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Thinking About Putin and Russian Strategy
Adaptations to Russia's Strategy for Ukraine in 2023
During my two years at the Marine Corps Command Staff College, and School of Advanced Warfighting in the early 2000s, we were taught many, many things. But one of the simplest mantras was this:
Fast, cheap and easy – pick two.
It is a short phrase but profound in its meaning. In any planning activity, in any strategy development, the resulting plan or strategy might be able to leverage two elements of this construct, but never three. It was good advice.
And it was counsel that Vladimir Putin and the small group of FSB operatives who planned the 2022 invasion of Ukraine might have heeded. But they didn’t. Instead, they made a series of assumptions based on their previous interactions with Ukraine, FSB intelligence assessments and long-held beliefs about Imperial Russia. Their assumptions about Ukraine’s likely unwillingness to fight, its lack of national cohesion and about support from West have had catastrophic outcomes for Ukraine – and for Russia.
The plan for a ten-day lightening conquest of Ukraine, as described in a recent RUSI report, was – in the main – a failure. The Russians did make considerable gains in the south and the east, but their northern campaign was a military disaster. As Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage have recently written:
President Vladimir Putin’s war in #Ukraine was meant to be his crowning achievement, a demonstration of how far Russia had come since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991…It hasn’t turned out that way.
Despite battlefield setbacks in the north and northeast of Ukraine, Putin and his defence and intelligence chiefs proceeded to assemble an alternative theory of victory for their invasion and attempted takeover of Ukraine.
Adapting Russia’s Strategy - the Early Months
First, they prioritised their military operations, avoiding concurrent, multi-front offensives. From April 2022 they focussed on an eastern offensive, and southern defensive, campaigns. This permitted the Russians to husband their remaining military forces for operations in the Donbas while building follow on echelons for operations in the coming months.
Russia was able (for a time) to draw the Ukrainians into a war of attrition in the Donbas, something Ukraine had mainly avoided in the Battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv. As such, this was an important element of a revised Russian theory of victory: destroy the Ukrainian Army faster than it can be rebuilt. A principal method used by the Russian Army was their artillery. Short on infantry from the start of the war, and demonstrably unable to effectively conduct combined arms or air-land operations, the Russians turned to a traditional battlefield strength.
It was a significant asymmetry between the Russians and Ukrainians and in this second phase of the war the Russians used it to maximum effect. For the next three months, Russian forces largely held the initiative due to this massive overmatch in firepower against the Ukrainians.
This element of Russian strategy was only degraded in effectiveness once the Ukrainians were provided with the HIMARS rocket artillery systems. And, while there are no silver bullets in war, the Ukrainians were able to use the new long-range rockets to turn the tables on Russia. They were so effective in doing so that some, like Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, have argued that it shaped the environment for the successful Ukrainian offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson.
Another element of the evolution of Russian strategy after their failures to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv was holding Ukraine’s south, including Ukraine’s seaports. This is a key element of Putin’s evolved strategy because it offered the opportunity to strangle Ukraine economically. Wars are very hard to fight without money, and in holding the south, Putin sought to remove Ukraine’s capacity to fund itself as a sovereign state and continue fighting for its defence.
A third adaptation to Russia’s strategy after the initial phase of the war was accepting that this would not be a lightening war. One of Putin’s assumptions before the war was that west was unlikely to assist Ukraine. While that assumption has been proven wrong, the evolved Russian strategy appeared to embrace the idea that while assistance might be flowing for a short time, western populations and politicians would eventually tire of the war. This would result in a decrease or a halt to the military assistance upon which Ukraine relied.
Putin is counting on assistance to Ukraine declining. He explicitly confirmed this in December 2022 when he described the Russian invasion as “a long process.”
In September and October 2022, a series of Ukrainian attacks forced the Russians again to reconsider and adapt their strategy. The Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region, the slow strangulation of the Russian force on the western bank of the Dnipro River and the attack on the Kerch Bridge forced another reset in Russian strategy.
