Overview:

Putin miscalculated right from the very start. He's had to completely change his plans and is ill-equipped to succeed. Where to now for Russia? What can Putin hope to get out of this mess?

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Who knows what’s in the mind of a narcissistic conspiracy theorist military dictator? In the case of Vladimir Putin, we actually can get a decent idea of what he originally wanted and how they have had to necessarily change.

When Putin amassed his troops on the Russian and Belorussian borders, we knew there was going to be an invasion. Western intelligence was spot on in this case. This was not a case of Iraqi WMDs.

Flowers and open arms

What we also know is that Russian soldiers were told that the Ukrainians were going to welcome them with open arms and flowers. This sounds like obvious propaganda that the troops were being fed—disinformation perhaps.

But we know this not to be the case.

There were two options for what was going on with this detail:

  1. The Russian commanders and intelligence knew that the Ukrainians weren’t going to welcome them with open arms and flowers. Perhaps this was a ruse to heighten the morale of the troops and to give them purpose.
  2. The Russian commanders believed this to be true. The forces would be welcomed because they really were going to liberate Ukraine and free it from neo-Nazis.

We know option 1 is incorrect because we know that the Russians planned for the campaign to be a 3-5 day operation, with 15 days to secure an easy occupation, giving them time to overthrow the government and install their own.

We know this for several reasons:

  1. Thetroops were only given enough rations and supplies, enough logistical support, for a short incursion.
  2. Plans were captured for a 15-day operation.

The implications

This has staggering implications. It means I, as a random columnist sitting in his office at home in the UK, had better intelligence prior to the invasion of Ukraine than the Russian army and intelligence services. Better than Putin. If Putin had just watched Winter on Fire on Netflix, he would have known that his plans were doomed to failure, that Ukraine genuinely had an appetite for joining the EU and embracing democracy, and that it wasn’t overrun or ruled by neo-Nazis.

The sheer numbers, the massive loss of troops and armaments, on a scale not seen in so few weeks since the Second World War, is a truth Putin cannot hide from, a truth his disinformation propaganda machine cannot lie about. When tens of thousands of body bags return, when families and communities know they have lost that multitude of children and brothers, the real truth could well undermine Putin’s last remaining hopes of getting anything out of this political and military mess.

The Russian intelligence services, Putin’s cabinet, and Putin himself genuinely thought that Ukraine would welcome the Russians with flowers and a warm Soviet embrace.

To have been so monumentally wrong at this point is unforgivable. Kremlin heads are already falling:

According to a leading expert on the Russian security services, Sergey Beseda, head of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch, was arrested along with his deputy, Anatoly Bolyukh….

The arrests were further corroborated by Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist who also added that the FSB officers had carried out searches at over 20 addresses in Moscow of colleagues suspected to be speaking with journalists.

Mr Osechkin [a human told The Times that while the formal grounds of the arrests were made on accusations of embezzlement of funds, he said the “real reason is unreliable, incomplete and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine”….

[Founder of a Russian secret services watchdog] Mr Soldatov told The Times that the final reports produced by the FSB in the lead-up to the invasion of Ukraine and their assessment of how much resistance was expected were “terribly miscalculated”.

The author and editor added that the intelligence may have gathered good intelligence, but the problem lies in the difficulty faced by Russian superiors to “tell Putin what he doesn’t want to hear” so they “tailor their information”.

This is massive incompetence. Or, for those who dabble in conspiracy theories, a way for the FSB to attempt to undermine the power structure within the Kremlin.

It also means that Putin has achieved the opposite of what he wanted. The EU is now more united than they ever have been, NATO is in a better position with other countries now wanting to join (such as Sweden and Finland), and, as I have previously set out, Ukraine’s identity has been shone about the global stage, with President Zelenskyy becoming something of an icon.

Ill-prepared for an actual war

This then meant that the Russians, utterly unprepared for a full-scale war, were then involved in…a full-scale war. And one that just got worse and worse for them:

The Russian army is famously a railway army, transporting armaments and organizing logistics by rail. The Ukrainians immediately took out their own railways into the country from the Borth so that Russian logistics relied on trucks, which could only really supply adequately 90 miles from rail depots. The Ukrainians then destroyed reservoirs that flooded land and made roads difficult or impossible to navigate.

The Russian intelligence services, Putin’s cabinet, and Putin himself genuinely thought that Ukraine would welcome the Russians with flowers and a warm Soviet embrace.

