Moscow has no discernible exit strategy in Ukraine

Professor Bettina Renz (source: YouTube)

In the aftermath of my review of her timely and absorbing book Russia’s Miltiary Revival (Polity), author and University of Nottingham Professor of International Security Bettina Renz granted me an interview. I am extremely grateful for her insights, one week from Victory Day parade in Moscow.

Below is the content of our exchange.

_________

The situation is now a war of attrition with no immediate end in sight.

Professor Renz, considering the last 9 weeks, what is your assessment of the performance of the Russian army in Ukraine? Are you surprised by the way the situation evolved?

Knowing what we know now, the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine is no surprise. On the one hand, the Russian military is numerically and technologically superior to their Ukrainian counterpart. On the other hand, the history of warfare has demonstrated repeatedly that superiority in numbers and kit cannot make up for poor strategy.

It is clear that Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine was a strategic miscalculation of epic proportions. The Kremlin clearly bought into its own propaganda about the weakness of what Putin and his cronies had long tried to portray as a ‘puppet’ government in Kyiv and about Ukrainian national identity as more or less nonexistent. They expected minimal resistance from the Ukrainian leadership, military and population and the war to be over in a matter of days. Once it became clear – almost immediately – that the Kremlin’s intelligence on the situation in Ukraine had been disastrously wrong, the war became unwinnable.

Russia is now in a situation where both the political leadership, and the armed forces, no longer know what they are fighting for with no discernible exit strategy. The war is clearly a major military failure for Russia, and it will cost the country and the Putin regime dearly in the long term. Unfortunately, this is only little consolation for Ukraine at this point. The Ukrainians’ strength and will to resist at all levels has been outstanding, but the ability to prevent a victory for Russia is not the same as inflicting a decisive defeat. The situation is now a war of attrition with no immediate end in sight.

The immediate trusted circle around Putin has become smaller and smaller and intelligence officers tend to tell him what he wants to hear.

I have read several accounts about the security services not being comfortable with the invasion of Ukraine. The Times reported that several FSB chiefs were “defenestrated” because the invasion doesn’t go according to plan. Do you think these reservations were shared by high-ranking military leaders or where they fully on board?

There are many unconfirmed reports on this subject, and it is impossible exactly to say what is happening. However, given the extremely poor intelligence the war plans were based on, it would not come as a surprise if the Kremlin was looking for and seeking to punish those it holds responsible for the strategic miscalculations and the costly consequences this will bring. Over the past decade or so, various analysts of Russian security have questioned what kind of information Putin receives and how this information influences his decision-making. These analysts have long suspected that the range of information put forward has become more and more limited, as the immediate trusted circle around Putin has become smaller and smaller and intelligence officers tend to tell him what he wants to hear, rather than illuminating the political situation in Russia and elsewhere in complexity and nuance. It looks very likely that these analysts have been correct.

Russia’s war against Ukraine demonstrated, however, that the limited operations in Crimea and Syria and scripted exercises told us little about the armed forces’ preparedness for a major combined-arms operation against a strong and determined state adversary.

Do you think the morale and loyalty of the Russian soldiers are affected by the current war?

It is hard to imagine that the situation will not be affecting the morale of the Russian military at all levels. There has been a lot of hype – both in Russia and in the West – about the achievements of Russian military modernization since 2008. From the Russian point of view, the annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria were a major success that made up for previous military failures and gave the country and its soldiers pride and confidence in the armed forces. Large-scale military exercises, such as Zapad and Vostok, showcased many tens of thousands of soldiers operating shiny new equipment. Russia’s war against Ukraine demonstrated, however, that the limited operations in Crimea and Syria and scripted exercises told us little about the armed forces’ preparedness for a major combined-arms operation against a strong and determined state adversary.

Although we do not know exact numbers at this point, it is likely that Russia already lost more than 10,000 soldiers in Ukraine in addition to vast amounts of equipment. There have been some reports of Russian soldiers deserting or refusing to deploy to Ukraine in recent weeks. This is an indicator for problems with morale, but so far there is little reason to assume that the Russian military as a whole has become disloyal. Support for the Putin regime and for the war remains high in Russia and something like a military coup is certainly not on the cards.

Reports from the war in Ukraine, however, indicate that the ‘shiny’ new Russian military that the Kremlin had showed off in limited form during the annexation of Crimea, in Syria and in widely publicized military parades and large-scale exercises is not all it seems.

