The most stunning geopolitical surprise of the past year is how poorly the Russian military has been fighting in Ukraine. When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion in February 2022, everyone—including the US intelligence analysts who had predicted it—assumed that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv would fall within a few weeks or even days and be replaced by a Moscow-bred puppet regime. Some anticipated that a long insurgency war might then follow, but no one was impetuous enough to guess that nearly a year later the Ukrainians would be not only fighting the Russians to a standstill but pushing them back on nearly every front.
Has the Ukrainian army turned out to be much better than imagined, or has the Russian army turned out to be a lot worse, or both? In Putin’s Wars, Mark Galeotti, a British scholar and journalist highly regarded by experts on Russian military matters, attributes the unexpected battlefield outcome to Russian weaknesses as well as Ukrainian strengths (greatly abetted by NATO weapons and American intelligence resources), but he lays out a persuasive, detailed case that Russia’s deficiencies are more severe and more deeply rooted than many Western officials and pundits had detected.
Galeotti notes that Moscow overloads its army with weapons but allots too little money and attention to the mundane stuff of logistics—spare parts, food, water, and the trucks to transport them—thus leaving supply lines vulnerable and making offensive operations unsustainable. Junior officers receive rote training, so they’re unprepared to take the initiative—a deliberate policy to keep them from rebelling against senior officers, though as a consequence, campaigns can plunge into chaos if they don’t go as planned. Combine all this with widespread hazing of enlisted men, ramshackle barracks, poor nutrition, and low pay, and it should have been foreseeable that while today’s Russian soldiers might be roused to defend the motherland, they’re lackluster at invading other countries.
Up to a week before the invasion, I was predicting that for all these reasons Putin would not go through with it. I thought he might send in troops to occupy Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, a slice of which Russian Special Operations Forces and Moscow-backed separatist militias already controlled, but trying to conquer all of Ukraine—next to Russia itself, the largest country in the former Soviet Union, with a population of 40 million people—seemed a losing proposition. My military analysis, it turned out, was spot-on; I went wrong in overestimating Putin’s rationality.
Galeotti dissects the many ways that Putin miscalculated his military’s strength. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, so did its armed forces, as a result of which the new Russian state “initially had no army as such.” By the time Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2000, the military—still suffering from post–cold war torpor, like the country as a whole—was “scarcely functional.” Over the next decade and a half, through an enormous infusion of money (facilitated by higher oil prices) and spurts of creative reorganization, commanders (most of them recruited or promoted from outside the normal chain of succession) transformed it into a fighting force “capable of waging and winning a whole range of conflicts”—an impressive feat. But the range of wars that the Russian military waged and won was narrow. None of them involved the tactical complexities or fierce resistance that it met in Ukraine; and, even so, its victories were harder to pull off than they should have been.
Putin’s first test, the first of his wars, was in Chechnya, the breakaway republic. Yeltsin had started this war in 1994, assured by his generals that the rebels could be brought to heel “by a single parachute regiment, in two hours.” The offensive turned into a debacle because of untrained officers, underfunded troops, and broken supply lines. Yeltsin doubled down with more bombing and shelling, to no avail. Putin vowed in his inauguration speech to restore Russia as “a great, powerful, mighty state” and brought in genuine reformers (Yeltsin’s generals tended to be corrupt hacks intent on little more than kowtowing) who ordered their troops to encircle Chechnya’s capital of Grozny methodically, suppress rebel fire, and never move too far ahead of supply lines. Just as crucially, Putin censored what had been a remarkably free and fearless mass media in Moscow, enabling him to control the narrative about the war on the home front. Still, even in his phase of the war, Putin managed to put down the rebellion only by granting Chechnya more autonomy than it had had in the previous two centuries.
In 2008 the Western-leaning leaders of Georgia moved troops into the Russian-controlled separatist enclave of South Ossetia, whose claim to independence they rejected. This gave Putin the pretext to remind Georgians that despite the breakup of the USSR, they were still in Moscow’s sphere of influence. He deployed overwhelming airpower and twice as many troops as the Georgian army could muster; he also had the backing of thousands of pro-Russia Georgian militiamen. Even so, Russian troops were frequently ambushed; more than a quarter of their tanks broke down before arriving in South Ossetia, and many of those that made it to the battlefield were neutralized by simple anti-tank weaponry because they were not properly armored. There were also the usual technical failures: many Russian bombs failed to explode, secure communications broke down, and at one point the senior commander had to borrow a satellite phone from a journalist in order to send orders to his underlings.
Russia won in five days—no surprise given the gross imbalance of forces—but the main lesson, which Putin well absorbed, was that once again victory should have come much more easily. The failures in Georgia spurred him to force through serious reforms in the military. The bloated officer corps was radically trimmed, two hundred generals were dismissed, and new weapons were manufactured, including smart bombs modeled after those that the US had used in the Middle East. Soldiers’ living conditions were improved. One eye-opening example that Galeotti cites: Russian soldiers, like those in tsarist and Soviet days, had worn rectangular cloths wrapped around their feet; starting in 2013, they were given socks. All in all, the reforms, Galeotti writes, “undoubtedly created a much leaner, more effective and responsive military.”
When Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria—one of Moscow’s very few remaining allies outside the former Soviet Union—came under attack in 2011 from a combination of ISIS militias and prodemocracy rebels, Putin came to his aid, first diplomatically, then militarily, mainly in the form of warplanes that bombed and strafed both sets of enemies into submission. Russian pilots racked up prolonged combat hours for the first time since the Soviet war of the 1980s in Afghanistan.
Then came the prelude to Putin’s grand illusions—his annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine. In February 2014 Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia under threat of impeachment after scuttling plans to align his country with the European Union. Western-leaning democrats were installed and soon after elected in his place. Putin was deeply committed to keeping Ukraine in Moscow’s orbit, and he was worried that if Ukraine joined NATO (a promise that President George W. Bush had made in 2008, though without setting a timetable), Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, with its main port in Sevastopol, could fall under the control of the US-led military alliance. So he ordered Special Operations forces to seize Crimea.
The campaign succeeded in a matter of hours with scarcely a shot fired. The only casualties were two Ukrainian soldiers and one Cossack volunteer; no Russians were injured. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had bestowed Crimea on Ukraine in 1954 to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of Ukrainian independence, but it was a symbolic gift; the only real political entity at the time was the Soviet Union. Even after the USSR’s collapse, Crimea remained a favorite vacation spot for Russians; many, if not most, Crimeans regarded themselves as Russian.
For all these reasons, as Galeotti details, Crimea’s reabsorption by Moscow unleashed a “patriotic joy” that united pro-Putin factions and most Russian opposition figures. Military officers were “exuberant.” Amid the celebrations, Putin came “more and more to believe his own mythology” and stepped up his ambition to “establish his place in history as the man who ‘made Russia great again.’”
The incursion into eastern Ukraine, which began a month later, was not initially part of Putin’s plans. The spark was lit by an ardent Russian nationalist named Igor Girkin, who led a “ragtag force” of fifty-two volunteers and mercenaries from Crimea into Donbas, dodging Ukrainian border guards. Once they had seized some territory, Putin gave them supplies and moral support. However, Galeotti argues, his aim was not territorial conquest but rather “political pressure”—to “intimidate” Kyiv’s Western-leaning politicians into accepting that Ukraine was “part of Russia’s sphere of influence.” Kremlin insiders confidently informed Galeotti, who was doing research in Moscow at the time, that within six months officials in Kyiv would “come to their senses” and abandon all thoughts of turning to the West.
But Putin (and Galeotti’s sources, as he now realizes) underestimated the intense nationalism that had taken hold among many Ukrainians, even those in Russian-speaking areas, during the quarter-century since their declaration of national independence—a declaration that presaged the Soviet Union’s breakup.1 He and Russian intelligence analysts also failed to notice the Ukrainian army’s increased spending, recruiting, and training since the incursions of 2014. And so, to a degree that few expected, the Ukrainian army joined the fight in Donbas.
At that point Putin could have chosen to escalate or withdraw; he chose to escalate, adopting the view—which he did not hold alone—that the pro-Russia militias “could not be allowed to fail.” Over the next several months, Putin sent 10,000 Russian troops to fight in, and for, Donbas. Ukraine counterescalated, and the conflict settled into a slogging stalemate of trench warfare, sniping, and shelling. Between 2014 and the end of 2021, more than 14,000 people, including roughly 500 Russian soldiers, died in this war. Then, as Galeotti puts it, “Putin decided that it was time to break the stalemate.”
He had three reasons for believing a multipronged invasion of Ukraine would succeed. First, he inferred too much from his military’s lightning victory in Crimea, which he read as the result of a decade’s worth of reforms, not as a one-off anomaly. Second, he believed, more deeply than ever, his own mythology, viewing the retaking of Crimea as the first step toward restoring the Russian Empire, a dream he’d harbored since witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union as a young KGB officer stationed in Dresden when the wall came tumbling down. Third, he thought he could get away with it: NATO seemed in disarray, his incursion and annexation of 2014 provoked only minor economic sanctions, and he saw no reason to think the retaliation would be much more severe if he went all the way.
He was, of course, mistaken on all counts. A coordinated, multipronged assault of armor, infantry, and air against a well-prepared defense turned out to be very different from a simple thrust against a peninsula whose residents for the most part welcomed the takeover. The Russian military had made great strides in the previous decade, but they weren’t as great as Putin imagined. Finally, his aggression rallied the Western alliance to greater unity and higher defense spending than it had mustered in decades.
One of Putin’s limitations is that he knows very little about military affairs. He never served in the army; he avoided the draft by joining the KGB, where he worked in the political departments and had no contact with military officers. In the Kremlin, he erected a power structure of one-man rule as firm as any since the tsarist days, relying for advice on a tight entourage, mainly comrades from the intelligence service, some of them imbued with a feverishly mystical devotion to the glories of Russia and an abhorrence of Western influences. His decisions about the war—political, strategic, and even tactical—have stemmed from his own instincts and the urgings of his most ideological aides, not from the professional advice of senior military officers.
