Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
One hundred and thirty thousand troops is a lot: but not enough to subdue a country as large as Ukraine with highly motivated and experienced armed forces, even though they are technologically inferior to the modernised Russian army.
So what exactly is Vladimir Putin’s military buildup for? It has failed as intimidation of a West afraid of war. It united the West instead of dividing it, prompting the UK, Poland and the United States to supply significant quantities of equipment and the EU and United States to offer financial support. Though Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, can’t bring himself to say Nord Stream 2 will be cancelled, he stood beside president Biden announcing it would be cancelled for him.
The unified NATO response to Russia’s demands was solid, and would restore an arms control architecture that was allowed to collapse during the Trump administration (Moscow, naturally, rejected it). Publicising intelligence about imminent Russian moves has robbed Putin of operational surprise as surely as satellite pictures have robbed him of strategic surprise.
But if a Russian military attack has not, as I write, taken place, Ukraine has been hit by major cyberattacks, and the de-escalation announced on Tuesday by Russian sources has taken place only in the minds of Moscow’s propagandists.
A new report issued yesterday by RUSI, and based on extensive on-the-ground research in Ukraine, cuts through the superficial attempts to predict what kind of military operation would be ‘rational’ for Putin to undertake (he keeps his options open), or whether the conflict is just about Ukraine or reshaping the European security order (he’s using the former to try and do the latter).
‘The Plot to Destroy Ukraine’, by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, is a sobering read. It outlines a systematic plan to use covert infiltration (up to 300 Russian special forces already hiding in Kyiv alone) and external force to bring about regime change. It postulates four stages of escalation, which culminate an invasion if the previous stages are deemed to have failed.
The first two stages were to weaken Ukraine and force it to accept ‘federalisation’, which in this context means giving regions under effective Russian control a veto over Ukranian foreign policy alignment. This would have been achieved either through direct pressure on Ukraine, or by using the West to put pressure on Ukraine to accept with it.
Had the Minsk Accords been implemented, Russia would have succeeded in turning Ukraine into a neutral zone between Russia and the Western alliance. Fortunately, Russia’s violations of them left Ukraine with the space to ignore them too.
The third was to mount a campaign of subversion against a Ukraine that had been weakened diplomatically and economically, with disorder leading to the installation of a more compliant government in Kyiv. Ukraine’s house arrest under treason charges of the pro-Kremlin oligarch Viktor Medvechuk in the summer deprived Moscow of a possible vector for that plot, and Western intelligence leaked several other potential, but less plausible figureheads, making that difficult.
This leaves the final stage: combining uprisings instigated by special forces inside Ukraine with intense aerial and rocket artillery attacks designed to destabilise and disorient, followed up with a ground invasion to seize territory and install a pro-Kremlin government by force.
The most worrying aspect of this plan is that it would only stand a chance of success if Putin’s belief that Ukrainians don’t really want to be independent of Russia were true. In the face of resistance from Ukrainian armed forces and society it would evolve into a bloody war of attrition, in which Russia could perhaps manage to seize the coast to Crimea on the Sea of Azov but find it extremely difficult to make further headway.
If Putin has anything that might be termed an ideology, it is that ideals are bullshit and the world is, deep down, just as transactionally cynical as he is. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia doesn’t offer a utopia to compete with the West’s. He thinks the west is, fundamentally, just as rotten as Russia, it just hides it better.
This is expressed as much in Russia Today’s propaganda, which doesn’t promote Russia, but simply denigrates Western democratic society, as in Russian counter-insurgency in Chechnya or Syria, which instead of trying to win hearts and minds through effective governance obliterates insurgent governance by indiscriminate bombing.
There’s no better monument to this tactic than the occupied territories in Luhansk and Donetsk, run as gangster fiefs characterised by paranoia, torture and decline.
Putin’s other option is to take one step down on RUSI’s scale, and return to economic pressure. Using the war scare to throttle Ukraine’s economy and, in a larger scale version of operations attempted in Montenegro, create a more fertile ground for subversion when economic pressure begins to bite.
Though Russia, whose economy is the size of Spain’s. is hopelessly outmatched economically, this might just work if the West, famous for its short attention span, forgets to keep its economic support for Ukraine up for the remainder of Putin’s time in office.