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Putin is far from finished yet

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AS USUAL, the New Year mainstream media resounds with claims of the imminent collapse of Russia and the end of Putin. They may be right, of course, especially given the poor battlefield performance of the Russian military and the enormous cost in casualties. However, Putin has not finished yet, whether at the tactical level in this current war, or in terms of long-term strategy.

In the short term, Putin’s New Year speech in Rostov was deliberately inconsequential. Having cancelled his usual pre-Christmas broadcast he really had to say something; but there was little beyond business as usual, underlining confrontation with Nato, restating Western bad faith and Russian aims, and preparing the Russian people for the continuing war. Because these speeches are picked over by Western intelligence agencies and the media, they are an excellent vehicle for deception. The great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu reminds us that ‘all warfare is founded on deception’, and maskirovka has long been a principle of war in Russia as in the West.

Various indicators suggest that the Russians do not see a quick win being possible; however, a long grind, in which attrition works in their favour, is to them a perfectly respectable course of action. What are these indicators? First, the ground is unusually soft for the time of year as the winter has so far been mild, which makes heavy armoured manoeuvre unlikely, if not impossible – not to mention that the Orthodox Christmas does not end until January 12. Second, the completion of heavy Russian defensive lines along almost the entire front both masks movement, releases regular troops for other operations and ties down Ukrainian forces watching the front. Russian troops are therefore freed to mass at one or more points, generating decisive force ratios for the future assault. Putin did not mobilise 250,000 to 300,000 men for nothing. Third, the Russians have continued to prosecute the deep battle. Four recently launched satellites are proving highly useful to them, providing the targeting data for attacking Ukrainian energy sources, air defence systems and drone launch points. Russian drone attacks, artillery and missile strikes are increasing and, with the degradation of Ukrainian air defence, may be supplemented by strategic heavy bombers. Should the Patriot system be deployed, a combination of satellite coverage and hypersonic missiles is judged by the Russians to be enough to deal with that threat. (But the Russians are not invulnerable to such strikes themselves, as witness Tuesday’s Ukrainian attack which is reported to have killed up to 400 soldiers). Fourth, deception is at work elsewhere. Putin’s meeting with Lukashenko of Belarus on December 19-20 has given rise to speculation that Belarus will join the war. This has been reinforced by an agreement for two large Russian bases in Belarus, one in central Belarus towards the Ukrainian frontier and another poised on the Suwalki corridor to Kaliningrad. The likelihood of direct Belarussian involvement is, however, small. These bases are Russian and seem most likely to be used for forward basing and training in the long term. In the short term, the possibility of an attack from Belarus to sever the Nato supply line into Ukraine will be on Zelensky’s mind.

Is a winter offensive coming in the event of hard ground? Possible, but never certain, and there are more theories about where this might be directed than I care to count. Break through Bakhmut, head for the Dnieper and cut eastern Ukraine in two? Move north from Zaporizhzhia and link up with troops from Bakhmut? Cause more catastrophic Ukrainian casualties on current fronts using firepower and the reinforcements now available, without the risks of manoeuvring a force that has to date not shown up well at that? A combination of all the above?

Does Nato take any of this seriously? I would suggest that the Poles, at least, do. Defence spending has been increased to 3 per cent of GDP; a Homeland Defence Act has doubled the size of the army, along with a purchase of heavy tanks from the US; 250,000 citizens have been warned for call-up, including about 100,000 older men with skills, such as train drivers, IT specialists, engineers and administrators – these one presumes to be deployed in the restoration of Ukrainian infrastructure. 

For the long term, we have some clues from the Collegium of the Russian Ministry of Defence in Moscow on December 21. Initial plans have been drawn up to double the size of the Russian Army, with 50-60 per cent being regulars. To achieve this, the age window for conscription has been widened to 21-30. Nuclear forces, drone and missile forces, satellite forces, cyber capabilities and the strategic bomber fleet will all be expanded. Last, the Baltic fleet, rather than the Black Sea fleet, will be the focus for maritime increases. Whether any or all of this is achievable remains to be seen. However, Putin believes he is in power for the long term and as a result can think and act strategically; all these measures will take time and resources to bring into effect and their results will not be seen for some time. 

Strategy is the achievement of national or alliance aims using all such ways and means as are available, appropriate and, in the case of Western democracies if not the Russians, legal. Because its aims are seldom achieved in the short term, or within the life-span of a particular government (in Britain, of late, comparable with the life cycle of the average insect), western governments do not even pretend to act strategically in any field of government. Even if they did, it would soon be apparent that they are incapable of it. But our enemies – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea – unconstrained by the democratic cycle, accountability under the law and the inconvenient necessity to tell the truth, can and do so act. While we look at our watches, they look at the calendar. But poor strategy has been the undoing of many a first-rate military power in the past: Napoleon in Spain, Russia and the Continental System, and Germany in both World Wars, are but two prominent examples. Will Russia’s strategic focus bring a win the long term or lead to further battlefield defeat and isolation? Will Western inability to carry out strategy turn out to be masterly inaction?

By this time next year, we may have at least an inkling.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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