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Has Putin overplayed his hand? The Russian dictator's war plan is falling apart

(Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


February 28, 2022   8 mins

When the US “Intelligence Community” of 17 different agencies started issuing imminent invasion warnings more than a month ago, I disbelieved them. There was no sign that the Russian army was stripping its bases as far away as Khabarovsk to assemble enough troops for a swift coup de main takeover of Europe’s largest country.

The original intel estimate of 127,000 troops was grossly inadequate, and when it was raised to 150,000 including forces already within the Russian-held parts of eastern Ukraine, it was still much too low for a coup de main that would start and end the war in one go — the only kind of war that Russia can fight without quickly incurring dangerous levels of economic damage.

Of course, reckless gamblers are undeterred by risks, but Putin’s record until a week ago was that of a very patient hunter, who waits until the target walks into his sights, only then pressing the trigger for a sure hit. That is how he gained Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 after inter-ethnic fighting, and broken cease-fires since 1994. Both are small but significant territories — Abkhazia because it is the southernmost, most “Mediterranean” of all Russian-controlled territories, with oranges and lemons as well as a nominally independent government, and South Ossetia because it is an Orthodox enclave in the mostly Muslim Caucasus.

And that is also how Putin won his biggest prize so far, Crimea, detaching its several pieces from Ukraine in the turmoil following the Maidan uprising that sent President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing from Kyiv on 21 February 2014: a few thousand Russian operatives with some locals took over the territory of  Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the autonomous city of Sevastopol, and a coastal strip in the Kherson mainland and all without firing a shot: a quickly concocted Republic of Crimea then “voted” to join the Russian Federation along with the city of Sevastopol.

To do the same thing across the 1500 kilometre width of Ukraine, it would take not less than half a million well-trained soldiers. They would need to move quickly overland to seize the cities nearest to the border such as Kharkov less than twenty miles away, or by large-airlift to reach distant Lviv, or helicoptered to simultaneously seize the regional capitals, from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the north-east, to Odessa in the south west, and Zaporizhia in the center-east, in addition to Kyiv, itself a metropolis of almost three million inhabitants. And yes, it all presumed only token resistance by such Ukrainian soldiers as would fight at all.

The once patient hunter turned reckless gambler persuaded himself of that, and of much more: that Ukraine’s Jewish ex-comedian turned President Zelensky would promptly flee, that his government would then collapse as ministers rushed off to escape arrest, that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Air Defence, long starved of funds in any case would dissolve, so that Russian forces would advance unopposed to quickly seize every city, with Kyiv’s population obediently awaiting Russian rule. Then former president Yanukovych could be brought back to form a new government for the TV cameras, whose task would be to vote immediately to re-join the Russian Federation, thus ending the fighting in glorious victory for Putin and his empire.

None of the above was wildly improbable — but it hardly takes much in the way of prudence to eschew war planning that consists of stringing together best-case scenarios, which is exactly what Putin chose to do, ignoring his own Intelligence chief and veteran Kremlin official Sergey Naryshkin. That much is proven by a truly extraordinary document: the video of Putin’s eve-of-war meeting with his ministers and advisors, ostensibly on the annexation of the self-proclaimed independent Donbas republics, but actually on the imminent invasion.

We see a carefully staged display of imperial authority that has Putin sitting high up at his desk while the advisers sit in chairs below him, till each one in turn goes to stand in front of a microphone to endorse what Putin has just said. But the script fell apart when it was Naryshkin’s turn to speak. He clearly said that there should be “talks” to give the Western side a “chance”, pronouncing that French word in the French way, as Russians do. Visibly surprised, visibly angered, Putin demands an answer “yes or no” on the annexation itself, sidestepping Naryshkin’s real point: to rely on talks, not tanks in dealing with Ukraine.

The build-up to the war went well for Putin. He had the German government firmly in his camp — to the improbable extent that it went far out of its way to prevent Estonia from donating old Soviet 122mm howitzers to Ukraine, on the flimsy ground that they had briefly been in German possession when the West German army inherited East Germany’s military equipment. Nor would the German government agree to suspend the certification of the giant new Nordstream 2 gas pipeline that would have increased German dependence on Russian gas, uncaring of the vehement objections of the United States, Britain, the European Council and Poland.

Given that, Germany was bound to rule out effective sanctions in the lead-up to the fighting, with the most effective — the exclusion from the Swift payment system — not even considered, because it would block payments for Russian gas, stopping its supply. A request for weapons from the immense German surplus stocks yielded an offer of old helmets, on the grounds that German parliamentarians would prohibit the supply of lethal weapons. Providing cover for the Germans, the Italian government also ruled out a Swift cut off, and it was only Italy’s embattled Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini’s personal determination that kept the door half-open for Italian military supplies.

Nor was the US Government much of an obstacle: instead of emulating the British airlift of anti-tank missiles on a much larger scale, the US focused on evacuating its diplomats in hysterical haste — as if to support Putin’s intimidation campaign — and then failed to airlift any of the tens of thousands of highly suitable “point and shoot” anti-tank rockets in Army depots that any civilian can use with one minute of training.

