International Politics

Putin’s Endgame

As Russia is struggling to achieve its military goals, the Russian leader appears increasingly cornered, making him more dangerous and unpredictable. How can the war end?

A soldier is pictured outside a shopping mall ruined as a result of a missile strike carried out by the Russian troops in the Podilskyi district of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, March 23, 2022. Photo by Yuliia Ovsiannikova/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COM/Alamy

‘I’m worried about coming across as complacent, and it’s important to note I’m not on the ground. I’m relying on what I see in the media, and in Defence Intelligence briefings. But for years, British Military doctrine has focused on Russia. Obviously, this was much reduced post the fall of communism, when Western militaries pivoted to fighting insurgencies, and rogue states like North Korea and Iran. To some extent countering China, too. But Russia remained on our collective radars. The British military, like the Americans, have always had the notion we might have to fight the Russians. And well, looking at the shitshow this is, they seem like a paper tiger.’

Ben Watson (not his real name) is a serving British military officer of senior rank. His assessment of the Russian military performance in Ukraine is damning. While he repeatedly urges caution – he mustn’t be complacent, because perhaps Russia will pull something out of the hat; he’s basing his analysis on what he sees from afar; Putin sprung the operation on his military by surprise and didn’t give them adequate time and space to prepare, so maybe they’ll get it together – he can’t hide his surprise at the state of the Russian military.   

‘In hindsight, perhaps we should have expected this,’ he says. ‘We’ve known about corruption. All those oligarchs got their riches from somewhere. Originally, it was from asset stripping industries. But more recently we’ve known funds have been diverted from elsewhere, not least the military. And we’ve known their forces aren’t as good as they once were.’

Indeed, Ben points to the writer and academic Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s military and intelligence services. In an introduction to a book he published in 2015, about the Russian army’s fabled Spetznaz forces, Galetotti wrote, “There is an assumption they are a force of soldiers to rival Britain’s SAS or the US Delta Force (some of them are; most are not)”. Of course, in any military, only a small fraction will truly be elite, and rarely are they enough to win a war. But what Galeotti hinted at as far back as 2015, was the Russian military was not what it once was. Ben points to the failed airborne assault on Hostomel Airport at the start of the conflict, and recent reports of Spetznaz soldiers killed in the siege of Mariupol, as evidence of what Galeotti wrote. ‘What we’ve seen over the years, and what the Ukraine conflict has brought into stark relief, is a degradation in the Russian military’s capability. Every army in every war suffers failures, even catastrophic ones. But it’s the number the Russians have suffered, their frequency, and their inability to recover from them.’ 

There were other indications, too. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko, undoubtedly brutal and horrific, was farcical with the bungling hitmen leaving a trail of radioactive contamination across London. Similarly, the GRU (Russian military intelligence) assassins who tried to murder Sergei Skripal, made so many mistakes that they were soon exposed, and to much ridicule claimed in a television interview to be merely visiting Salisbury Cathedral. As Ben says, all intelligence services and militaries make mistakes, and each will have its share of operations which have gone disastrously wrong, but many who’ve studied the evidence wonder whether Russia’s aren’t in terminal decline.  

While Ukraine suffers the agony of Russia’s onslaught, a discussion of the invader’s military might seem like an indulgence to be left to another day, but it matters. Because as the war stalls, and the Russian army announces a “new phase” to the conflict, which will focus on the Donbass region, thoughts turn to how it might be brought to an end.

Victor Rud, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the Ukrainian American Bar Association is an expert on the region and has many contacts in both Russia and Ukraine. He agrees with the poor assessment of Russia’s military. “There’s abject corruption throughout the system which led to failures of equipment, such as tyres blowing out; some military personnel were picked up in Crimea and told they were going on a training exercise, only to be sent into Ukraine. There are command-and-control issues, logistical issues, etc.’

But he believes despite the setbacks, Putin’s ambitions are undimmed, and his endgame remains the complete subjugation of Ukraine. ‘There is no democracy, or pressure on Putin, or concern about casualties. So, they’ll get through this,’ he warns. 

But will they? Could Russia actually lose the war? The assumption at the outset was they could not, and Ukraine would fall relatively quickly. But increasingly the possibility of a Ukrainian victory is being considered.

‘The Russian Army is in real trouble,’ Ben says. ‘At the start of the conflict we thought, maybe, he was holding back his best troops, but as time has gone on and he’s committed more forces, the situation has got no better. There’s a danger, perhaps, that the Russian Army just falls apart.’ 

Some of the intelligence which Ben is basing his analysis on is in the public domain. The Ministry of Defence’s Twitter account regularly posts Defence Intelligence updates on the situation. Its 25th March Tweet paints a picture of a stalled invasion, with Ukrainian forces not just repulsing the Russians, but in some places, pushing them back:

Of course, the MOD’s decision to post these briefings is undoubtedly part of the information war, and so needs to be viewed with scepticism, but many people believe it’s an accurate depiction of the situation on the ground, not least Ben.

But Victor thinks this portrayal is overstated. ‘The capacity is there. If Putin wants to, he could pull in manpower and equipment from elsewhere. Or if he doesn’t want to do this, he can try to recruit people from Syria, Chechnya, and elsewhere. It’s a race. Equipment, firepower and munitions is running low on the Ukrainian side. There have been a lot of promises and provisions from other countries, but I’m hearing a lot of stuff promised just isn’t in the pipeline.’