I read an article last year about the whistleblower who revealed that Russian troops were fed with dog food. What do you make of that information?

I am not sure about the dog food specifically, but poor nutrition provided to Russian soldiers has long been a problem. During the 1990s there were regular reports of conscripts, especially in remote locations, that were malnourished and one famous case of a conscript reportedly dying from starvation. It was these extremely poor conditions, in addition to low salaries (or no salaries for conscripts), corruption and widespread cases of brutal hazing, that made military service extremely unpopular and caused serious problems in recruitment and retention of soldiers.

When President Putin came to power, he immediately emphasized the improvement of service conditions as a matter of national security. Already in 2000, he said that having the army ‘feel good about itself is the bedrock foundation of the Armed Forces’. Improving serving conditions in order to recruit and retain better quality soldiers was an important aspects of the military modernization programme carried out in Russia starting in 2008. There were indications that this was at least in part successful: better salaries and conditions meant that the percentage of professional soldiers in the Russian armed forces increased significantly, and the number of desertions and men of conscription age evading service dropped.

Reports from the war in Ukraine, however, indicate that the ‘shiny’ new Russian military that the Kremlin had showed off in limited form during the annexation of Crimea, in Syria and in widely publicized military parades and large-scale exercises is not all it seems. Reportedly, soldiers have been given rations that have been many years out of date, some have been reduced to begging or looting for food and much of the equipment is incredibly poorly maintained. It is clear that corruption continues to be a major issue in the Russian armed forces.

However, unfortunately, Russia has plenty more bad equipment and bad soldiers to throw at Ukraine and can continue inflicting indescribable suffering, death and destruction on the country and its people.

On page 47 of Russia’s Military Revival, you write “past lessons have taught the Kremlin that the country will only be accepted as an equal by other leading powers, if it is seen as a force to be reckoned with.” Is the Russian army a paper tiger and what will be the consequence for Russia’s military sector?

Just as some people in the West (like the Kremlin) overestimated Russian military capabilities before the escalation of the war against Ukraine in February 2022, it would be wrong now to dismiss it as a ‘paper tiger’ based on the poor operational performance there. Clearly, there has been a multitude of problems, including bad planning, outdated equipment, problems with command and control and discipline amongst others. However, unfortunately, Russia has plenty more bad equipment and bad soldiers to throw at Ukraine and can continue inflicting indescribable suffering, death and destruction on the country and its people. Moreover, we should not forget that Russia has one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, which President Putin already has been flaunting, in order to keep NATO and the West at the sidelines while his troops are carrying out their barbaric work.

Moscow’s military failures in Ukraine will put to rest the more outlandish claims by some Western observers, which I criticized in my book, about Russia getting close to parity with the US and NATO in conventional high-tech warfare. This does not mean, however, that Russian military power simply can be dismissed as a ‘paper tiger’, unless we are concerned exclusively with how the country would fare in a hypothetical conventional war against NATO.

But it is unlikely that the important symbolic place the military plays in Russian national identity today will be seriously affected.

Do you think the invasion of Ukraine could erode the special relationship between the Russian people and the army?

This is a complex question. To some degree, this will depend on the further course and outcome of the war in Ukraine, which is as of yet uncertain. However, I think the answer is no. Even during the 1990s, when the military was in a serious state of decay and experienced a highly publicized military failure in Chechnya, it retained its place as one of the most highly trusted state institutions. This public trust was historical and symbolic and did not translate into people’s willingness to serve in the armed forces. It is likely that recruitment will become more of an issue again for the Russian armed forces as a result of the war in Ukraine. But it is unlikely that the important symbolic place the military plays in Russian national identity today will be seriously affected.

An immediate weakening of Putin’s regime does not seem to be on the cards.

You also evoke that the role of the Russian army is notably to contribute to régime stability. Do you think the current war could have the opposite effect on the Putin régime?

Modernising the Russian armed forces has contributed to the stability of Putin’s regime indirectly. This is because the military revival since 2008 has contributed to what the Russian population has seen as one of Putin’s major achievements: restoring what they perceive as Russia’s rightful place in the world as a major power, following the international humiliation of the country during the Yeltsin era.