But war is the greatest contingency. As all veterans know — and that includes the present writer — until the fighting starts, no soldier knows how he will react to combat, and still less which of his comrades will fight bravely and which will keep his head down, waiting for the noise to end. And that goes for war leaders too: in 1939 the mediocre dictator Ioannis Metaxas replied to Mussolini’s verbose ultimatum with a monosyllabic ohi — “no” — inspiring victorious fighting by the hugely outgunned Greeks. And now in 2022 Zelensky’s comedic turn as a TV President, followed by a respectable showing as an actual President, set the stage for his current act as an indomitable war leader, totally uncaring of the risk to his own life as the number one target of Russian under-cover killer teams.

After refusing Biden’s ill-judged offer to evacuate him (he asked for weapons instead) Zelensky declared that he would remain in Kyiv with his entire Cabinet to lead the fight for the city. That played its own undefinable role in inspiring Ukraine’s soldiers to resist no matter what: to hold the city of Kharkiv, close enough to the Russian border to have been within artillery range from the start, to defend Zmiinyi (snake) island in front of coastal Odessa, whose 13-man garrison came under overwhelming naval bombardment after impolitely refusing to surrender, to defend Mariupol the country’s eastern harbour, whose half a million inhabitants live less than 30 miles from the Russian border (but are holding out with the Russians still 15 miles away as of this writing), and on the Kyiv approaches through which the Russian army was supposed to swiftly advance on the city and finish the war in two days if not one.

The Ukrainian army did not run away, it did not surrender, it did not abandon its weapons to walk home, and neither was it quickly outmanoeuvred by the much better-funded Russian army, which has had the fuel, ammo, and replacement parts for much more intensive training than the badly underfunded Ukrainians. It turns out that motivation beats even training: Russian armoured columns that were supposed to advance at motor speed on the highways to Kharkov and Kyiv brushing aside token resistance to quickly seize both cities, were instead forced off the road by sustained Ukrainian anti-armour fire, and then blocked again by hard fighting when they gave up on highway momentum to advance cross-country at 3mph. Day after day, Kharkov and Kyiv not only held out but were not even attacked, except by a few missiles, more terrifying than destructive.

That is when Putin’s timetable and entire war plan fell apart.

The world could close its eyes for a day and a night to allow the Russians to finish the job, so as to continue business as usual for everyone: the trucks delivering French and Italian luxury goods to the Moscow bourgeoisie along with Audi and Mercedes cars, Dutch hydroponic vegetables and much more from Frankfurt an Oder via Warsaw and Minsk; the aircraft bringing Russian skiers to Courchevel and MegĂšve, and shoppers to London and Paris.

But when the Russian attempt failed, and the dramatic news was made by Ukraine’s heroic resistance rather than by the expected Putin victory, Western Europeans had to open their eyes, they had to look at the Russian aggression that had brought large-war to Europe for the first time since 1945.

After Italy’s Draghi spoke with Zelensky, Italy’s objection to the Swift ban suddenly gave way to approval, forcing the Germans to switch also to avoid opprobrium as the only hold-out. With that the silent opponents like Luxembourg also had to go along, and soon enough Japan also agreed to exclude the most regime-connected banks. With that the destruction of the Russian bourgeoisie’s way of life was underway in earnest: no skiing trips to France, or foreign trips anywhere outside the Russian sphere, no sending of children to expensive boarding schools in Britain or Switzerland, no new German cars, nor fresh tomatoes.

Concurrently, the spectacle of civilians, ladies of advanced years included, preparing Molotov cocktails out of beer bottles as a last resort to defend their streets, broke down the dam of Pacifist hypocrisy (“weapons only make war worse”) releasing an expanding torrent of weapons, with Germany, last seen stopping others from helping, itself offering 5,000 Stingers, aspirational anti-aircraft weapons against jets, but deadly against helicopters. Italy is sending badly needed anti-tank weapons, and others such as the British who did not wait for the fighting to begin in order to send anti-tank missiles, are sending more weapons as the US, Canada, Sweden and others are also doing, but adding a so far unique official encouragement of volunteers willing to fight for Ukraine.

Suddenly the hitherto untouchable Putin is in trouble. He promised a quick, almost effortless victory, to instead plunge into a war increasingly costly of lives (hundreds of Russians are dead by all accounts), increasingly costly for the entire Russian economy, and disastrous for its bourgeoisie. And this for a war that Russia is not winning. That Putin has invited the Ukrainian President to send envoys to cease-fire 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.

If talks do start, the Ukrainians can have only one demand: an immediate and total withdrawal of Russian forces to their starting positions. And if the Russians accept that inevitable demand, it seems unlikely that Putin can remain in power, not after having overruled his Intelligence chief, to deliberately start a costly war, only to lose it.

If the Russians refuse, they must revert to a very hard fight, a slow-motion drive into Kyiv that will be marked by rising casualties, as Ukrainian resistance is strengthened by the influx of better weapons and rising military competence. Then the Russians must conquer the whole of Ukraine out to Lviv and the Carpathian mountains — where the population is mostly anti-Russian, promising ever more grinding combat.