Galeotti contends that those commanders would never have supported invading all of Ukraine without careful preparation—mobilizing and training the reserves, building more armored vehicles, and stiffening supply lines. Putin, who dwelled in the “opulent isolation” of a narrow “information bubble” during the pandemic, was confident of an inevitable victory—of his destiny as a twenty-first-century Peter the Great—to the point of believing that Ukrainians would cheer the Russian troops as liberators. (Dress uniforms were found inside some of the abandoned tanks that Ukrainians captured; the Russian crews had apparently been told to prepare for victory parades.)
Even before the ill-starred invasion, Russian officers—at least the few who spoke to Galeotti about the matter—seemed “at once reverential and dismissive towards Putin,” viewing him as a strong leader who “saved Russia from oblivion and irrelevance” but wary of his action-hero photo-ops. He may once have recognized his self-glorification as a PR exercise, but over time and after some successes, he came to believe it—and, more tragically, came to act on it.
As Galeotti observes, “common sense” should have dissuaded Putin from invading Ukraine. At the start of 2022, he was “winning a bloodless war.” The looming presence of Russian troops on the border was scaring foreign investors away from Ukraine. A blockade of the ports at Mariupol and Berdyansk, which he had imposed the previous spring, was delaying and discouraging commercial trade, further tightening the screws on Ukraine’s economy. Meanwhile diplomats from all the major powers were flocking to the Kremlin to negotiate with Putin—as a peer, face to face—on how to ease tensions and build confidence; they were even willing make concessions on the composition of NATO and other concerns of his about Russian security. Moscow was once again at the center of international dealmaking. Then Putin blew it with his “fateful over-reach.”
Galeotti finished his manuscript in early June, a little more than three months after the war began, and found it “hard to see [Putin] being able to take and hold all of the Donbas, let alone anything more”—a prescient forecast. But he also warned against writing off the Russians entirely, predicting a “long, ugly deadlock,” with neither side “strong enough to win” or “weak enough to lose,” which also seems valid today. At the same time, a slugfest, backed by attacks on the electrical grid and other civilian targets, is not a great power’s preferred mode of fighting. And this war has shown, in many ways, that Putin’s Russia is not a great power, despite his hubristic claims to the contrary.
In spite of these miscalculations, Putin may well keep his grip on his country. There is no politburo or any constitutional process to oust him; if he is overthrown, it will likely be by a military coup, especially given his long and growing tensions with the Russian officer corps. It is, of course, a big unknown whether his successor will be more or less intent on conquering Ukraine and inflaming hostility toward the West. Galeotti is intriguingly optimistic. The Russian army will face serious manpower shortages, due in part to anger over this war’s horrors, in part to demographics; there are, he writes, “simply put, not enough young men” to swell the army to imperial proportions. Nor will the Russian economy’s stagnation (which the war has deepened) allow a new imperialist to keep up with the Western militaries’ surge in spending (also a product of the war). Finally, Galeotti foresees a new generation of Russians less traumatized by the Soviet Union’s collapse and therefore “more pragmatic, less emotional in their attitudes toward the West.”
Some future Russian leader may well adopt a more pragmatic view, but how far in the future—and how pragmatic? If Putin had been as pragmatic as many thought him to be, he wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine, so who knows where his successor’s mind may drift?
Meanwhile, the notion of an expansionist Russia seems more and more like a phantasm. The United States has helped Ukrainian soldiers beat back the Great Bear on every front by sending them armaments costing less than 5 percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget—without putting a single American in the line of fire. There thus seems little to no chance that, even with a turn of fortune in Ukraine, the Russian army could push on to invade the Baltics, Poland, or any of the other nations protected by NATO’s Article 5. This isn’t to say that those countries should bask in complacency; the Finns and Swedes were hardly paranoid for abandoning their formal neutrality, which had served them well for decades, and applying for NATO membership; the Germans also had good reason to boost their defense budget and drop their longtime policy barring the export of weapons.
A bolstered Western alliance, united against a country so flagrantly guilty of aggression and war crimes, is an unalloyed good thing; acceding to the invasion of Ukraine—quite apart from its own disastrous consequences—could have encouraged Putin to test his luck further. But we should also be on guard against efforts by defense officials and lobbyists to turn a genuine need for accelerated arms production into a bonanza of unbridled spending. The money allocated to replace the missiles and rockets that the US has transferred to Ukraine should prompt deeper scrutiny of whether some of the defense budget’s other line items are really required for national security.2
Is it too soon to write Putin’s political obituary or at least to size up his legacy? Galeotti’s conclusion, I think, has this right:
Had he been content with building a strong nation within its own borders rather than chasing fantasies of empire, Putin would likely have been remembered as a successful state-builder. Instead, for years and perhaps decades…Russia will still be recovering from the damage caused by his overreach…the deep, painful scars of Putin’s wars.
—January 11, 2023
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