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Putin’s theory of war faces its toughest test

With protests at home and spirited resistance in Ukraine, Russian generals are being forced into the long conventional conflict they like to avoid.

By John Lloyd

Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine since May 2019, had been seen as the weakest link in the chain of leaders and events leading to the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. Born to a Jewish-Ukrainian professional family in the central city of Kryvyi Rih in 1978, from the age of 17 he honed his comedic skills, touring the former Soviet Union with a group of comedians and winning prizes. His rise to power was pure showbiz: he was popular for playing the president in a sitcom, Servant of the People, created a party of the same name and in the 2019 election won more than 73 per cent of the vote in the second round.

As president, his campaign against corruption faced opposition in parliament; his efforts to solve the occupation of the eastern industrial area of the Donbas by Russian-backed separatists met with no success; his dislike of the media led to a bad press; he was pressured by Donald Trump, US president at the time, to assist in sullying the name of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, a board member of the Ukrainian company Burisma (he seems not to have done so, but mud stuck).

By September 2020 Zelensky’s once-high ratings had dropped to under 30 per cent. On 21 February, a few days before the Russian invasion, Olga Rudenko, editor of the Kyiv Independent, wrote in the New York Times that Zelensky was “disappointingly mediocre”, surrounded by inexperienced yes-men and had “laughed off” the possibility of an invasion. His generals, never enthusiastic about a Jewish ex-actor president, were audibly mutinous.

Then came the invasion and Zelensky, drawing on his acting skills, transformed himself into a hero, leader of his people in dark days, dedicating himself to keeping panic down, spirits up and the Russians out. At the door of his Kyiv residence, he told his people via social media, “Our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” Another editor, Sevgil Musayeva, of the Ukrainska Pravda, now says that he “is fighting like a lion and the whole of Ukraine with him”.

Yet this is not even the end of the beginning. The Ukrainian president has rallied much of his nation, yet if Russia is to avoid humiliation and secure something which may be called victory, its surprisingly flaccid attack must be succeeded by intervention in strength. Will Ukrainians still turn to Zelensky, the leader who mocked such an outcome, and whose bravery may sound hollow against a heavy armoured assault, in days even darker than those suffered so far?

President Zelensky visiting troops in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on February 17, before the invasion. (Photo by Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.)

Dmytro Kuleba, the 40-year-old foreign minister, son of a diplomatic family, trained in international relations and himself a diplomat for nearly 20 years, was rumoured as a possible replacement before Zelensky’s bold seizure of the initiative. Kuleba, unusually for a foreign minister, met Biden in the White House on a pre-invasion visit to Washington, and in a briefing to the press at the weekend struck a near-Churchillian pose, saying: “We will not fall. We will not stop or get tired. This is people’s war.” Zelensky presently has, and deserves, wide support. Were negotiations offered by the Russians to emerge as the best possibility, having an experienced diplomat in charge might again seem attractive, though that would be a risky move for Kuleba.

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The robustness of Ukrainian resistance shines a warm glow on its president and people, a harsher glare on the Russian military, widely represented as much better equipped, disciplined, led and battle-hardened having assisted the suppression of anti-regime resistance in Syria. The chief of the Russian general staff since 2012, Valery Gerasimov, has been lauded for supposedly developing a new concept of war accepting a conventional military capacity greatly inferior to that of the US. In a 2013 article in the Military-Industrial Courier, Gerasimov flatly claimed: “The very rules of war have changed. The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness… All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.” Molly McKew, a US expert in information warfare who has advised former leaders of Georgia and Moldova, wrote in Politico that “the Gerasimov Doctrine… declares that non-military tactics are not auxiliary to the use of force but the preferred way to win. That they are, in fact, the actual war. Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.”

As supreme commander, Gerasimov has for years taken a hard line on Ukraine, warning the country’s military away from the Russian-sponsored breakaway statelets in the Donbas and, more recently, condemning Ukraine’s acceptance of advanced weaponry from the West. In 2014, when Ukrainian units re-took the town of Ilovaisk, in the district of Donetsk, a heavy Russian counterattack dislodged them. Offered a safe corridor through which to retreat, the Ukrainians were ambushed — though whether or not on orders from above is unclear — and many killed.

Gerasimov has been careful, however, to open a dialogue with his American counterpart Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. They had talked regularly even during the Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s borders. Contact is believed to have ceased, but with a veiled threat of nuclear escalation from the Russian president Vladimir Putin a channel of communications between two top officers with at least some residual trust will be precious.

At this stage Gerasimov has a more typical problem: how to break stubborn resistance. Daily evaluation by the US Institute for the Study of War, an analytical centre set up in 2017, suggests that the war is so far being fought badly by the Russians. The institute believes, however, that the weekend pause in further advance is a sign that “the Russian military has likely recognised that its initial expectations that limited Russian attacks would cause the collapse of Ukrainian resistance have failed and is recalibrating accordingly. The Russian military is moving additional combat resources toward Ukraine and establishing more reliable and effective logistics arrangements to support what is likely a larger, harder, and more protracted conflict than it had originally prepared for.”