It is hard to imagine how Putin could emerge from this scenario victorious. Yes Zelensky might be reached and murdered at any time, but it seems entirely unlikely that the morale generated by the ferocious resistance he inspired would simply disappear — if anything it might well increase.

Another possibility is nuclear escalation, and Putin’s latest is indeed to talk up in his most ominous tones Russia’s forward-deployed nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately for Putin, the action is now in the hands of old ladies with Molotov cocktails, shoe salesmen with bazookas, and increasingly experienced street fighters. None of them are likely to pause this fight for fear of Russian nuclear escalation.

That leaves Putin with no way of redeeming his promise of a swiftly victorious war, no defence against the accusation of having grievously damaged Russia and humiliated its army. The spy chief Naryshkin in the Kremlin might be the one to remove Putin with the least disruption, but of course there are other Putin appointees also ready to save mother Russia.


Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.

ELuttwak

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Tony Price
Tony Price
2 years ago

Maybe it’s because it’s what I want to think, but I agree and can see no way that Putin can win this war. I say Putin because it does seem that he is almost single-handedly pushing it onwards. When he fails he will, like so many Roman emperors who thought themselves immortal, not be allowed to die of old age in his bed. The economic consequences whatever happens are harsh for Europe, rather more than for the rest of the world, and a disaster for Russia even as they currently stand. It’s all very sad.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

The amusing thing about that argument is that “Roman emperor” Putin has more support among his people than democratically elected Biden or Trudeau.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Indeed, that is true and it is a very important fact. Why ? Because Putin is a Russian with a strong sense of Russian history, and Russia’s correct place in the world. Not the place that Washington DC gives it.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

And just what is the “correct place” for a mid-sized nation whose only real wealth is in commodities? Whose ecology is progressively being degraded by global warming? Whose place in the world isn’t even supported by China? Whose leader ties up half a trillion dollars in the bank–instead of using it to grow Russian business?
Russia has been mismanaged for over a decade. It’s leader still knows nothing about economics or military affairs.
Romantic notions of “Russian history” will do nothing to save the country from yet another political and economic collapse–the third since 1917.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

How do you know? Did you have access to a recent poll? As much as I have heard from people, who have Russian friends or business partners, that people there are extremely concerned about Putin‘s crazy decision. One Russian doctor friend said per email, that she, her relatives and friends pray for their boys (soldiers) and are very worried about the devastation to the economy and their “brother nation”. They consider this a civil war, which should have been avoided by all means, as many have friends and relatives in the Ukraine.

William Braden
William Braden
2 years ago

Educated people with internet access presumably know what’s going on. General population, not so much. BBC interviewed Russians in Kyiv. They called mom, “my building is being shelled.” Mom not believing them because she could see on Russian tv that it was not so.

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

He doesn’t allow opposition leaders.
Nemtszov was shot. Navalny survived a brush with novichok, but he’s in prison.
It’s easy to be the top politician if you have the others killed.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

Like the Democrat using a partisan legal system to neuter the opposition

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

I think the point is that the principle is defeated whether you kill your opponents or you use the legal system to do so.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

It is easier to be the top politician if you have the media, university elite, state machinery in your side and constantly maligning and bad-mouthing your opponent
But yet today Trump is more popular than Biden.

It’s easy to dismiss Putin’s popularity, but I suspect ordinary Russian people agree with him that East Ukraine and Crimea belong with Russia, or that NATO expanding to the border of Russia is an existential threat in the long term.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Trumps popularity says volumes about the educational standards and knowledge of a large number of people in the US: the man is considered an embarrassing joke by the rest of the world, who has the vocabulary of a 10 year old, and yet because of the US populus staggering ignorance of the rest of the planet, is considered serious.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

You sound like an elitist snob, traits that leaders like Biden & Trudeau exhibit, but in the end will be their downfall.

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago
Reply to  D Glover

There seem to have been a lot of posts removed from this thread. Is Unherd getting into censorship now?
It would help if there were a glossary of words we’re not allowed to use.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Glover
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Biden democratically elected?

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 years ago

ok, I’ll take the bait. Trump lost – so say 63 of 63 cases brought to court; the electoral colleges of all the states; the popular vote numbers; Trump’s vice president and attorney general, Mitch Mcconnell etc.. Are you mischievous or a sap?
Like most people who consistently shout loudly that they are winners, strong etc. (or more subtly if they/their audience are reasonably intelligent/educated) …well, as Shakespeare put it, ‘the lady she doth protest too much’.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dominic A
Jan Hinchliffe
Jan Hinchliffe
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

How can you (or anyone else) assert that Putin has more support among his people than anyone who was democratically elected, when it is he who determines the polling and its assessment and then delivers the ‘news’?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jan Hinchliffe

I am not talking about state conducted polling, the independent assessments by sociologists and sites like Statista suggest his support is around the 70% level.

