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The Ukraine war has made predictions futile

Russia can’t win its self-evidently stupid war – and working out what will happen next is almost impossible.

By Lawrence Freedman

Over the course of 2022, I wrote extensively about the Russian threat to Ukraine. I wrote five pieces in the period before the invasion on 24 February and another 35 after the full-scale war started. In the prewar pieces the question was whether there was going to be a war and if so, what form it might take. Once the war began the issue became about its likely course. The big questions were – and sadly still are – about who was “winning”, how long the fighting would last and what it would take to bring it to an end, along with the risk of nuclear use and the economic dimensions of the war.

Many of my pieces have been as much backward as forward-looking, trying to explain the background to events. When looking forward I have been wary of predictions. One person above all is responsible for this terrible war, and while trying to make sense of Vladimir Putin’s priorities and presumptions is essential to any analysis, I cannot claim any special insight into his decision-making. Moreover, while one can normally expect a stronger force to prevail over a weaker one, the tactics and strategies employed make a difference, as they have done to a remarkable extent in this case. This war has been extremely focused in that it has largely taken place on Ukrainian territory. At the same time it has involved many countries, most committed to supporting Ukraine, a few sympathetic to Russia, others looking to mediate, and all taking to varying degrees an economic hit from the war’s knock-on effects.

My preference therefore has been to talk about trends, possibilities and developments coming into view. Wars pass through stages, depending on the fortunes of the two sides in battle, their ability to keep forces supplied and reinforced, and the shifting impacts of such factors as terrain and weather. One also has to be aware that both sides are trying to shape perceptions. On the Russian side, habitual lying means that the inclination is just to dismiss whatever the Kremlin says, although it has been important in trying to explore the ongoing debates in Moscow. On the Ukrainian side, at times military prospects have been played up to boost morale and to encourage support, and then played down to underscore the dire consequences if further Western support is not forthcoming.

For all these reasons, it is hard to look much beyond the current stage of the war, never mind the one beyond that. Nonetheless it is important to try. I have always accepted that my assessments may turn out to be wrong and misleading, but this is my area of professional expertise and it would have been a cop out to abandon the effort and say that all is too uncertain.

I have also tried to guard against wishful thinking. I believe that this war is unusual in its moral clarity. Russia’s case for invasion was flimsy and fabricated. Even if the case had been stronger, neither the original act of aggression nor the cruelty and brutality of Russia’s methods could be justified. I felt sure from the outset that this was not a war Russia could actually win, in the sense of being able to conquer, subjugate and pacify Ukraine, and that its defeat is vital not only for the future of Ukraine but also for the future of European security and international order. Its military performance has been consistently poor. But none of that translates easily into a Ukrainian victory, and even when Ukrainian forces have come out on top the battles have been gruelling. The damage done by this unnecessary war will take years to put right. So when people ask me if I am optimistic, I say that I believe Ukraine will prevail in the end, but I am not optimistic when I think about the additional suffering this will entail.

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Before the war

My recollection was that I had been more sceptical of the likelihood of war than a review of my five prewar pieces suggested. Perhaps that was more of a reflection of my engagements on Twitter where I regularly asked those who were confident of an imminent Russian invasion what it could achieve and how it could overcome Ukrainian resistance. I always understood that an invasion might come, and I was never ready to dismiss the warnings from US and UK intelligence on the grounds that they were fear-mongering and had been wrong over Iraq. The military build-up could not be easily dismissed. The issue for me was always whether Putin could extract a sufficient coercive benefit from the build-up, and then whether, if war did come, it might be confined to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

My three starting assumptions were: first, that Russia’s superiority in land and air power should allow it to win its battles; second, that, despite this, wars rarely go to plan: and third, Russia lacked the capabilities for the long-term occupation of a hostile country. This was set out in my first piece, on 10 January. Before dashing into war, Russia might consider “the pitfalls that come with any military operation that promises early triumphs and territorial gains, but lacks a clear view of what happens next and what constitutes victory”. I noted that the “longer a military campaign drags on the more the inherent uncertainties of war come into play”, and how even if “substantial amounts of territory are acquired then holding on to it would require a large occupation force which could soon become a target for guerrilla warfare”. Military action would not solve any of Putin’s security problems and would make them worse.

I concluded: “For now he may have boxed himself in with a show of military strength, which isn’t quite enough, in support of a set of political demands, which go too far. The big uncertainty is about whether Putin has concluded that this is a now or never moment, that if he does not act now Ukraine will be drawn forever into Nato’s orbit and that Russia’s comparative weakness will be confirmed for the foreseeable future.”

Put that way I should have realised that the answer was probably that he had so concluded, but I never quite answered the question.

