belief that Ukrainian resistance would collapse with the initial Russian push, and that the country could then be easily subjugated. It did not take much knowledge of Ukrainian history to appreciate how difficult both these tasks would be. Even if the initial military moves had succeeded, Russian forces lacked the capacity to pacify such a large population in such a large country.
As has now become clear, these flawed assumptions created an even deeper problem. Because Putin never recognized the invasion as a full-blown military conflict and refused to acknowledge that fact to the Russian public, he found himself with far too little manpower as the initial attack was transformed into a slow, grinding, and enormously lethal war. As a result, he has now been forced to seek new means to replenish his troops, but at a stage at which it will be very difficult to change the momentum. How Russia reached this extraordinary juncture, then, must be understood not only as a consequence of Ukrainian strength and resilience, and Western support, although they have been extraordinarily important, but also as the outcome of a series of military errors on the part of Russia’s own leadership, beginning with its initial invasion strategy.
In the early days of the war, it was hard to imagine that Russia lacked the forces to complete the first stage of taking Ukraine. Its formidable military buildup had been underway for months before the February 24 invasion began. Because Putin had kept nearly everyone—including senior commanders—guessing about how these forces would be used, however, the strategy had not been thought through and so planning was unavoidably inadequate. The intent to invade was communicated to the frontline commanders too late to enable them to make proper preparations. Far too many separate lines of advance were chosen, so that in effect a series of separate wars were fought, each with its own command structure and without an appropriate mechanism in place to coordinate and share resources with the others. As a result, Russia’s initial moves were quickly rebuffed.
Most important, Russia failed to take Kyiv and was unable to destabilize the Ukrainian leadership. Not only surviving but also defiantly rallying his people from the capital, President Volodymyr Zelensky was able to swiftly and successfully press sympathetic countries for arms and ammunition. Now the Russians were caught in a different sort of war from the one they expected. Though they certainly had the advantage in numbers, there was an essential asymmetry in motivation. While Russian forces were unsure of their objectives in Ukraine and waited for orders, the Ukrainians were fighting for their homeland and were prepared to do whatever it took to free it from occupation.
There was no “hearts and minds” component to the Russian campaign.
Great powers fighting smaller countries are expected to have sufficient reserves to cope with early setbacks. But for Russia, poor military leadership compromised this natural advantage. Because Moscow had paid little attention to whether and how the Ukrainians would fight back, its forces soon found themselves taking heavy casualties and their logistical and command systems becoming progressively attenuated. After a month of war they were obliged to retreat from the north to concentrate on operations in the east and south. The Donbas was the territory that Moscow viewed as the heart of the dispute, and for a while it seemed that as Russian forces concentrated on taking the region—using familiar tactics, with heavy artillery barrages wearing down Ukrainian defenses—they might be gaining the upper hand. Even though the Ukrainians were not completely overrun, there were concerns in Kyiv and among its Western allies that the defensive effort would leave them with insufficient capacity to mount counteroffensives of their own. As a result, some Western analysts began making the argument for an early negotiated end to the war that would concede some territory to Russia in return for peace. But such voices were rarely heard in Ukraine. The egregious treatment of Ukrainians stuck in Russian-occupied territories and Russia’s readiness to bombard civilian areas added to Ukrainians’ determination to keep fighting. There was no “hearts and minds” component to the Russian campaign.
Adding to the Ukrainian government’s resolve to continue the fight was the fact that by June its efforts to persuade other countries to provide weapons more suited to counteroffensives were starting to bear fruit. Ukrainian forces had taken heavy losses as they slowed down Russian advances. But the time gained by this forceful resistance was sufficient to allow more powerful armaments to arrive from the West—including, notably, the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS)—and for Ukrainian troops to be trained to use them. By this time, as Ukraine was gaining the ability to strike targets over long ranges with high accuracy, Russian forces had run through much of their stocks of precision-guided munitions. Throughout July, Russian ammunition dumps, command posts, logistical hubs, and air defense systems were regularly hit, undermining Russia’s ability to continue its offensives and then enabling Ukraine to begin one of its own, to liberate the Kherson region in the south. That push appeared to be making slow but steady progress when, in early September, the Russians were caught by surprise, as their thinly spread forces around Kharkiv were overwhelmed by a determined Ukrainian offensive that led to a rout of Russian forces on September 10 and a disorderly retreat. After almost seven months of war, the initiative was now with Ukraine.
These events led to the crisis that Putin sought to address in his statement of September 21. Most of all, the crisis is a direct consequence of his own original decision to launch the war. But how have his subsequent decisions as supreme commander aggravated the predicament that Russian forces now face? They have done this in four ways.