This did not cause a reassessment of Russia’s strategic objectives however. Putin retained his maximalist objective to subjugate Ukraine. As Mark Galeotti has written, Putin’s desired outcomes from the war have remained consistent:
President Putin’s war aims have remained constant and continue to center on the destruction of Ukraine as an independent state capable of joining the EU or NATO, the breaking of the will of its people to resist and the will of the West to support it.”
But because of Ukrainian battlefield success and the increasing quality of Ukrainian weapons in the last four months of 2022, Russia had to evolve its approach to the war. Over the last few months, Russia has adapted its strategy to achieve Putin’s war aims. Now, the contours of a new Russian strategy for its Ukrainian ‘special military operation’ have emerged and are explored below.
Russia’s 2023 Strategy Strategy for Ukraine
The Russian strategy for the subjugation of Ukraine is likely to have seven components that will be observed in the coming year. These are informational, command and leadership, military, diplomatic, national mobilisation, economic and adaptation. Together, Putin will be hoping these provide the physical, moral and intellectual wherewithal to outwait the west and eventually defeat Ukraine.
I. Information Warfare. Russian narratives, including information operations to coalesce domestic support for the war and influence foreign populations, have been part of Putin’s strategy from well before the war. He has used historical narratives as a central part of his messaging on the war. Putin has described the purpose of the special military operations thus:
“… the majority of people living in the territories liberated from the neo-Nazis, and these are primarily the historical lands of Novorossiya, do not want to live under the yoke of the neo-Nazi regime...We cannot, we have no moral right to let our kin and kith be torn to pieces by butchers; we cannot but respond to their sincere striving to decide their destiny on their own.”
Jade McGlynn has described how “Putin’s assault on Ukraine has been accompanied by a bracing, if unsurprising, barrage of historical grievances from the Russian president and his supporters. He has long used history to frame the present, by selecting and distorting episodes from a mythical past.” His speeches in the lead up to the invasion, and throughout the war, have contained a mishmash of pseudo-history and a longing for some vision of Russian greatness from a distant past. The narratives of these speeches have influenced formal Russian military information operations in Ukraine, as well as its strategic influence operations in China, the sub-continent and beyond.
While Ukraine has dominated the information space for much of the war, Russia is fighting back, and we should assume more resources will be invested in this aspect of Russian strategy in 2023. They will have watched the recent debates of tanks in Europe closely and will use this and other potential fractures to attempt to split and degrade support for Ukraine. Russia will continue to propagate these narratives as part of its information and influence operations in 2023.
II. Command and Leadership. A second aspect of Russia’s evolved strategy has been the appointment of a new unified commander for all of Russia’s Ukraine operations.
General Sergei Surovikin, appointed in October 2022 as overall commander, assumed command of a Russian Army that was on the back foot and being consistently beaten on the battlefield by the Ukrainian Army. He therefore turned to an old doctrine to terrorise the Ukrainian people. He utilised drones and missiles to conduct mass attacks on Ukrainian power infrastructure. While this caused widespread hardship, it did not reduce the will of the Ukrainian state to resist the Russian invasion.
In early January, Putin appointed General Gerasimov to lead the Russian invasion forces in Ukraine. According to Michael Kofman, this was the resolution of competing visions with the Russian military for how to win this war. While Surovikin may have been an improvement on his predecessors, and stabilised the situation with Russian operations, his strategy was defensive was unlikely to result in the capture of all territory within the five annexed oblasts. Or, as Kofman describes the Surovikin approach:
Losing more slowly, or more effectively, I don’t think is what Putin is after.
Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces since being appointed in November 2012, will now be responsible for the campaign that was launched in February 2022. He apparently also retains his overall command of the Russian military.
He has a massive span of command and responsibilities. Not only must he plan and execute Russian battlefield offensives, he must also force a more unified approach between the Russian military and private military companies such as the Wagner Group. He must also oversee and integrate targeting strategic targets in Ukraine, as well as information operations. And he must look over his shoulder at the preparation of other forces in Russia for service in Ukraine, while continuing to command the wider Russian military institution.