Instead, by early February I was coming to the conclusion that Putin was playing the crisis quite cleverly and that he might consider that he had got enough out of the conflict without going to war. This was, I noted, a curious crisis which lacked direct threats and ultimatums, to the point where the Ukrainians were asking the Americans to tone down the talk of war because of the economic impact. Meanwhile Putin had been able to remind everyone that Russia was still a great power, gain lots of diplomatic attention, and turn Belarus into a client state. He still appeared content to explore diplomatic options with foreign leaders. “It is therefore at least possible,” I suggested, “that he will carry on developing a mixture of options, seeing if anything changes, taking what he can from the situation, until it is time to start bringing his troops back home. Some crises do just fade away.”

By 20 February it was clear that this crisis was not fading away. There had been a staged “provocation” in Donbas, which was “how the playbook tells us that President Putin creates his pretext for war” even though this had little to do with the “big Russian theme of the past few months, which is that urgent action is needed to redress the bias against Russia in the European security order”. Most of the post was devoted to examining this theme, noting that at that moment Ukrainians would need “some convincing that they would not have been better off if Nato enlargement had come their way”.

Clearly I did not make the big call, which would have been to join those who had been convinced for some time that a big war was about to start. I was increasingly persuaded of its possibility, but it still seemed to be such a self-evidently stupid move that I assumed Putin had better options. As this was a debate going on until the moment of invasion across Europe and North America, including in Russia, I was not alone in underestimating Putin’s stupidity. I am more self-critical over my focus in all these pieces on Donbas as the most likely arena of military activity (which wasn’t really supported by the disposition of Russian forces but did seem more manageable) and where there might be a potential diplomatic breakthrough. I did not appreciate the extent to which the logic of the situation, and Putin’s own writings, meant that he was after a far more radical outcome than securing the future of the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk, whatever the propaganda claims.

War begins

My starting assumptions from before the war shaped my reactions to its onset. It was evident on 25 February that despite their advantages of “tactical surprise and potentially overwhelming numbers” the Russians had performed poorly, and that the Ukrainians had demonstrated a spirited resistance. I asked whether “Vladimir Putin has launched an unwinnable war.

“Though the Russians may eventually prevail in battle, the first day of the war confirmed what has always seemed likely – that whatever the military victories to come, this will be an extraordinarily difficult war for Putin to win politically.”

The Russians had underestimated the enemy, assuming “a decadent and witless opponent, ready to capitulate at the first whiff of danger”. I expected them to improve their performance, which they turned out to be unable to do, but then made a number of points which I think remain valid:

– Morale and determination of those defending their country tends to be higher than that of those mounting an invasion, especially if they are unsure why they are doing so.
– Ukrainians were serious about defending their country and were resilient. They had not been rolled over.
– Putin’s failure to achieve a quick fait accompli was a boon to those in the West who wanted to impose tough sanctions (and later military supplies).
– He was after regime change but he should have known through Western as well as Soviet experience how difficult that can be. 
Volodymyr Zelensky had emerged as a war leader. While he might need to be evacuated, “[s]o long as he can continue to operate in Ukraine, his leadership serves as a rebuke to Putin”.

Two days later I felt I had understated the “faltering character of the first waves of the Russian offensive”. This was not the “hybrid war” advertised in advance. These first days would continue to affect Russian performance. Though I still expected a degree of Russian military recovery and then a sequence “from the first stage of conventional warfare to the next stage of urban warfare and, potentially, the stage after that – of resistance to an unwelcome occupation”. The Ukrainians were dominating the information space. “While Russia offers a president who increasingly presents as a cartoon villain, Ukraine’s leader bravely and eloquently leads his people at a time of grave danger.” Already, I noted, “the Russians appear to have opted for a more ruthless strategy, relying more on artillery, which in turn will add to the terrible cost to civilian life and property.”

[See also: Zelensky needed to go to Washington]

Over the following days I saw no reason to change these original judgements. The importance of logistics and command structures was being thrown into sharp relief, helping explain why Russia could not make the most of its apparent superiority in combat power. Having observed the trouble the Russian military had got itself into, I remained wary. In the first days of March I wrote: “If only for reasons of prudence, and to avoid getting ahead of ourselves in the analysis, we must still assume that Russia will be more successful in bringing the weight of its military strength to bear.” And of course in the south of Ukraine they had been more successful. Moreover, they were now concentrating on attacking cities, although so far this had yet to affect civilian morale and was not being linked appropriately with military moves.

By now I was confident that “any possibility that this war would end with the complete subjugation of Ukraine by force of arms… has now gone” but nor could I imagine an “end with Russian forces being chased out of the country”. So most likely there would be a negotiated conclusion – but this would require that Ukraine emerged from this ordeal “as a free and independent country with no Russian troops on their soil”. I concluded that “[r]egime change is now as likely in Moscow as it is in Kyiv… When we know more about how this war ends we will understand better how [Putin’s] regime ends.”

My understanding of the structure of the war was thus established early on, and this has not really changed. Nor has my belief in the link between negotiations, Putin’s future and developments in the land war. I could not see how it suited either side for this war to continue indefinitely, but thereafter the more I looked into the issues surrounding a negotiated settlement the more pessimistic I became, without seeing any evidence that Putin was on his way out. By the late spring I had reached the view that the key to ending the conflict lay in the land battle. One way or another Russian forces would need to be chased out.