Putin’s initial mistake, once it was clear how badly the war was going, was not to use diplomatic means to bring it to an end with some gains to show for all the effort. In the weeks after the invasion began, Putin was not short of opportunities for discussions with other world leaders. From February to April, direct talks were held between delegations from Russia and Ukraine, including talks at the foreign-minister level under Turkish auspices. Some progress was made on ideas related to future Ukrainian neutrality in return for security guarantees. But the details were never pinned down, and Russia failed to convince the Ukrainians that any concessions on their part were going to lead to a Russian withdrawal.
After all that had happened, including Russian atrocities in the suburbs of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv’s ability to trust Russia’s word on anything, never high, evaporated completely. Putin’s constant lies and dissembling undermined his credibility to international interlocutors, such as President Emmanuel Macron of France. Just as important, he could never find a way to offer tangible concessions of his own, because to accept less than he had originally demanded would be acknowledging some sort of defeat. In the summer, when a cease-fire proposal from the Kremlin might have achieved a sympathetic reception in some Western capitals, Russia never offered one because it had yet to take all the Donbas.
Second, Putin misjudged the leverage he could get from Russian oil and gas. He gambled heavily that the energy crisis he created, by cutting back supplies of natural gas to Europe, would persuade Western governments to put even more pressure on Kyiv to make concessions and to stop providing it military assistance. These cuts did have dire effects on European economies, in the form of energy shortages and high inflation, but politically they were counterproductive. There was no clamor among Europeans to abandon Ukraine to ease the economic pain. Instead, European leaders put enormous efforts into reducing their dependence on Russian gas, thus losing Russia a vital long-term market.
Third was Putin’s focus, after the failure of the initial Kyiv offensive, on territorial gains in the Donbas. The campaign in the east made more sense politically and could be executed in a more deliberate and systematic fashion. But it also meant concentrating available Russian resources into what was now a narrow segment of a very long frontline and taking high casualties for modest gains. Meanwhile, Russian forces continued to underestimate the Ukrainians. As Ukrainian capabilities improved, Russian vulnerabilities were left exposed, both in terms of vital assets that could not be properly protected, such as the ammunition dumps, and the number of Russian-held areas that were now thinly defended. Moscow lacked the reserves to reinforce defenses in both of the regions to the north and south of the Donbas—Kharkiv and Kherson, respectively—and having opted to defend Kherson because Ukraine had made no attempt to hide its coming offensive, it left Russian forces exposed in Kharkiv.
Russia’s woefully inadequate defenses highlighted the fourth of the problems caused by Putin’s choices. Because the invasion was designed as a limited and, Putin hoped, quick operation, it was not accompanied by a full mobilization. It was not even called a war. This meant that from the start Russia never had enough infantry, and over time the extensive losses in all departments made the situation worse, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Instead of acknowledging the difficulties, Putin encouraged efforts to find new recruits wherever they could be found, using various means to bribe, cajole, and coerce them into service. Many already in uniform, for example from the navy, were ordered into roles for which they had not been trained. The Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary outfit with close ties to the Kremlin, which has used the conflict to build up its own power base, has offered prisoners a way out of their sentences by volunteering for the front. Complex operations have become increasingly difficult to manage because the fighting units have become incoherent, consisting of groups that are poorly trained and have not worked together before. All these deficiencies meant that Ukraine was able to move even more rapidly, and often with negligible Russian resistance, when it launched its Kharkiv offensive in September.
Now Putin has sought to remedy the chronic shortage in manpower by mobilizing a very broad category of men, whatever their actual military experience and professional roles. The starting goal is 300,000 extra troops, although the eventual number could be much higher. Rushing them into service without proper kit (winter is coming), equipment, training, and officers capable of leading them risks carnage in battle and a backlash at home. Meanwhile, Putin’s decree also prevents those already on the frontline on short-term contracts from leaving. This could further worsen the morale and discipline issues that have plagued the Russian side from the start.
It is a common refrain among those who worry about Russia’s next moves that Putin cannot lose. But he can and he might. A series of terrible decisions has led him to undermine Russia’s international position and economic prospects, shatter the reputation of the Russian Federation as a serious military power, and fail in the most important gamble of his career. As with all wars, the future course of this one will have unpredictable aspects, but Ukraine, with a clear strategy, better weapons, and committed forces, has seized the initiative. The mobilization he has announced will not turn this around, and the use of nuclear weapons would make a bad situation catastrophic. Putin is on course to lose, and given the many thousands of lives already sacrificed, he fully deserves to do so.