Assuming that is untrue, that this war is about one man’s megalomania, or that there weren’t grave miscalculations by the West in dealing with Russia and it’s people mat be convenient but helpful in the long run.

patrick macaskie
patrick macaskie
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

you guys sound utterly pathetic, as if you have only one sausage machine through which to push every issue…..this is not about Trump, it is about the Ukrainians teaching us all a lesson in bravery, honour and legitimacy…..Trump ain’t no Zelensky bruv….you are going to have to find a better candidate to put a skittle ball through liberal decadence…..perhaps Zelenskyy has done the job for us and this is the moment of truth for the awful politics of the last 20 years

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago

Amen!

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

You are so lost. You want me to make your mind explode? Watch this and please comment. I really want to see yourself twist into a pretzel trying to explain this away. Also… What are you going to do when this doesn’t wind up like you think it will? The media and Western government have lied to you for two years about covid. Do you really think sexy women posing with rifles and facing down the Russian military is the truth about what is taking place on the ground? The USA is the world leader in propaganda but they haven’t won a conflict (since we don’t declare war anymore) since Kosovo but boy that propaganda would make you think they are all geniuses.. but please.. take a look at this. Comment? BTW… did you hear the Germany announcement about increasing military spending? lol
https://mobile.twitter.com/_BarringtonII/status/1496939053123440645

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

I agree – we have no idea what is actually going on. After 2 years of Covid gaslighting I assume the media are probably lying. Trump was right about NATO spending. I am Canadian and we should be ashamed at how we let the US carry the military can for us. We literally don’t have a functioning military anymore.

patrick macaskie
patrick macaskie
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

don’t know what got you so cross….I used the words ‘perhaps yelensky has done the work for us’…..ie a possible turning point. no more than a rhetorical speculation! I suspect it was because I suggested the election quibblers are pathetic and that you have a bit too much invested in Trump. He was right about some things but having Trump on your side isn’t always a blessing and certainly not enough for him to be anybody’s messiah. He didn’t break up the big tech companies and his economic strategy had no legs. the left/right knee jerk doesn’t work when you have been overtrading for 20 years. like the rent-seeking elite, he is himself a product (and winner from) the big monetisation of the last 20 years. I doubt any of these people will clear up the mess. at least Zelensky seems to represent something pure and properly brave.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

And to add – I would agree Trump is no Zelensky.
And which one is better is dependent on what you want from your leader.
Trump, under the same situation, would have been full of bluster and hot air as he does, but his main focus would be play EU against Russia, take full advantage of the situation to Ukraine’s benefit while avoiding annoying any one side too much.
Obnoxious but smart or a completely clueless clown who makes good photoshoots? Difficult choice indeed.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Do we know if this is still the case ??

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Nationalism is hard to beat, making globalists Biden & Trudeau instanteously impotent.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Yeah, but that’s not saying much.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Something I have not seen discussed is what Putin does with the gas he can no longer sell west. Gas is not the easiest thing in the world to move around. You can move it over short distances in pipelines, and you can move it as CNG – compressed natural gas – slightly further. But beyond a certain point the gas doesn’t want to move; it is compressible and it either starts to uncompress or recompress.
To move it intercontinentally, you need to liquefy it. There are two ways. One is to build an LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant, which chills it to make it into a liquid. LNG plants are usually located coastally because LNG can only be moved in specialised ships that keep it cold; you can’t pump it very far through a conventional pipeline, as it will regasify. It matters a great deal for the supply economics where your liquefaction plant is, which in turn depends on where your gas is. You have to get the gas to the LNG plant (within the distance constraints) and from the LNG plant to the sea. If it’s the wrong sea, the length and cost of the sea voyage kill you.
The other way to move gas is to build a gas-to-liquids plant or “train”, which basically turns it into diesel, jet, naphtha, and gasoline. These can be moved through a normal pipeline, but only two companies have this technology and there are no GTL trains in Russia.
So if Putin can’t sell his gas to any of his western neighbours, I don’t see what else he does, or how else he monetises it.
Of course the supply to western Europe needs to be replaced. The obvious source is fracked gas from the UK, which would allow us to give up our mainly Norwegian supply to some other buyer previously reliant on Russian gas.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Does China need gas ? Yes. Is China near Russia ? No, but at least there are no other countries in between. Is that why Xi, Jinping is supporting Putin ? Partly, yes, Simple, when you think, isn’t it ?

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Your belief in a genuine China-Russia alliance is touchingly naive. Xi is supporting China and China alone.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

He is supporting Russia to drag down the US

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

I did not say anything about a “genuine China-Russia alliance”. You put the words in my mouth, which is a common, if dishonest debating tactic.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Your comment implies it as you well know. I’m not “debating” here, just posting my views and insights – which is nice to be able to do since we at least live in a free country where – in Adlai Stevenson’s works – “it’s safe to be unpopular”. Try the same in Russia or China.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

There is the small matter of getting the gas from north Russia to south east China. No roads, no tankers; one railway, not enough tankers; no pipeline and a very tricky one to build

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Power of Siberia pipeline. Date of article Feb 4, 2022. Getting ready for the Ukraine action?
https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-russia-china-agree-30-year-gas-deal-using-new-pipeline-source-2022-02-04/

Last edited 2 years ago by Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Is China near Russia? They share a 2600 mile border. LOL

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

You are quite the apologist. A better question would be how close the gas fields are to China and does the infrastructure needed already exist? Pipelines are neither easy nor fast to build and the economic impact of the war on Russia in the short term has the potential to seriously damage cash flow and the ability to pay for things. Longer term they could end up back in the dark ages financially as a client state of China, under the belt and road initiative. It would be quite the prize for Xi. I would imagine owning Russia would be quite the prize for the Chinese.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Honestly – Germany will keep buying gas because they don’t have any options. Canada buys oil for eastern Canada from Russia and Saudi Arabia because activists blocked a west to east pipeline. The global warming panic has had a huge impact on western energy independence.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

A lot of gas pipelines cross Ukraine. A lot of pipelines others depend on. With those gone, trouble has really begun.

Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
2 years ago

The writer is clearly a serious and knowledgeable guy. I would say only this: Putin ordered the invasion on 24 Feb. That was 4 days ago. I know things are moving quickly, especially in the sense of Western sanctions including SWIFT. But surely it is too early to be making strategic judgments, however caveated? It isn’t rocket science to foresee everything that has happened since Putin ordered the invasion (which I didn’t see coming either), and I can’t believe he was so reckless as not to plan for much of it at least.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

Putin’s “plan” was that the enemy would surrender immediately.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Says who? You? LOL. Amazing how you can read Putin’s mind… or is that just the CIA getting into your head through mass formation again?

Last edited 2 years ago by Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

The propaganda is off the charts. People might try to balance it out with moonofalabama or thesaker.is (pro putin Russian ex pat.) He translates important Russian political speeches so you can hear what they are saying without the MSM propaganda filter. Putin has given 3 speeches on it. Lavrov has given a couple too. Pretty clear Russia is controlling the airspace and Russia has a lot of support in the East from the population. I don’t claim to know but I certainly don’t think Ukraine is in the wonderful position the Media is claiming it is. If Russia winds up controlling the airspace, the airports, the waterfront, and the borders and decides not to take Kiev where does that leave things? This thing just started. Fuel, food, medicine, etc… these things haven’t even come into play yet. Logistically Russia can drive it all in or fly it in if they control the airspace. People are basically taken the word of the media and governments responsible for 20 years of failure in Afghanistan by comparison Syria looks like a Russian success.

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
2 years ago

Thank you for this very informative summary and outlook, in a style which is a pleasure to read by the way. I specifically value that you revise your earlier assessment and explain why. That is how we all can learn. It is so rare to my feeling that I felt that I had to point that out.

Will R
Will R
2 years ago

Spot on

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
2 years ago

One minor correction though: in the video of Russia’s Security Council Meeting of February 21st (extraordinary indeed!), Putin and his cronies are discussing recognition of the two People’s Republics Donetsk and Luhansk, and not “annexation” – in a revealing slip of the tongue Naryshkin uses the word “annexation”, but he is immediately corrected by Putin: “no, no, that is not what we are discussing here”. I can only recommend readers to watch some more of the video: the surreal setting, Putin’s nervous tics (curling lips, fingers on the edge of the table, rolling eyes at inappropriate moments), the overacting of Medvedev, the others being most of the time bad actors. It is on the website of the Kremlin, which makes it even more mind boggling what could be the purpose of this (the website of the Kremlin is hard to reach for the moment because of hacker attacks, but you can find copies of the official video with simultaneous translation on the internet, here for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSJsSxgsRVM, or with German translation on RT (Russia Today).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Brilliant summary! Thank you.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
2 years ago

There is a pretty good precedent for all this: Stalin’s “Winter War” against Finland in 1939-40. He attacked a country that was not threatening him but he feared could be used by an aggressive power, in order to gain strategic depth. His initial attack was too weak and not well executed, and the Finns stymied him. He paused to put in new commanders and vast new military resources, which then methodically crushed the Finnish army until Finland sued for peace. Stalin took the lands he needed for military purposes, but left most of Finland alone.

We will see how this one goes


David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

correct and Putin will end up with exactly what he wanted. the West has caused this, exactly as it did in 2014 when Putin ‘ended up’ with Crimea

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

Er, just where is Putin getting these “vast new military resources?”
The bulk of the Russian army is already committed.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

Exactly. People are acting like this is still the Red Army of 1980 with 30 mechanized divisions in the GDR and another 100 behind that.
The total active duty Russian army is barely larger than Ukraine’s. They’ve got a lot of reserves, but those are all ex-conscripts. Wanna guess how eager they are to be called up and sent into brutal urban fighting?
Also, given history, I’d guess the last majority of Russia’s reserve equipment has been poorly maintained and would take months to make operable.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
Reply to  Snapper AG

yep and it’s all over if they get offered new citizenship and a free XBOX/PS5

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Agreed – and it’s this article that I believe reflects reality and what’s to come.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I really hope so, but it’s a blind bet.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

A really first class and informative article, and beautifully written, by one who knows his subject. More please!

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Indeed Luttwak is the real deal; top-shelf expert on military affairs and strategy. More articles from experts like him would be greatly appreciated.

