Russia’s war in Ukraine based on ‘disastrous miscalculation’ – DW – 12/26/2022
DW: There have been four wars since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia: Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine. So why do you think the West was surprised by the Russian invasion?
Mark Galeotti: I think it’s because of the scale. There are only three years of Putin’s reign from the end of 1999 to today, in which Russia did not participate in one war or another. And yet there had always been limited ones. Putin had always essentially chosen targets that he thought he could easily win. And the fundamental misunderstanding was not realizing the degree to which Putin had convinced himself that Ukraine would be an easy victory rather than, in fact, a disastrous miscalculation as it turned out.
In your book you say that you, like many, were surprised by the decision to invade. Do you think it had something to do with Putin’s isolation during the pandemic? Was his information bubble getting too dangerous or too small?
To explain that, let me go back to my earlier assumption, which was that until we saw that televised Security Council meeting the week of the invasion, there was only a 30% to 40% chance. Precisely because it didn’t seem to make sense.
Until then, in many ways, Putin was winning. He had assembled this huge force on the Ukrainian borders, and the presence of that force without crossing the borders was causing serious damage to the Ukrainian economy. And he was also taking a stream of top Western leaders to Moscow, putting Putin in the position he likes to be in, asking him not to start a war.
There was also pressure on Kyiv to make concessions. I was winning all the way to the border. Now, we know much more about the magnitude of the misunderstanding, about the degree to which Putin convinced himself that Ukraine was not a real country, that Ukrainians would not resist in any meaningful way, than the so-called “junkie,” the president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy—would flee or be captured.
All these fundamental calculations or miscalculations were really at the heart of this war. And it also paints a clear picture of the extent to which Putin has created a system in which it is disadvantageous for people to tell him the truth. It is clear to what extent his intelligence officers, everyone around him, were not telling him what he needed to hear, but what he wanted to hear.
Speaking of intelligence, you are an expert in the Russian Secret Services. Why do you think they misinformed you? Aren’t they as good as they paint?
I think there are still, unfortunately, good intelligence gathering capabilities. There are certainly smart analysts. But if I think back to 2015, I remember talking to a former Foreign Intelligence Service officer who said this seven years ago. Even then he said, look, we have learned that you do not bring unpleasant news to the tsar’s table. In other words, it is politically dangerous to tell Putin things he doesn’t want to hear.
This culture of insulating the president from inconvenient truths has emerged. And most of the time that doesn’t matter because he’s not someone who’s really in charge of every detail of the running of the country. There is a huge body of technocrats and officials, some of whom are very effective, who manage relations within the country. Where it matters is where you have a key decision that he’s going to make, initiate, push, and then can drag the whole country into this kind of mess.
Would you say that Russia has failed to achieve its war objectives?
Absolutely. Frankly, the only question that remains is what the loss will look like. Putin still holds out hope that he can outlast Ukraine and the West by noting that this is a war that will last a long time, that he can, if necessary, continue to throw Russian manpower into the conflict.
He is issuing a challenge to the West, saying, do you continue to send billions of dollars, euros and pounds to Ukraine to keep this going when, frankly, we can do this for as long as you want? That’s really his last hope of trying to pull off something that he can turn politically into a win. But the point is that they failed to take Kyiv; they have not really succeeded in expanding their control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have the Crimean corridor, but it’s under threat now. And obviously they have already had to withdraw from Kherson.
This is not the story of the momentum of the Russian side. Quite the opposite. And as we look ahead, Ukraine is fielding more and more of a 21st century modern army, thanks to all the help from the West, while in many ways Russia’s army is degrading, reverting to a late-Soviet army, fought by half-trained soldiers. with weapons built in the 1970s. This is not to downplay capability. Russia is a big country; it has a huge defense industrial complex; You can continue this war, but frankly you won’t be able to make big offensives that really push the Ukrainians back for long.
One of his books is “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia”, which is about the Russian criminal world. We are seeing how Russia is trying to push prisoners to fight for Russia in Ukraine. We see people like Yevgeny Prigozhin with his group of Wagner mercenaries fighting in the Ukraine. What does that tell us about the state of the Russian military?
Well, we have to keep in mind that Joseph Stalin did recruit a lot of prisoners from the Gulag system, so again, this is not entirely unprecedented. But he says two things. One is that you are right about the desperation for labor. There is one more potential source of additional soldiers, which is recruits within the army. But Putin is aware that this would be politically disastrous and would lead to massive draft evasion.
So there is a political challenge to find new soldiers to be able to launch them to the front. And it is a sign of desperation that they turn to the prison system. But more broadly, I think what we’re seeing is a long-standing informal alliance, let’s say, between the Kremlin and organized crime, taking a new shape, because we’re also seeing, for example, organized crime being used as an instrument outside the borders of Russia.
What are your projections for 2023? Can this war end next year? And if so, how?
It can end. And it will really depend on whether the Ukrainians can make considerable progress on the battlefield. At present there are no real grounds for negotiations because the Ukrainians feel they are on a roll. They would like to negotiate from a position of strength, if anything.
Putin is desperately hoping he can drag this out and hopes that by the spring he will have perhaps 150,000 additional reservists who have been trained in Russia and Belarus, and by adding them, he can bolster his line in Ukraine.
But the point is, again, this is a war that has greatly defied expectations in the past. I would imagine that the Ukrainians, who have not only out-combated but also out-thought their Russian counterparts, will be planning major new offensives. And I think only if they can show that they’re going to win on the battlefield will they have any chance of seeing the Kremlin feel like they have to speak up in a meaningful way.
Mark Galeotti is a British historian and Honorary Professor at University College London. His latest book is “Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine”.
The interview was conducted by Roman Goncharenko. It was edited and abbreviated for clarity.