As tensions between Russia and the West approach a boiling point over Ukraine, two questions come to the fore: What is Vladimir Putin thinking? And what is the Russian military capable of doing?
The answers to both are uncertain, but thinking through the second should be a prerequisite for tackling the first. Alas, much of the recent press speculation suffers, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or Alan Greenspan might say, from a kind of irrational exuberance. In particular, there has been a profusion of lurid “invasion maps” slashed with multiple scarlet arrows encircling Kyiv—this one from England’s Daily Mail is not atypical—as though it was 1943 come again and Marshal Georgy Zhukov has been exhumed to lead the charge westward.
Not the Red Army
There has also been a profusion of articles summarizing Russian military modernization and reforms since the end of the Cold War and highlighting Russian successes in Syria and elsewhere, including Ukraine in 2014. “Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal,” headlines the New York Times. Under “Putin’s leadership,” the paper reports, the Russian military “has been overhauled into a modern sophisticated army, able to deploy quickly and with lethal effect in conventional conflicts. … It features precision-guided weaponry, a newly streamlined command structure and well-fed and professional soldiers.”
This is true, but isn’t the whole story. To begin with, if the point of comparison is Putin’s accession to power, in either 1999 or 2000 depending on what title is counted, the bar is exceedingly low; the collapse of the Soviet Union eviscerated the remaining Russian rump of the Red Army. U.S. estimates of Soviet military spending, while often faulty, ranged from $200 to $300 billion per year, roughly five to six times the current level of Russia’s official defense budget. It lost more than half its frontline military aircraft, more than half its personnel, its remaining infrastructure was shoddy and the treatment of conscripts—about three-quarters of troop strength—was brutally cruel, marked by the abuses known as dedovshchina (often translated as “hazing,” but one of those Russian terms without precise analog). To be sure, Moscow retained a substantial nuclear arsenal, but it, too, was smaller and in poor repair.
Modernizing his nukes has been and remains Putin’s top military investment priority; the last generation of Soviet land-based and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, which featured so prominently in Reagan-era strategies, are reaching the end of their service life. The Russians have also retained their fondness for short-range nuclear weapons such as the SS-26 “Iskander,” prominently deployed in the Kalinigrad enclave, and are also pursuing qualitative improvements for their nuclear forces, in particular the hypersonic “Avangard” system. Possibly most worrisome, Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, is prone to talk loosely and frequently about using these weapons as though they were just powerful pieces of artillery.
But just as in the United States, the logic of defense reductions is inescapable; the priority on “strategic” systems has crowded out investments in other elements of military modernization. Thus, while some elements of Russia’s conventional forces are indeed, as the New York Times puts it, “modern and lethal,” it is far from clear how far and wide the Russian general-purpose force modernization and organizational reforms has progressed. A review of post-Cold War performance reveals a mixed record.
The two Chechen wars of the 1990s, and in particular the sieges of Grozny—described by the United Nations in 2003 as “the most destroyed city on Earth”—mark just how much Russian tactical and operational competence had deteriorated in the wake of the Soviet collapse. The first campaign, beginning on New Year’s Eve 1994, involved a four-pronged assault on the city but immediately became a textbook example of the challenges of mechanized warfare in an urban environment; one of the columns lost 105 of its 120 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Withdrawing from the city, the Russians turned to a protracted artillery bombardment that all but leveled the city. The failure also leveled the government of Boris Yeltsin and the hopes for Russian democratic reforms, and framed the rise of Vladimir Putin.
The second Chechen war, in late 1999, reversed Russian tactics: After encircling Grozny, the Russians conducted weeks pf massive artillery and bomber strikes on the city, completing its reduction and fracturing its defenses. Nonetheless, the Chechens held out through January 2000. A final breakout attempt in early February was caught in a Russian ambush and decimated, and cautious but brutal mopping-up operations followed. U.N. relief columns described “a devastated and still-insecure wasteland littered with bodies.” The ailing Yeltsin resigned in December 1999, leaving Putin as acting president of the Russian Federation.
If the Chechen victory propelled Putin to power, it also offered a cautionary tale about Russians’ growing aversion to casualties, a continuation of attitudes formed through the Soviets’ frustrations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The first war—conducted in the short spring of Russian democracy—was the subject of much critical reportage and saw a severe breakdown in the discipline of Russian soldiers. Despite vigorous propaganda from Putin, these trends continued after the second war—even the sacking of Grozny did not end Chechen insurgent and terror attacks. By comparison, in 2004 Americans were more tolerant of casualties in Iraq than were Russians in Chechnya.
In sum, the famed Russian willingness to suffer, perhaps Moscow’s greatest asset in World War II, has become a grave strategic liability. This, in conjunction with a need to preserve the limited quantity of his well-trained and well-armed conventional forces, has profoundly shaped Putin’s military moves for the past two decades. It also explains why “gray-zone” warfare—the use of unconventional tactics from cyber attacks to local proxies and influence operations—figures prominently in Russian strategy. Putin may be a wily card player, but he has some weak cards.