The Russians had some 4000 trucks to do this. That sounds a lot until you realize that the US Army’s equivalent number is about 100,000. And the Russians don’t look after their equipment, partially connected to the endemic corruption involved in the military and their budget. See Trent Talenko’s now-famous explanatory thread on Twitter that shows why so many Russian truck tires were blowing out. Add to this Ukraine’s famous springtime rasputitsa—really difficult mud coming from spring thaws and the terrain, stuff that the Russians should have learned from their WW2 history books—and the Russians were in a very sticky situation.

The MREs—food rations for their troops—were overwhelmingly poor and out of date. By 7 years. Not enough food, fuel, and ammunition, the Russians had ended up invading with decrepit armaments and conscripts that were told they were going on training exercises.

They have now lost upward of five very senior military figures, drawn into the conflict’s front lines due to low morale, soldiers not knowing what they were doing, and a complete lack of decent communication:

A mere three weeks into the war, such statements, along with intercepted chatter, captured equipment, and images of cheap, handheld transceivers, suggest that an inability to communicate — up and down the chain of command and across branches of the Russian military — is impeding Moscow’s war plans….

Evidence suggests that some of the roots of the Russian communication lapses lie in mismanaged development and procurement processes for things like tactical military radios, undertrained and under-deployed specialists, and the challenges of operating on foreign soil, where the enemy controls not only cellular networks but also wired communications that frequently serve as a reliable backup channel.

One of the results has been varying complexity among the systems used by troops for voice and data communications, multiplying challenges particularly because they involve mixed air, land, and naval forces. In such cases, all troops are forced to use a system that’s common to the least advanced among them.

“If you’re forming a mixed formation and part of the formation is comprised of older vehicles like the 90th [Guards Tank] Division approach into Kyiv we saw recently,” Stanimir Dobrev, an independent military expert who specializes in telecommunications, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, “you have to resort to the lowest common denominator.”

In other words, mixing so-called open and encrypted systems makes them only as strong as their weakest link.

Some of those Russian forces’ older equipment, Dobrev said, “can be decrypted almost in real time and thus it’s not useful to add the extra layer of complexity to operate the equipment when there’s little benefit.”

One general was geolocated by using an unencrypted mobile phone, and killed.

The Russians are teaching us two lessons:

  1. They are not the superpower we thought they were and their army is not very good, from procurement to command and intelligence.
  2. How not to do a war.

The Russian plans changed from a quick incursion and government overthrow, based on terrible intelligence, to a war.

A change of plans

But what did they want from the war? They didn’t want a war and were not prepared for a war, with ill-equipped battalions, low morale, lack of experience, terrible logistics, and a lack of cohesive plan.

The Battle of Britain was Germany’s fight for air supremacy in the skies over Britain, without which they realized they could not carry out a successful invasion.

80 years later and the Russians forced themselves into an invasion where they didn’t even have air superiority let alone air supremacy and they are suffering the consequences. The Ukraine air force is still active and air defenses are routinely taking down Russian aircraft and ballistic missiles (with 12 targets taken out on Saturday, according to the Ukrainians).

Moreover, as the Russians’ original plan morphed into something far more organic and lacking any centralized coherence, they ended fighting on about 7 fronts, spreading themselves so thin that they are still without having captured a single strategically meaningful Ukrainian city.

Putin is embroiled in a war where there is no off-ramp. He cannot win.

Putin cannot win this war.

Putin can’t win

He cannot win because everyone in Ukraine, barring some in the Donbas in the east, and Crimea in the south, hate him. He cannot install his own government because there would be a constant insurgency. Worse for Putin, he cannot properly occupy the country because it is too big and would require more troops than he has. It would also signify to his own Russian population to whom he has lied with outrageous propaganda that this never was a “special military operation” designed to “deNazify” Ukraine.

How does he leave with a sense of winning? He cannot get the country intact because the country doesn’t want Russians there, and even the ones sitting on the fence originally would now hate him. He cannot occupy the country and certainly doesn’t want another Afghanistan that arguably acted to foment the end of the USSR.

Assuming he won’t get deposed (either by popular protest or a coup), though I can but dream, he will still need to feel he has “won” or gained something.

If it won’t be an Afghanistan, a decade-long war that ostensibly failed, then it is looking more like a Chechnya or a Syria, a Grozny or an Aleppo. If you can’t control them, flatten them.