D Glover
D Glover
2 years ago

but adding a so far unique official encouragement of volunteers willing to fight for Ukraine.

Any Brits who are thinking of taking up Liz Truss’s generous offer to support them when they fight in Ukraine might want to think about this;
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/isis-syria-ypg-volunteers-arrested-terror-laws-aidan-james-a9204916.html
ISIS were our enemies, we gave money and weapons to the Kurds to fight them. But now those Brits who volunteered with the Kurds are treated as criminals.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

It’s a brilliant analysis, but it shies away from the big fear — will Putin go for broke and start using nukes? Or will he have an “accident” on one of those marble staircases in the Kremlin?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

If you were a senior Russian, military or otherwise, losing your fortune and losing your family’s future in the west – where they all love to go – and potentially held liable for crimes in a future regime – would you push him?

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

thank god for social media, LinkedIn etc… where Russians can genuinely see how others live, smell democracy etc…

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago

Any attempt to use nukes would just get him a bullet behind the ear. You think those Russian Army and KGB generals want to die in Putin’s funeral pyre? I think they’d rather have their families live, and keep enjoying their privileged lives.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago

I think Putin is hobbled (happily so) by fears, not only of Russian military casualties, but Ukrainian civilian ones.
His own narrative of one people is true to an extent and the affinity, family ties and all sorts of social connections make this different to Grozny or the other places he has gone into with the full weight of artillery and air power raising towns before taking them.
I don’t think the Russian army and air force is an ineffective fighting machine, and I don’t want to lessen the fact of Ukrainian resistance being strong..but to get that *six day war* type of result he would need to be more brutal. This seems impossible in this specific situation which has given time for both the Ukrainians to defend courageously and the West to finally realise it has to start doing things.
And for it all to start unravelling for the person formerly known as a master strategist.
It would be an interesting counter factual to see what the West would have done if he had just pushed on in the regions of his two fake republics..and maybe *by accident* opened the corridor land route via the South East coast but without any military action around Kharkiv, Kiev or the push out of Crimea.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

I don’t think the Russian army and air force is an ineffective fighting machine, and I don’t want to lessen the fact of Ukrainian resistance being strong..but to get that *six day war* type of result he would need to be more brutal. 

Exactly, the plan isn’t to invade and destroy. They need as much as possible intact (including hearts and minds) if they can.

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 years ago

After reading this post and others, the only conclusion I have come to is that we might have to sit this one out. All the scenarios that people are predicting seem possible. Only time will give a straight and firm answer.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

The real problem is that Putin approached this as a spy operation, not a military operation. The clandestine takeover of Crimea was a rousing success because it involved overwhelming force, hidden behind unmarked uniforms.
But when Putin tried to use genuine military power in the Donbas, his supporters ran like rabbits, and had to be supported by soldiers from units all over Russia.
The designation “special military operation” says it all. The Russian term for a spy operation is “special operation.” Putin saw this as just another, larger intel operation. It was planned that way, and explains why it is falling apart.
But most dangerous for him is that this dishonors every Russian military officer. They don’t like their failings broadcast across the world.
Better start planning for what happens after Putin falls.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Logan
Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

Well one is a respected military analyst and one is a reporter.
Coin toss–or not?

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Putin has overplayed his hand but unfortunately he can’t afford to back down.

George Kushner
George Kushner
2 years ago

Looks like we’ll soon see the end of Putin, the level of hubris and ignorance is truly astonishing and unexpected too

Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago

I really hope you’re right

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago

I think it is a good article but missing the point. Putin has already won. He is doing exactly what was planned: they do NOT want any damage or fatalities if it can be avoided. the touchy-feely advances that shy back whenever real resistance is encountered is EXACTLY what they planned to do. They want the people and the country (and the UKR armed forces) as intact as possible. This is NOT an invasion to destroy an enemy, it is an invasion to gain control of a functioning country. The Western politicians and MSM are taking everyone for fools…again.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Owsley
Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

It took 800,000 Warsaw Pact troops to occupy the Czechs in 1968. Ukraine is a nation with many times more people and many times more land. A force of 200,000–the majority of the combat formations in the Russian army–will never occupy all of Ukraine.
Moreover, no Czech had access to modern tank-killing and aircraft-killing missiles.
The moment the Ukrainians didn’t give in was the moment the plan failed.
Curb your Romanticism.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

“…the majority of the combat formations in the Russian army–will never occupy all of Ukraine”. And what for? That is not the point. They have no need nor intention to occupy all of Ukraine. The only Romanticism is those TOTALLY fooled by very poor ‘marketing’. This is almost an exact repeat of 2014 except back then the West had toppled the pro Russian Ukrainian government.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

No, he’s lost. NATO is reinvigorated, and everyone sees the threat. Even the Germans are rearming.

David Owsley
David Owsley
2 years ago
Reply to  Snapper AG

You are agreeing. Did you think the plan was to plough through all of Ukraine and keep marching? the whole point of the agreements over Ukraine (which UK/US decided to ignore) was NATO/EU one side Russia the other. It won’t worry Putin one iota because that is what it always should have been. .