He has played these pretty close to the vest in Georgia in 2008, in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014 and since, in Syria the following year, in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and lately in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Further, this is a substantial and growing list of conflicts—all of them limited but none of them decisively resolved or allowing for the easy shifting of forces and resources. And none of them is remotely of the same scale as the full-blown invasion of Ukraine he now threatens. For all of Putin’s provocations, he has acted like a man unsure of his own strength, more concerned with maintaining a potential “threat-in-being” than in showing off an undoubted ability to “shock and awe,” Desert Storm-style.
Much of today’s hand-wringing stems from an outdated understanding of what happened in Ukraine in 2014 and what’s happened since. In attacking the Crimea and the eastern Donbass, Putin picked the lowest-hanging fruit, where local sympathies toward and connections to Mother Russia were strongest. What is perhaps most remarkable, given Ukraine’s profound lack of military unpreparedness and the struggles of Ukrainian domestic politics and democracy, was that Moscow’s “separatist strategy” failed, required overt Russian intervention and then, even so, Ukrainian counteroffensives beat them back to the current line of contact, east of Donetsk. It was Putin who demanded a ceasefire through the Minsk accords. And since then, the Ukrainian army has not been pushed back.
The Ukrainians have also undertaken serious military reforms and attempts to modernize. To be sure, and to the great credit of the country, these have been undertaken in the context of a struggle to become a true and liberal democracy, in the face of both domestic corruption and constant Russian interference. Indeed, by his actions in 2014, Putin has made Ukrainians more nationalistic, independent and ideological.
If the Ukrainian army has been unable to become as modern or lethal as its Russian opponents, it has become a much more professional and tactically competent force, at least in some part. The army’s best units, for example, excel at employing terrain for cover and concealment in ways that consistently impress U.S. and other Western partners in joint training exercises. Kyiv is also well aware of its shortcomings—the Russian air force would own the skies, for instance, and while the Ukrainians have a lot of artillery tubes that could make life miserable for any invading armored force, they lack modern ammunition and sufficient or sufficiently trained crews.
Moreover, Ukrainian terrain is more complex and defensible than current red-arrow maps contemplate. Consider the prospect of a thrust southward from Belarus toward Kyiv. Yes, this is the shortest route, maybe 150 miles as the crow flies. But it would be farther as the tank drives—the Russians aren’t likely to create massive and vulnerable assembly areas right on the border. Also, there’s really only one militarily important route directly southward and it would be folly to channelize an attack so drastically. Nor can the Russians widely deploy there, regardless of the much-ballyhooed—and late-to-arrive—winter freeze. The Pripet marshes that straddle the Belarusian-Ukrainian border make one of Europe’s largest swamps and have many dense woodlands; they’re as much bayou as open wetland. In his comprehensive analysis of Russian invasion options, Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that this “northern route” would likely feature several quite separated axes of attack, making for a far larger and more complex orchestration of maneuvers than Putin’s army has yet demonstrated.
And this northern option is supposed to be but one of three possible Russian campaigns, the others being targeted at the central Donbass front and along the Black Sea coast. The latter would potentially lay to another disproportionate Russian strength; Moscow’s naval power in the Black Sea far exceeds Kyiv’s. But the notion of a drive past Mariupol—a city of 500,000—past the Crimean peninsula and past the Dnepr delta would certainly exceed Russian logistical capacity. For Putin, to attempt all three of these thrusts would be the poker equivalent of drawing to an inside straight, a desperate long-shot.
A Crude Bottom Line
Mashing even these few but large-scale factors into a net-assessment blender throws at least some light on the decisions facing Vladimir Putin—and what the United States and its allies might do to complicate those decisions. The Biden administration’s most recent military steps are small but significant, particularly the deployment of an element of the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters to Eastern Europe. America and NATO have lacked a functional operational warfighting command-and-control capacity in Europe since the disbanding of the V and VII Corps after the Cold War; this is something no doubt noted in Moscow, a serious signal and a proven capacity that Moscow does not possess. Although the United States has been reluctant to show its hand, it holds many face cards.
Yet one unknowable element of Putin’s thinking cannot be known: What is his timeline for restoring Russia’s influence as a great power, his personal, larger net assessment? Middle-aged dictators are a quirky bunch; Putin will be 70 years old this October, almost 20 years older than Adolf Hitler was when he declared war on the United States in December 1941. Hitler saw a small window of opportunity to throw off the yoke of “Anglo-Saxon” oppression, a use-it-or-lose-it moment. Putin, too, despite his supposedly fanatical health regimen, may have a sense of the limits of time as well as his true military power. Is he in a hurry, or still the cautious calculator he has been in the past?