Indeed, so obvious did it seem that a ceasefire would serve Russian purposes by freezing the lines of contact that I was surprised that Moscow did not propose one. Another recurring theme has been the need to counter the idea that somehow it is up to Ukraine to come up with proposals for a negotiated peace, including its acceptance of a partition. Behind this idea is often concern that if Ukraine keeps on pushing Russian forces back somehow Putin will be driven to use nuclear weapons. I have never found this a credible scenario because it missed the effective role of nuclear deterrence in Putin’s strategy, which he would not wish to jeopardise, in persuading the US and Nato not to get directly involved in the fighting. It was also irritating because it normally led to an argument for Ukrainian concessions, while ignoring the extent to which Russia had already escalated its attacks on civil society.

I think I have done a reasonable job in following the course of the war, trying all the time to keep developments in the fighting in their wider political context. I overestimated the effect of sanctions at first before reaching a more balanced view, but I never expected these to be decisive. I picked up on the importance of the grain export issue, although oddly did not follow up on my initial piece. I was conscious of the need to avoid getting caught up in the mood of the moment, for example when the war became much tougher for Ukraine over the summer. Here I could see how the Russians were exhausting themselves in the summer battles for little gain, while the Ukrainians were gaining in strength as Western support began to kick in. At the start of July I observed: “Both sides therefore must adapt. It’s an oversimplification but the Russians seem to be becoming more of a 20th-century army while the Ukrainians are becoming more of a 21st-century army. The Ukrainian adaption process will take longer but the prospect is of a much more capable force.”

Thus by late summer we were moving into a transitional stage with serious Ukrainian counteroffensives imminent. I was not surprised by their big breakthroughs in September. The Ukrainians had the upper hand in the land battle, and I believe they still have it. They have come a long way from early preparations for street fighting with Molotov cocktails.

Over the past few months what has become extraordinary is the widening gap between Putin’s claimed objectives and the military capabilities at his disposal. There have been a number of points at which Putin might have moved to cut his losses – the retreat from Kyiv in late March or after the Ukrainian offensives in September. In both these cases he doubled down. In the summer I surmised that at some point the military might conclude that its position had become untenable, which could drive a move to a negotiated Russian withdrawal. Certainly the general staff has shown itself ready to withdraw from hopeless positions, and it remains unlikely that it would fight for every inch of Ukrainian territory. But did I tend then to wishful thinking? Since early September my analysis of Putin and his strategy has become much bleaker. He has come to frame this war as a sort of civilisational struggle, far more than an effort to protect Russian-language speakers in Donbas. As soon as the annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces was announced in September it was evident that he was making a serious peace deal almost impossible.

[See also: The West must confront its failures on Ukraine]

He also decided to throw everything available at the problem, hoping that a miserable winter without military progress would turn Ukrainians against the war. To this end the two key aspects of Putin’s new strategy in September were mass mobilisation, which enabled defensive positions to be reinforced and preparations for possible renewed offensives in the spring, and the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure. On this second aspect, which I described graphically but too dismissively as a “sociopath’s tantrum”, I underestimated the efficiency and remorselessness with which Russia would conduct this campaign, although I still don’t think it provides any strategic benefit. On the first, the picture is more complex. The mobilisation was shambolic and the draftees were pushed into battle with inadequate kit and training. Russian tactics still appear to be unimaginative and shockingly wasteful of the lives of their own troops. The battle for Bakhmut in Donetsk, which appeared to offer the Russians the best hope of a gain, seems to be turning against them. I find it hard to see how they can generate sufficient combat power for new offensives, and it is still likely that they will suffer reverses in the coming weeks.

Yet I wonder if I also underestimated the resilience of the Russian army and its ability to exploit mobilisation. It is easier to defend than to attack, and value can be found even in the most indifferent and unwilling soldiers, especially when they are considered expendable. Much military activity seems designed to tie Ukrainian forces down rather than achieve sustainable breakthroughs. There have been numerous reports of wiped-out units, low morale and even some micro-mutinies, but so far nothing to suggest the sort of contagious collapse that would be truly dangerous for the Russian military. It may yet happen. Just as when there have been dramatic movements there is a risk of wishful thinking, assuming that the enemy is on the run, when everything slows down there is soon talk of stalemate. It needs a leap of the imagination to imagine what the war will look like in the spring. The key limiting factor for both sides will be production and supply, and that will be one of the most important issues to watch over the coming months.

This was my last full assessment from late November. Let’s see how long it lasts.

As has been the case from the start of the war, judgements on who is winning and losing continue to depend on the course of the land battle. But for now Russia lacks a credible concept of victory whereas it is possible to see how Ukraine might prevail, at least to the point of leaving Russia with holdings that are minimal and incoherent, with even Crimea left vulnerable.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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