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

The plan was to shock the Ukranian Gov’t into fleeing, and impose a puppet regime in Kiev. Putin didn’t think the Ukranian army would fight.
Well, how’d that work out? Now he has to not only occupy the whole country, or whatever part of it he wants, but he’s going to have to deal with a huge insurgency, supplied by NATO.
He lacks the military power to do that. The Russian Army has a small cadre of professionals (maybe 200,000). The rest are conscripts and reservists (ex-conscripts). Their enthusiam for house-to-house fighting in the Ukraine is going to be zero.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  David Owsley

I think you are correct – but Putin underestimated the Ukrainian/global reaction – and he will not get anything out of it -except a more well armed Europe and a great loss of respect/face. Plus he will have lessened the chance of China attempting the same stunt in Taiwan. A bit like a megalomaniac H*****r thinking he could ‘take’ Russia. Ironic really but then psychopaths always are foiled by their hubris…it is just a shame about all the grief they cause – and the fact they they rise again and again cos ‘good men’ always have to be on the alert and there are never enough of them to gain critical mass amongst the herd of sheep.

Rick Fraser
Rick Fraser
2 years ago

Taking all of Ukraine will not be easy and I think Putin knew this from the start. So I suspect once the Russians occupy some major cities, he will then start negotiating for the eastern provinces, total disarmament and an agreement to never join NATO. Ukraine should probably accept something along these lines. Otherwise, a longer, more miserable fate is in store for both countries.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Excellent!

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
2 years ago

QUOTE: “the Ukrainians can have only one demand: an immediate and total withdrawal of Russian forces to their starting positions. And if the Russians accept that inevitable demand, it seems unlikely that Putin can remain in power …” Given how Putin has behaved, this seems like a very big ‘IF”. And the very last thing any dictator wants is to look like a loser. Which makes a coup d’etat more likely. After all, they went after Khrushchev for overreaching.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

This is a culture and values war despite the horrendous physical suffering at the moment. Trivial stuff like McDonalds in Russia and ordinary Russians on holiday in Sri Lanka say, or using iPhones matters more than tanks. We’re good at self hatred in the West, on here evidently, but our ambiguity and disagreements are still envied by so many countries around the world. No one’s desperate to emigrate to Russia. The Russian tech workers my family knows in Finland are speechless but not bewildered- it’s old Russia still. Sadly if you live in Perm or some such you probably haven’t a clue.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I agree, What I also find interesting is the way the “woke” are condemned, on this site, for their anti-American, anti-British or general anti-West views when I have been reading a massive number of anti-Western comments on this site recently.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

I stopped reading when the author claimed Abkhazia was significant because they grew oranges and lemons.

Malvin Marombedza
Malvin Marombedza
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

He was just being sarcastic

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Whoosh is the term I believe!

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

Ah ok, then I missed the sarcasm.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

LOL. Unherd might as well be the BBC. The propaganda is off the chart.

Dominic A
Dominic A
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

Please tell us where you go to get the unvarnished truth?

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago

Putin will win in Ukraine. We’re only in day 4. What happens when 500 Russian tanks and 30,000 Russian soldiers surround Kyiv, and then the Russian bombers arrive over the city ? He will crush Kyiv and Kharkiv if he must. Does the writer understand about war ? I think not.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Did you read the article? He says that Putin could win in Ukraine militarily but with enormous sacrifices and without the support of the people. Any puppet he puts in place will be zapped immediately.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Disagree.
The pace of progress in just four days is pretty impressive, they have complete air dominance and they haven’t actually thrown their entire weight yet

A look at the map shows their pincer movements in the South and the East are on track to cut off the Russianised Eastern pockets which is what Russia really wants, and are also more strategic and economically valuable.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Thank you. Someone with a brain, who understands reality and what is going on (as opposed to wishful thinking blah-blah).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Oh gosh, Gile – the strength of your put downs just makes me want to bow down to your supreme intelligence.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Good, I’m glad you’re getting the message.

Will R
Will R
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I really wouldn’t bother – he seems to have something of complex!

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Might want to look at the pictures of the destroyed Russian equipment–growing by the hour. The Ukrainians are getting thousands of tank killer missiles and aircraft killer missiles.
This will be a long war, and most of Putin’s armour will never return to Russia.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

You think you guys know better than Edward Luttwak?!?!? Read a book; he’s only written about 25 on military strategy.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Putin has support because he has produced a better quality of life compared to 1990 to 2002. If Putin keeps the South East Ukraine though he gains some economic advantages, this will be outweighed by the damage from the economic sanctions.
Those brought up in poverty can endure harsh conditions but in the last fifteen years a large middle class has arisen in Russia. Is the middle class prepared to return to the 1990s with no prospect of improvement while Putin is in power? Are the mothers/sisters of poorly trained conscripts prepared to see their sons/brothers killed? What percentage of the Russian Armed Forces are highly trained volunteers ( what is their level of training compared to the British?)and what are poorly trained conscripts ?
People can endure harsh conditions if they have fortitude and hope for a better day but a middle class reduced to scrabbling for food is invariably a catalyst for civil unrest.
Putin is a Chekist so how much loyalty does he have from the GRU and Armed Service, especially when they see tanks and helicopters destroyed? Did Putin appreciate the capability of modern hand held anti- tank and helicopter missiles and the modern day economic system?