The strengthening of Russian military capabilities has also contributed directly to the stability of Putin’s regime: as I discuss in chapter 3 of my book, the concept of the military in Russia differs from that in the West, as it also includes various so-called ‘force structures’ or paramilitary organisations in addition to the army, navy and air force. For example, the KGB-successor organization, the FSB, and the National Guard Service, which was established in 2016, have significant militarized elements and troops, whose focus is predominantly on maintaining domestic order.

These paramilitary organisations have been used increasingly by the Kremlin to suppress any opposition or public displays of dissent or criticism. As such, increasing external aggression has gone hand in hand with domestic oppression. Today, as a result of years of having been exposed to negative propaganda about Ukraine and the West, in addition to the almost complete control of the information space and media by the Kremlin, the Russian population on the whole continues to support the war against Ukraine.

There has been some opposition and dissent, but this has been brutally suppressed. An immediate weakening of Putin’s regime does not seem to be on the cards. However, if living standards and the economic situation will continue to decline, as a result of sanctions and the prioritization of state spending on military adventures, this will likely have implications for the legitimacy of Putin’s rule at some point. Internal suppression will increase further as a result. I do not expect that Putin’s régime will be able to survive the consequences of the war against Ukraine in the long term, but this could be a matter of many years or even decades.

The lack of understanding of Ukrainian politics and society by the Kremlin is partially the result of poor intelligence, and partially the result of hubris and arrogance vis-à-vis a sovereign nation state that the Russian leadership had long sought to portray as no more than ‘little Russians’.

By the time Putin escalated the war in February 2022, Ukraine’s armed forces already had eight years of experience of fighting Russian forces in Donbas and their military of around 200,000 soldiers was incomparably better to stand up against Russian aggression than it was in 2014.

Do you think Vladimir Putin and the Russian establishment are surprised by the Ukrainian resistance and the war leadership of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

As I mentioned above, Putin clearly launched this war of aggression under the assumption that any Ukrainian resistance will be easy to overcome. The lack of understanding of Ukrainian politics and society by the Kremlin is partially the result of poor intelligence, and partially the result of hubris and arrogance vis-à-vis a sovereign nation state that the Russian leadership had long sought to portray as no more than ‘little Russians’.

The ease with which the Kremlin achieved the annexation of Crimea with minimal Ukrainian resistance at the time probably strengthened these expectations. What the Kremlin ignored is that Ukrainian preparedness, willingness, and capabilities to resist were transformed between 2014 and 2022. Following four years of malign neglect of the Ukrainian armed forces by President Yushchenko from 2010-14, the interim leadership in Kyiv during the annexation of Crimea estimated that they could deploy no more than 5000 soldiers trained well enough to resist Russian aggression.

The annexation of Crimea and Russia’s instigation of and armed conflict in eastern Ukraine propelled the need for systematic military reforms to the highest level of Kyiv’s political agenda. A wide-ranging reform programme, strongly supported by NATO and Western partners, was announced in 2015 and led to serious improvements of the Ukrainian military’s operational capabilities. By the time Putin escalated the war in February 2022, Ukraine’s armed forces already had eight years of experience of fighting Russian forces in Donbas and their military of around 200,000 soldiers was incomparably better to stand up against Russian aggression than it was in 2014.

In 2022, Ukraine was prepared to stand up to Russia not only militarily. Having been the subject of Russian aggression for many years, the military and society at large were also ready mentally for the potentiality of a full-scale Russian assault and were of one mind of how to react. Underestimating both Ukrainian military capabilities, motivation and will to resist was a serious mistake that will come at a great cost to the Putin regime and to Russia.

Do you have another book in the works and, if so, would you agree to let us know what it will be about?

I have been working for a while, with a colleague specializing in Ukrainian politics, on a project about Ukrainian military reforms. Unfortunately, the pandemic limited our plans for fieldwork and data collection in Ukraine and now, with the war ongoing, the future of the project is in the balance. Our longer-term plans are to turn this pilot into a larger project with the ultimate aim of publishing a co-authored monograph on the subject.

In addition, at the end of 2021 I signed a contract with Polity Press for a 2nd edition of my Russia’s Military Revival book. Obviously, the need to update the book has become ever more apparent. This is what I am working on at the moment and I am hoping that it will be published in the not-too-distant future.

Thank you very much, Professor Renz. I’m looking forward to reading you again soon!

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