While Gerasimov has retained his position due to his loyalty to Putin, his performance in this war so far has been unimpressive. As Dara Massicot describes,
They have taken someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has shown that he is loyal.
Gerasimov apparently signed off on the original invasion plan. As a military officer, he must have appreciated that the many different axes of advance with a Russian invading force smaller that the Ukrainian Army, would have been perilous. Further, the Russian Army that emerged from the decade of reforms he co-led with Defence Minister Shoigu has been unimpressive in Ukraine. It is very unlikely the year ahead will see a drastic improvement in Gerasimov’s performance, despite any unifying influence he brings to the campaign.
III. Offensive Military Action. The deployment of tens of thousands of mobilised soldiers, as well as the recruitment of thousands of convicts to serve in the Wagner Group, has stabilised the Russian position in Ukraine over the winter. This has also begun to address one of Russia’s fundamental shortfalls at the start of its invasion – a shortage of troops, especially infantry. As Owen Matthews writes in his book, Overreach, about the initial invasion force:
The estimated 120 BTGs that attacked Ukraine all went in with their full complement of armour and support arms, but far from their full combat strength of men. And that shortfall – in wooded country like that outside Kyiv and urban areas such as the city’s suburbs – made all the difference. Some Ukrainian forces reported attacking Russian armoured vehicles manned by their three-man crew alone. With no dismountable men you’ve got a motorised infantry unit that doesn’t have infantry.
At the same time, it is becoming apparent that Russia has accepted it has a qualitative issue with its Army, and that it needs to fix this. As such, according to some reports, the Russian Ministry in 2023 is attempting to “improve the professionalism of its conventional forces and to test the effectiveness of its chains of command.”
But military manpower initiatives alone will not win this war for Russia. Gerasimov was not appointed to command the Russian invading force just to defend captured ground. Putin wants Russia to control all of the territory in Ukraine he annexed in 2022. This will necessitate offensive action from the Russian Army. It will require Russian ground forces to improve its logistics while launching offensive campaigns in the east and south. These may be coordinated with more effective strategic strikes using drones and missiles on Ukrainian strategic military and government targets.
At the same time, Gerasimov will probably be seeking to better leverage the capabilities of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). While more effective than many commentators describe, the Russian air force largely lost the ability to operate in Ukrainian controlled air space due to increasingly effective air defence systems. As Justin Bronk, Nick Reynolds and Jack Watling note in their November 2022 study of Russian air operations in Ukraine:
Without air superiority, Russia’s attempts at strategic air attack have been limited to expensive cruise and ballistic missile barrages at a much more limited scale. These failed to achieve strategically decisive damage during the first seven months of the invasion.
One area where Gerasimov might demand improvement is the conduct of operations to degrade Ukrainian air defences, giving the VKS more latitude to operate over Ukraine, conduct strikes against high value targets and support ground offensives.
But, even with new commanders and additional Russian troops, Russia still has insufficient forces to achieve the maximalist goals of Putin. Attacks on the ground, over the past several centuries, have generally relied on a ratio of 3:1 in favour of the attacker to give the best chances of success. In his book Understanding War, Trevor Dupuy described this as “The Three to One Theory of Combat:
As a gross measure for campaign planning the three-to-one rule is undoubtedly useful and stands up fairly well under historical scrutiny. As a basis for forecasting battle outcomes, however, it is less reliable.
While Russia might be able to generate such a force ratio for short periods in geographically limited areas, it does not have a large surplus of personnel build an overwhelming advantage in manpower against the Ukrainians – or to effectively occupy captured territory. Additionally, Ukraine has the tactical and operational momentum on the ground. Its forces have won several important campaign victories. And, winning is infectious. It will be very difficult for the Russians to wrest back the initiative in this war from the Ukrainians in the short term.
But there is one certainty. Russia will conduct offensives in 2023. The key unknowns are the precise locations and timing.
IV. Diplomacy. The diplomatic efforts of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been a key part of Russian strategy in this war. He has undertaken multiple overseas trips as part of these efforts. This has included two tours of Africa, one was a long jaunt in 2022 that included visits to Ethiopia, Myanmar, Uganda, Republic of Congo and Egypt. He has also commenced 2023 with another round of visits to African nations.