The problem here is that what does Russia get out of that? Short-term, Putin can feel he has won a pyrrhic victory with his overwhelming might. But at what cost? Diplomatic isolation, a total loss of soft power, economic suicide of an entire nation, and a flood of middle-class intelligentsia and the rich from out of Russia.

The costs are now far too high for any kind of win on any scale lasting beyond the summer.

What would I do?

“What would I do?” I ask myself, if I was Putin. Well, I wouldn’t be such a monster. But if I was, I would probably see Mariupol and Mykolaiv as the key. They are the key to anything Russia can get out of this conflict.

War map of Ukraine
Via Ukraine War Map (@War_Mapper) https://twitter.com/War_Mapper/status/1505698080229937154/photo/1

If Russia is going to take anything strategic from this terrible conflict, it would be the land corridor that connects Russia through the Donbas (Luhansk and Donetsk in the east) down to Crimea, giving Russia unbridled access to the Black Sea, and a land route to their prized port of Sevastapol. They could then add to this the rest of the coast to Odesa and beyond, taking all of Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.

In other words, if I was Putin, I would be striking a peace deal that included accession of eastern Ukraine and southern Ukraine to Russia, and neutrality (non-NATO) for the rest of Ukraine.

And Zelenskyy’s Ukraine might be forced to strike that deal, as disgusting as it might feel to them. They might have to settle for accepting a bully can come in and destroy a country and then walk off with huge strategic chunks of it, which is what I detailed in my recent piece “There’s no nice and neat moral solution to the Ukraine conflict.” This could also lead to fractions within Ukraine itself and its political landscape as this would be absolutely unacceptable to the ultra-nationalists in the south and east.

Of course, easier said than done for Russia when much of the population in those areas would now hate the Russians.

The Battle of Britain was Germany’s fight for air supremacy in the skies over Britain, without which they realized they could not carry out a successful invasion. 80 years later and the Russians forced themselves into an invasion where they didn’t even have air superiority let alone air supremacy and they are suffering the consequences.

This means that, if you check the map, Mariupol and Mykolaiv are the keystones. I would, as Putin, leave the rest of the forces in weak threat of the northern cities to keep Ukrainian forces tied up, and direct any extra strength, including from Chechen, Georgian, and Syrian mercenary forces, toward securing those two cities.

With each passing day, Mariupol is looking more like Aleppo or Grozny, being reduced to ruins in front of TV and social media audiences. The valiant efforts of the remaining Ukrainian troops and residents are doomed to eventual failure. Putin is not interested in the city, so he can flatten it. He is interested, if anything, in what the lack of that city will allow him access to: Crimea by land.

Ukraine is merely a strategic territory to him now, and was probably always only that. There is no ethnic union, no cultural oneness of peoples, with Ukraine. If he really felt that, he wouldn’t be bombing those very people to death.

On the other side of Crimea, usefully sitting on a river, is the pivotal Mykolaiv, a city that has been incredibly hard to overcome for the Russians and that has recently undertaken some counteroffensive, culminating in the destruction of countless helicopters at the airport at Kherson. Mykolaiv is the gate to Odesa, without which controlling the whole coast is impossible. But this nut will be hard to crack.

Where to now?

In light of my summarizing and hypothesizing, I would expect to see a definite focus on the two aforementioned cities. The Russian forces in the north, struggling with a lack of ammunition, fuel, food, and replacements, are literally digging in and relying on long-range missile attacks and artillery barrages to keep the defensive forces engaged in the major cities and theatres.

But the sheer numbers, the massive loss of troops and armaments, on a scale not seen in so few weeks since the Second World War, is a truth Putin cannot hide from, a truth his disinformation propaganda machine cannot lie about. When tens of thousands of body bags return, when families and communities know they have lost that multitude of children and brothers, the real truth could well undermine Putin’s last remaining hopes of getting anything out of this political and military mess.

Morgues and hospitals in Belarus have been inundated with dead and wounded Russian soldiers, and the NDAs their staff had to sign will last only so long. There is news of railways being sabotaged from within Belarus, and its dictator-leader Lukashenko will know it will be global political and economic suicide to submit to the behest of Putin. Indeed, there are reports of widespread disaffection from within Belarussian military ranks, with reports of defections and personnel fleeing the country.

Putin’s problems mount as he becomes further mired with every passing day in a festering quagmire of his own making, and even Belarus might not help to the degree he wants.

But when I, sitting in front of my laptop a month ago, had better military and strategic intelligence than Vladimir Putin, you’ve got to wonder how the hell we got here, and where in the hell we are going.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...