Theodore Stegers
Theodore Stegers
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Roger Bootle points out Russia has a GDP smaller than that of South Korea and a per capita GDP that is in the range 50th-70th. How does that square with Putin delivering a “better quality of life” for the Russian population? Perhaps marginally better than the period 1917-1989 but a whole lot worse than the potential improvement that existed. Putin’s performance has been dire and those Russians who are not aware of this are likely to find out as his Ukraine adventure unfolds.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

People tend to remember what happened last, not the times before. There middle class in Russia has grown in the last 20 years and I doubt it wants to return to the poverty of the 1990s. Civil unrest often occurs when the middle class are reduced to poverty which could occur with sanctions.
The issue with food in the 1990s was not production but transport to shops.
Russian action is likely to slow down the World’s economy. What growth does the CCP need for China to keep the masses supporting them ? If China sees Russian activities leading to such a reduced economic growth that it loses internal support it will stop supporting Putin. The support for the CCP is based upon it delivering a better future for the masses, not a worse one.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

The problem with that thesis is: Russia is fairly self dependent in terms of food and energy, and they will be able to circumvent the sanctions to some extent because of two reasons: the West can’t stop using their gas in the near term, and China which will support them.

If anything, those panicking about Putin are missing the big picture. Or in one word, China.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

To answer your last question–no.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

I agree. Right now it’s rather difficult to tell what’s going on because all the news coming out of the western press (and British intelligence reports) is straight from Ukrainian propaganda. Perhaps it’s correct, but looking at the map it would seem to me that the Russians are homing in from all sides. Worth recalling that it took 3 weeks for the US to take Baghdad in the 2003 Iraq war.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Vladimir Pyrrhus.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Disagree with what? No one is disputing that he’ll win in Ukraine. Whooped – he gets a destroyed country with no infrastructure populated by people looking for revenge. He’s lost big time.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Complete air dominance? The Ukrainians are hitting Russian convoys from the air and destroying some. We are in the age of the drone, it is not all about jet fighters anymore.
We are likely to see a reverse Eastern Front of WW2. Russian troops, unable to hold down such a huge country, will be constantly harried by partisans, we’ll equipped by NATO. Russia’s coffers will soon drain.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  Guy Aston

And where exactly are you getting this information? The Ukrainian government? British intelligence? (And who know how reliable the latter are since they seem so unintelligent as to require pronouns defined to figure out whether “Guy” is a man or a woman!!). The truth is we really don’t know too much about what’s going on on the ground. For example, there were headlines all over the MSM of a lone Ukrainian fighter pilot downing god knows how many russian fighter planes, yet this turned out to be a complete fabrication. Similarly, with the Ukrainian sailors who told the Russian “f… you” and were then supposedly shot out of the water and drowned, when in fact they were captured.
Right now, I would say we are still very much in the early days of this conflict, and the news coming out of the MSM, western intelligence agencies and the Ukrainian government, may be trying to to see a dire situation through rose tinted glasses. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I do know that if one had listened and believed Baghdad Bob, one would have surmised that the US was being defeated, all the while the US troops were homing in on Baghdad and Baghdad airport.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Er, I believe the MSM did report the fall of Baghdad.
Did they lie?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Guy Aston

Er, no.
The ghost of Kiev, the last stand of the 13 soldiers, the father tearfully saying goodbye to his daughter, the clown strutting around in body armour, the column of 56 Russian tanks destroyed by Ukranian forces …..
Each and every story was made up.

In reality, the Russkies have pulled their punches, and still pincered two fronts and reached Kiev within 3 days.

Yes, the Russians may get scared of sanctions and try for a compromise or even pull back.
But militarily, though they have faced casualties, they have done very well.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

So that 4 days into a 2-day war. It would appear that the Russian armed forces were told that they were going to assist in the “Donbas region” as a peace-keeping force. The news must be getting to the Russian people and their armed forces that Putin lied to them and, as their troops are suffering high casualties might think again as some have already done so. Some Units have retreated or surrendered. When a Tank squadron retreates from unarmed civilians it means that they didn’t realise what they were supposed to do to whom. I suspect they thought they would be welcomed with open arms, wine and pretty women. When a CinC ignors his Intel Chief he is already losing the battle, if not the war. When a Chihuahua barks at a Great-Dane it doesn’t see a huge dog – just another dog.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

You clearly do not. There are few hard facts available. But that’s one.

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

Taking Kiev would require 300,000 troops, and Putin ain’t got them. His whole active duty Army is less than 300,000, and a lot of those are conscripts.
Estimates are that half of Russian first echelon troops are already in Ukraine. If the Ukrainians keep fighting, and the West keeps the arms flowing, I don’t think Putin can win.

Last edited 2 years ago by Snapper AG
Mike Smith
Mike Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Giles Chance

6 days later, it seems you don’t understand war either. Putin is still in a mess of his own making and you are still a Putin apologist.