Putin’s Ukraine War Is Entering a Terrifying New Phase

Opinion

Tobin Harshaw

A discussion on Russia’s evolving military strategy with Mark Galeotti, author of Putin’s Wars.

What’s his next move?
What’s his next move?Photographer: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

5 November 2022

Who is winning in Ukraine? That may seem an odd question, given the disastrous performance of the Russian military, the success of the Ukrainian offensive this fall, and the strength of the Western coalition in supporting Kyiv and punishing Moscow. But wars aren’t that simple, and the global implications of this regional conflict make it more complex than most. Then, of course, there is Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader, we are constantly told, “ plays a weak hand well.” So, what does he have up his sleeve?

It’s a question I put to Mark Galeotti, the author of a new book, Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, and a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He has advised the UK government on foreign policy, is a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and the principal director of the Mayak Intelligence political risk consultancy. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: Early in the new book, you raise the question, “Who is Vladimir Putin?” How would you answer that in one sentence?

Mark Galeotti: He is a late-era Soviet apparatchik who by good fortune finds himself running the country — despite the fact that he doesn’t really know how to do it.

TH: The invasion of Ukraine by conventional means did not go well.  Now the Russian strategy has changed to a “terror bombing” campaign .We’ve seen this sort of thing from the Russians before, right?

MG: We have. You must realize that Putin himself has no military experience of any note. He did his minimal reserve-officer training. So he doesn’t have a military mindset. As a former KGB officer, he has a spook’s mindset. He regards people as full of vulnerabilities that can be exploited. That’s how he relates to whole societies, too. Wars are intrinsically terrifying, and Putin is more willing than us in the West to consider terror to be an acceptable instrument of war.

We saw that in Chechnya, the very brutal campaign to take a rebellious little region of southern Russia and force it back into the fold, with massive bombardments and very brutal treatment of its people. And we saw it in Syria with very heavy aerial bombardments, not just to population centers, but targeting things like hospitals to break the will of those who would resist.

TH: Did you think that Russia was complicit in the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria?

MG: It’s almost inconceivable that Russia would not have known that it was happening. I don’t know whether they were actually behind it or merely signed off on it. But one way or the other, there was complicity.

TH: Putin has fired a lot of his generals. He has now brought in Sergei Surovikin, the so-called Butcher of Syria. The change in Russian strategy fits Surovikin’s modus operandi. What can we expect from him?

MG: This is a deeply brutal man. One of his own subordinates shot himself in his office after being given a particularly serious dressing down. But on the other hand, no one has ever said he is not competent. We saw in Syria that he has a willingness to use deeply brutal tactics, but with with an aim in mind — not simply for the sheer joy of brutality, but because it’s part of a military strategy.

He wants to break the Ukrainians not at the front line, where that’s not proving possible, but by breaking the West’s will to support them. The weak link in this war, potentially, is us. If we begin to lose the will, the capacity, and the unity to continue to supply the Ukrainians with weapons, and perhaps even more importantly with money, the Ukrainians are going to have serious troubles maintaining their war.

TH: What weaponry do you think they need that we haven’t provided so far?

MG: It’s an interesting question because it reflects the whole question of need. They need a more capable air defense. But it’s not necessarily just about more systems, more and more launchers. It’s at least as much about the ammunition.

The Russians are heavily using very cheap Iranian drones. They aren’t amazingly capable but they’re good enough. And because they’re cheap, the Russians can fire a lot at them. We can estimate that the Russians have spent about $10 million to $15 million on this new bombardment campaign. The Ukrainians have used our ordinance to the value of about $25 million to counter it. This is not just a military campaign, but also an economic campaign. We must make sure that the Ukrainians get a continued flow of the actual ordinance they need to defend themselves.

TH: What might hold us back?

MG: The trouble is that what the Ukrainians think they need and what the West thinks they need diverge. There’s this mantra that the war will end when Ukrainians decide that it will end. This is, of course, nonsense — in the sense that the West has its own interests too. If Ukraine turned around and said that the war will only end when our forces have reached Moscow, for example, we wouldn’t be fine going along with that. But we just don’t really want to have the tough discussions about it. So long as we aren’t, we are storing up potential problems for the future. We need to be talking about the end state now, so that this doesn’t become an issue which breaks Western unity.