Kateryna Koval, a Ukrainian diplomat, lecturer and reserve officer in the Ukrainian military, currently in the capital Kyiv, hopes Russian people power might prove the answer. ‘There have been demonstrations against the war in at least fifty-six cities across the Russian Federation. So, it could be a real chance for ordinary Russians to demonstrate their desire to live in a free and democratic country. The way to freedom isn’t fast and isn’t easy, but only the people can make it happen.’

With sanctions biting, perhaps protests will be enough? Victor isn’t hopeful. ‘Putin did not expect the breadth and uniformity of sanctions,’ he says. ‘But that will not change him.’

So, might the process be given a push? Richard Kemp is a retired British Army Colonel who led the Royal Anglian infantry regiment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said: “NATO should consider all options to remove him from power. That would include killing him, although it is not likely to be viable or desirable.” 

Max, a former Royal Marine non-commissioned officer, has helped several veterans travel to Ukraine to fight against the Russians. He won’t specify how many, but all have been members of elite units, mostly British, but some American. Unlike Ben, he never held senior rank, but perhaps that’s why he’s less guarded in his comments. ‘I’ve not gone myself, but the people who have are good guys with serious soldiering in their backgrounds. The Ukrainians, with help from people like my guys, are going to bleed the Russians. It’s that simple.’ He echoes Richard Kemp’s suggestion of assassination, albeit believing the hitman’s bullet will come from his own side. ‘My prediction is Putin gets overthrown. I reckon they’ll slot him.’

A foreign assassination of Putin would be difficult and unlikely, and Kemp himself says his preferred option would be for Putin to face trial in the International Criminal Court. But that too would require him to be deposed somehow. So, what are the chances of this happening, or even of Max’s suggestion that someone within the regime murders him?

Victor doesn’t believe it likely. ‘As far as I know, there were seven known attempts against Hitler’s life. Stalin had zero. Putin is not stupid. He’s from that system. It’s going to be a very tough slog for anyone to neutralise him.’

If Putin’s grip on power is so strong, and his army doesn’t collapse or lose the will to fight; if as Victor suggests, he’s willing and able to take the pain and grind his way to victory, what then? Should Western powers consider offering him a way to back down without losing face?

Dr Mike Martin, a former British Army officer and fluent Pushto speaker, who pioneered, designed and implemented the British Military’s Cultural Advisor programme, and wrote a highly regarded critical account of the Afghan war, suggested on Twitter the West considers this option:

These options have become ever more unlikely, given the magnitude of Russia’s crimes and the pronouncements of Western leaders. While President Biden appeared to call for Putin’s removal from power (a call that was later retracted by the White House). British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proclaimed that “Vladimir Putin’s act of aggression must fail and be seen to fail.” The British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, went further, stating “President Putin is a spent force in the world, and he is done, his army is done.” While the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, told French Television, “I think Ukraine will win.” 

Of course, some of this is a projection of confidence, diplomatic information war. It doesn’t mean compromises wouldn’t be considered should Putin come to the table. But the problem is, as the historian Max Hastings wrote in The Times, Russia is a nuclear-armed state, and like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the messages the West gives out have to be carefully weighed.

Ben agrees. ‘The problem we have is Russian decision making is opaque. I don’t think we really know the dynamics of the Kremlin. How much advice does Putin get? And of what calibre? Does he just hear what he wants to hear? Is he surrounded by yes-men? There’s speculation, certainly. There’s educated guesswork. But we don’t know for certain.’

This intelligence gap was highlighted by the veteran broadcaster, Andrew Neil:

Speculation is also rife as to Putin’s state of mind. Suggestions include that he has cancer and is on steroids which have given him “roid rage”; he’s suffered complications from Covid; he’s simply a psychopath. Whatever the merits or otherwise of these diagnoses, they give rise to another troubling question: What might Putin do if he feels his back is against the wall?

‘This is something we do need to worry about,’ Ben says. ‘If Putin honestly thinks he has to win this or the consequences will be catastrophic for him, where does he go from that? It’s a real thorny issue because, on the one hand, you don’t want to reward his behaviour, but on the other, we have to stop things from escalating.’

Victor is also concerned by this. ‘There will be something chemical, biological, or nuclear,’ he warns. ‘And part of that will be to intimidate and break the back of resistance in Ukraine, but also to demonstrate and intimidate the West. I’m firmly convinced that will happen.’ 

This fear, that Putin will lash out, resonates with Kateryna Koval. ‘I think we should be ready for every scenario and that should not exclude even a nuclear strike,’ she says.

But surprisingly, in the final analysis, Victor is bullish as to what to do. Describing Putin as nothing more than a bully, he points to two events from recent history which demonstrate, to his mind, the adage that the only way to deal with such a person is to stand up to them. The first is the Battle of Khasham in Syria, where the US military engaged pro-Assad forces, including Russian mercenaries attached to the Wagner Group, who approached a Kurdish base. The Americans killed hundred-plus Russian nationals. The second is when a Turkish f-16 Fighter jet shot down a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 near the Syrian-Turkish border in 2015. On both occasions Putin did nothing. He blinked. Victor’s reading of this lesson is simple: The West needs to hold its nerve, arm the Ukrainians properly and stand up to Putin.

Max, the former Royal Marine, puts it more earthily. ‘Putin’s a p*****. Like any bully. We need to take the gloves off. I’m not saying we should put British or American boots on the ground. I get that’s a non-starter. But we need to give the Ukrainians what they need to kick his backside. It really is as simple as that.’ 

A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic.

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