Gerasimov, whose concentration on asymmetric warfare may have taken his attention away from the more conventional battlefield, can only be advising Putin that a larger commitment of troops and materiel is essential, if the pesky Ukrainians are to be taught a lesson. Edward Luttwak, a military strategist, historian and former soldier, has written: “That Putin has invited the Ukrainian president to send envoys to ceasefire talks is itself a tremendous defeat for him: he had insisted that he could not negotiate at all with the ‘drug addicts and neo-Nazis’ of Zelensky’s government, but now he must negotiate, to extricate himself from the war he deliberately started, whose costs have risen phenomenally.”

Though Putin was careful to be seen over the weekend with both the defence minister Sergei Shoigu (perhaps his closest friend) and Gerasimov, the private discussions will be torrid. Indeed, a slip on Sunday by the Tass news service, observed by the formidable scholar of Russia Mark Galeotti, read that “according to reliable sources from the Russian Federation ministry of defence, Putin is personally extremely disappointed with the progress of the military operation”. It is hard to say if this was the addition of a Ukrainian or other hacker, or a piece of sabotage by a brave Tass journalist. In any event, amid all the mendacity streaming from the Kremlin and its media, this had the ring of truth.

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister (left), Vladimir Putin, the president, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff (second right), seem not to have expected Ukrainian resistance to be so fierce. (Photo by Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters.)

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The Russian president, who by all accounts has narrowed his circle of advisers to half a dozen in the past two years, was reckless in his refusal to prepare the population — and not just the people, but some of his most senior officials, right up to the eve of invasion. Sergei Naryshkin, Putin’s intelligence chief, when called on to approve the war in a meeting of minister and officials, said that there should be talks “to give the Western side a chance”. Irritated, Putin snapped that he had to signify assent or dissent from the decision to attack. Recalling himself, Naryshkin fell into line. It was a still more telling moment than the Tass slip.

Other, lower-level members of the establishment expressed (mild) dissatisfaction. Andrey Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, told the BBC Today programme he was surprised that few experts had been consulted. “I would say that many in the foreign office were surprised and shocked and I would even say devastated to see what is happening,” he said. Kortunov, though no oppositionist, has many links with the West, where he has lectured and studied.

Yet the bruised feelings of experts accustomed to feeding their views into the government machine also reveal something else, more comforting to Putin. That is, that though they may dislike their president’s style, most agree with much of his critique of Nato enlargement. They concur with his excoriation of a Western arrogance which, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has assumed that Russia must conform to what the West, Nato and above all the US decide. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, said in a TV interview last month that he didn’t like Putin’s drift towards greater domestic authoritarianism but strongly agreed that the West, less powerful than it had been, must renegotiate with Russia the shape of Europe’s security architecture.

Lukyanov — speaking before the attack was launched, and in the belief it would not be — insisted that, for Russia, “it’s not about Ukraine per se”. He said that the massing of thousands of troops on the border was a “demonstration” intended to get the US to take seriously the need for a new security environment. The US flight from Afghanistan, and the creation of the US-UK-Australia defence agreement in September last year, had shown Russia, Lukyanov said, that Western priorities were changing, and that Nato was no longer at the centre of their calculations.

“Now the US is having a discussion about new arrangements, in a way which it would have refused to do only a few months ago,” he said. “The debate has started. And I think negotiations will happen, I am certain of it.” Lukyanov appeared to consign Ukraine to a secondary role. If Russia, as he admitted, sees Ukraine as a means to an end that is not the case for the West, which is now heavily invested in trying to preserve the country as an independent and democratic state.

One of the leading authorities on Russian military thinking, Dima Adamsky of Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel, agrees that Ukraine is the medium, not the message, for Putin. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Adamsky said that “because the Russian build-up before the offensive was so large, it can’t end with a whimper… Putin perceives himself in historical terms. He identifies totally with Russia’s destiny and greatness. There is nothing in his life that interests him more than that. After all, he’s not apprehensive that he won’t be re-elected.

“When he talks about the West’s attempt to impose on Russia a way of life that does not suit it, he sounds almost messianic. On the other hand, the Americans can’t allow themselves to buckle under and display weakness either. They are in the midst of a strategic competition with China. Accordingly, they too will be ready to escalate some of their moves. Russia and the United States will have to find a way to exit from this collision. It’s only Ukraine that no one is taking into account.”

Putin’s messianism is shared with some of his ministers and officials, and with a group of ultra-nationalists — prominent among whom is Alexander Dugin, a 60-year old philosopher and far-right militant. Dugin is a leader of the Kremlin “war party”, arguing that Ukraine must be brought wholly under Russian control. Beyond these allies, however, support for war is much more contingent on the success of the campaign and public enthusiasm is likely to wane quickly as casualties mount. A particular threat is the strong showing of anti-war sentiment, as protests in major cities grow and social media — only partially censored — is busy with denunciations of the war (even though censors try to ban the use of “war” in the media and in posts).

Still more disturbing to the regime is the speed with which a petition, created by a movement named “Russians against war with Ukraine”, led by Lev Ponomaryov, an 80-year-old veteran, and much-arrested, civil rights champion. It was started at the weekend by Monday (28 February) had more than a million signatures. Unlike China and other totalitarian states, Russia has in the past 30 years developed a skeletal, partly suppressed but still on occasion vigorous civil society — one that recognises Ukraine’s struggle to retain its democracy as its own. Putin sees a democratic Ukraine as a mere obstacle to be removed on his quest to rewrite the rules of European security, but it is proving to be more deeply set into the country’s soil than he had bargained for — as it is in his own backyard.

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