His efforts, and those of his fellow diplomats, have not been entirely unsuccessful. Despite the efforts of President Biden and leaders in Europe to rally nations to support Ukraine, the vast majority of humans on this planet live in nations that have declined to join sanctions against Russia. Countries like China, India, Indonesia and others have condemned the invasion but continued to trade with Russia. This is vital for Russia to generate income from weapons sales and its energy exports.
Belarus is likely to be a continuing focal point for Russian diplomacy. Putin visited Belarus in December 2022 for discussions with President Lukashenko. It was from Belarus that the large Russian Army northern campaign was launched against Kyiv in February 2022. And Russia continues to draw on ammunition from Belarus and use its airspace to fire missiles into Ukraine. But Lukashenko has remained wary of becoming a belligerent in the war, and the true strategic utility of Belarus will probably remain as a threat to force Ukraine to keep its troops in the north, rather than send them east to fight the Russians.
Countries like China also remain vital for Russia and will be a continuing focus for Putin’s diplomatic efforts. As Eugene Rumer has written:
Having chosen confrontation with the West, Putin can ill afford to have bad relations with China. Putin’s embrace of China helps him achieve his strategic goals. It frees him to concentrate Russia’s resources on the European theater…and it increases his ability to ignore Western demands to change Russia’s domestic political arrangements in ways that threaten the regime he has built.
Lavrov and his diplomatic efforts in 2023 will seek to ensure that as many nations as possible refrain from supporting Ukraine in the year ahead.
V. National Mobilisation. An important element of evolved Russian strategy has been the mobilisation of the Russian people and industry for the war. The 21 September mobilisation declaration by Putin, announced as a necessary response to a war being waged on Russia by the “collective West” was the first time that Putin reached beyond normal military resources to fight his war in Ukraine. Described as “necessary, imperative measures to protect the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Russia” it has seen at least 300 thousand Russians inducted into the Russian military.
While at times chaotic, Russian mobilisation gradually assumed some semblance of organization and has apparently continued throughout the war to induct and provide very rudimentary training to tens of thousands of Russians to serve in Ukraine. At least half of those mobilised have been deployed to Ukraine already. There is the potential for further mobilisation activities in Russia in 2023.
At the same time, Russia has attempted to mobilise its industry to support the war. Given the massive consumption of munitions and destruction of equipment, the war is now one that is founded on competing industrial systems in Russia and the west.
In October 2022, Putin established a new military council to coordinate “the activities of federal executive authorities and executive authorities of the subjects of the Russian Federation during a special military operation.” It provides for military production to be controlled at a higher level, including the finances for war production.
In the coming year, Russia will continue to hone its mobilisation of personnel and industry. But there are significant challenges. As Elisabeth Braw has described:
Both the mobilization and the flight of so many men, at least as numerous as those being drafted, will create another problem — the absence of qualified workers in every sector. And the country has no set system for the continuity of its society during wartime.
Russia faces headwinds as it mobilises to support its Ukraine operations in 2023. However, this ability to fight an industrial scale war is an essential foundation for Russian strategy in the year ahead.
VI. Economic Warfare. The Russian invasion has had a profound effect on Russia’s economy. But it has also had a huge impact on Ukraine’s economy. This is a deliberate part of Russia’s strategy to constrain the ability of Ukraine to generate revenue, while imposing costs through civilian deaths and destruction of infrastructure. The objective for Russia is to ensure Ukraine has limited capacity to underpin its sovereignty with sources of income.
The Russian military campaign in southern Ukraine not only provided a buffer for its continued occupation of Crimea. This region is a significant source of Ukrainian GDP. It is the location of power plants, and the ports through which goods are dispatched that represent over half of Ukraine’s export earnings. Russian occupation of the south has reduced Ukraine’s capacity to generate revenue through exports.