TH: Wouldn’t a more realistic problem be if Ukraine was intent on taking back Crimea, which Russia annexed after the 2014 invasion? 

MG: A lot of the conversations I’m having here in DC end up defaulting back to what can be done with Crimea, and it’s certainly true that Crimea matters to Putin (and the Russian people) in a way no other part of Ukraine does. I’m really not sure what he might do if he thinks he is going to lose the peninsula. But I think it’s more than that. There’s a concern that the Ukrainians are not entirely open with their allies about what their long-term goals are.

TH: Are you concerned about European support waning as the weather turns cold and natural gas gets scarce?

MG: I’m not as concerned as I was a month ago. Gas prices are going down a lot. At this point, there isn’t really a movement for a quick change of course. To be honest, what really matters is the American position. Washington’s voice drowns everyone else out. So it’s more that we have to see what the midterms election offer.

TH: Why was Putin so deluded about the quality of his military?

MG: Several reasons. One is that he’s had so many relatively easy wins: Chechnya, Syria, Georgia; he’s achieved what he expected to achieve. And the West didn’t do much about it.

Most crucially, though, he has created a system in which no one can really tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. This is something that we’ve known for years, but increasingly now he has pushed out of his circle anyone who might offer any criticism. People now know that they tell Putin what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.

TH: There are some rumblings that the momentum in the war is starting to swing in Russia’s favor. 

MG: I don’t think so. We are at a natural point of a culmination of the Ukrainian offensive. They have had some real triumphs in the north at Kharkiv, and to a lesser extent in the south. They are very quiet about their own casualties, but it’s clear they’ve taken losses. Their military kit is at a point where it needs to be stopped for maintenance and the like.

The Russians have thrown in a number of newly mobilized reservists, who are appallingly bad soldiers and taking horrendous casualties, but do at least provide extra manpower on the front lines.

But the Ukrainians are in the stronger position. The Russians might hope that come spring, they’ll be able to launch a counterattack. I think that’s exactly what the Ukrainians are planning on doing as well, and I think they would be in the better position to do so.

TH: Putin has made several seemingly absurd claims. For one, there was this idea that Ukrainians would ignite a dirty bomb as a false-flag operation, blaming it on Russia. Where did that come from?

MG: It was part of long-running campaign; they’ve made allegations like this for months in the hope of scaring the West into negotiations. We’ve had claims that the Ukrainians are working on biological weapons in conjunction with the Americans, or that they were preparing to launch a chemical attack, or that there was going to be similar kind of radiological attack. This is just part of a stream of bizarre allegations that come up and then disappear.

TH: Which leads to the big scary question: If nothing continues to go right, would Putin go as far as chemical weapons or a tactical nuke?

MG: On chemical weapons, the answer is no. Because there was just no military rationale for it. There’s also really no military rationale for using nuclear weapons. It would purely be a political terror statement.

Do I think that’s impossible? No. However, Putin, for all the fact that he believes a lot of deeply disturbing and unpleasant things, does seem to be a rational actor. If has enough time, he can get his head around the idea of losing things.

But if it looks like Ukrainians are going to just power through and take everything, he might well panic. He may feel so caught in a corner that he has nothing much to lose and might as well throw the dice.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

3 comments

  1. “This is a deeply brutal man. One of his own subordinates shot himself in his office after being given a particularly serious dressing down. But on the other hand, no one has ever said he is not competent.”

    Okay, so I will call this piece of dog shit, Sergei Surovikin, incompetent. Being brutal is NOT a sign of having any sort of competence. Killing civilians and civilian infrastructure has never won a war. There currently are NO military moves by mafia land that a military mind could ever consider being competent. We see the SAME mindless attacks against objectives that are worth the blood they are spilling. This general is the very same type of witless creature, like all the rest that have come and gone.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I don’t agree that Putin is a completely rational actor. Had he been completely rational he would never have invaded Ukraine in 2014, or reopened the war last winter. He’s been very foolish.

    Liked by 1 person

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