The impact of the Russian invasion on Ukraine’s economy is described by the World Bank described in an October 2022 report:
Ukraine’s economy is now projected to contract by 35% this year although economic activity is scarred by the destruction of productive capacity, damage to agricultural land, and reduced labor supply as more than 14 million people are estimated to have been displaced.
In addition, reconstruction requirements for Ukraine in social, productive, and infrastructure areas are likely to be astronomical. In December 2022, World Bank vice-president Anna Bjerde estimated costs for post-war Ukraine reconstruction to have reached at least 500-600 billion euros.
Further, Russian drone and missile attacks on civilians and civil infrastructure has reduced the productive hours of Ukrainian industry and targeted the confidence of foreign entities who might wish to invest in Ukraine. As hardy as the Ukrainian defence has been, their nation still requires foreign capital to rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure and to keep their government functioning. The Russians, wanting to economically strangle Ukraine, used the recent attacks to scare away foreign investors.
The Russians, hoping to wait out western supporters of Ukraine, will continue to conduct economic warfare in 2023. At the same time, they are evolving their own economy for the long war ahead, Putin’s “long process”. While Russian exports plunged by over 40 percent in the wake of their invasion in February 2022, they rebounded to pre-war norms by September 2022. At the same time, China and Hong Kong have begun to fill shortfalls in integrated circuits requirements, and the Russian supply chain for consumer goods, smartphones and motor vehicles has been rebuilt.
Russia needs to keep its economy functioning while it gradually throttles Ukraine’s. It is a critical element of their strategy.
VII. Adaptive Strategy. The longer that wars continue, the more adaptations result from the interaction of belligerents. Over the course of their ‘special military operation’, the Russians have made a myriad of strategic mistakes. At the same time however, they have demonstrated a capacity to learn and adapt their strategy when faced with battlefield setbacks, and western interventions that have enhanced Ukrainian capacity.
And while Russian adaptation may have been outpaced by the breadth and depth of Ukrainian innovation and capacity to absorb new weapons, they do possess the ability to evolve the effectiveness of their operations and strategy. They have demonstrated this in the past 11 months with their changes in battlefield approaches, evolution of economic warfare, mobilisation, and their modifications to leadership to develop a more unified command structure.
We should expect that the Russians will continue to learn and adapt, through success and failure, in the coming year. As such, adaptation will remain an important part of their strategy in 2023.
The Year Ahead – An Evolved Russian Strategy
Perhaps the most important element of Russian strategy to emerge over the course of the conflict is that Putin now sees benefit in drawing out the war. With Ukraine now reliant on western weapons, munitions and economic aid, Putin appears comfortable now to wait out Ukraine and the west with this strategy.
Putin probably believes that the lack of strategic patience within the populations of Europe and the United States – particularly in previous conflicts like Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan - will again come into play with the war in Ukraine. So far, there is little evidence for this hypothesis at present; European nations continue to step up their assistance, including the most recent series of commits before and during the January 2023 Ramstein Summit.
But, for Putin, this is perhaps the only viable of theory of victory available to Russia now. Waiting out the west. But it could be a long wait. The United States and its coalition partners entered Afghanistan in late 2001 and did not depart until nearly 20 years later. There is every reason to believe that, with no Europeans or Americans dying in Ukraine, these governments could sustain their support to Ukraine for a long time to come.
The recent announcements of more aid to Ukraine, including Western main battle tanks, demonstrates only greater Western commitment to Ukraine’s cause. It also indicates that not only do Europe and America want Ukraine to defend itself. They wish to see Russia defeated.
Therefore, Putin’s view of being able to outwait the west may be another of his poor strategic assumptions. And, if Putin loses this war, it may just be the start of a cascading series of catastrophic events for Putin and Russia. As Owen Matthews has written of Putin and Ukraine:
He had gained a fifth of Ukraine and increased the size of Russia by half a per cent. The price of his illusions was not only thousands of lost lives, but also a lost future for Russia…the misbegotten war had opened a Pandora’s box of alternative futures for Russia that were much more scary than Putin’s regime had ever been.
There is a lot riding on Putin’s revised strategy for victory in 2023.