UCL News


Opinion: Could Putin and Russia really lose the war with Ukraine?

14 March 2022

Despite superior firepower, the expected triumph has not yet happened and the Kremlin's troops are growing demoralised, writes Professor Mark Galeotti (UCL School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies).

Mark Galeotti

With Russian forces frustrated on all fronts and Ukrainians refusing to buckle in the face of savage bombardments of their cities, more and more people are wondering what once seemed inconceivable: might the Ukrainians be able to win? The initial assumption had been that Russia, with its massive overmatch in firepower, would win the initial stage of the war, even if it then would find itself locked in a long-term struggle against a Ukrainian resistance. This would, in many ways, be the real challenge for Moscow: subduing a country the size of France and with a population determined to regain their freedom.

When the Soviets were trying to subdue Afghanistan in the 1980s, they deployed at peak some 150,000 troops plus another 100,000 loyal Afghan soldiers. They withdrew, exhausted and demoralised, after ten years of fighting. Today's Russia, a country with half the population of the USSR and an army a third of the size, could not sustain a quarter of a million men in the field for any length of time. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, chief of the Defence Staff, noted this week that as Russia's advance forces were being "decimated" it was no longer inevitable they would win even that initial victory.

Who has the fire?
The US Department of Defense has estimated that 5 per cent of deployed Russian vehicles and weapons have been put out of action. Even taking the lowest independent estimates and the Ukrainians are reporting twice as many the Russians seem to have suffered 5,000 deaths. In two weeks they have lost as many men as the Soviets did in the first three full years of their war in Afghanistan (and more than the United States lost in a decade in Iraq). Assuming the usual ratios of dead to wounded apply, this would suggest that at least 25,000 of the original Russian force is already out of action.

All wars are ultimately contests of will and capacity. Putin has in the past presumed that Russia's secret weapon is its will, its preparedness to bear costs and take risks that its rivals would not. As one hawkish Russian think tanker once put it to me, "the West has the money, we have the fire".

In the Ukrainians, Putin has met a people burning with a hotter fire. Their military has long prepared for such an attack. They are proving much more committed to the fight and the population is equally determined to take up arms or simply endure what the Russians throw at them.

However, Ukraine has proven to have another secret weapon: Vladimir Putin.

Sabotaged by the Kremlin

The Russian army rolled into Ukraine hamstrung by a series of perplexing political assumptions that seem to reflect his prejudices about the country. As far back as 2008, he had claimed it was "not even a state!" and in a strange venture into pseudohistory, he claimed Russians and Ukrainians "are one people" in an essay he wrote last year. As a result, he seems to have assumed that the Ukrainian state would collapse at the first push.

This led to an unrealistic initial strategy. His desire to keep Kyiv and the West guessing meant he sprang the decision on even his own troops, so commanders were deprived of the chance to prepare. His own soldiers, told they were simply on exercises, were unready for a bloody, brutal war against a fraternal nation.

Secondly, instead of the hammer blow of massed air, rocket and artillery fire, followed by full-scale ground operations, a relatively light preparatory bombardment was followed by small, lightning assaults by paratroopers. If the Ukrainians really had been unwilling to resist, maybe the Russians could have simply rolled into the centre of Kyiv and seized the government. Instead, they were bloodily repulsed, and Moscow lost some of its most professional and aggressive troops.

Momentum and morale

Once you start a war badly, it is all the harder to turn things round. This is a complex operation, with three main fronts into which the Kremlin has already committed more than half of Russia's total ground forces. We should not underestimate the Russian commanders; they are already shifting to a more methodical approach. This will probably focus on one front at a time. It will also be more brutal, seeking to bombard cities into surrender, as we have seen in Mariupol.

However, we should not overestimate them, either. They are now having to use undertrained conscripts and over-age reservists, neither of whom want to be there.

In these circumstances, the raw numbers of men in theatre don't always matter quite as much as one might think. We have seen evidence of small-scale and low-level examples of resistance and disaffection by soldiers, as in past Russian wars such as Afghanistan and Chechnya.

There have been desertions and surrenders, tanks towed away by Ukrainian farmers when their crews abandoned them, soldiers sabotaging their vehicles simply to ensure they could not follow their orders. A disciplined army can unravel terrifyingly quickly in the right conditions. There has been footage of Russian soldiers more intent on looting than fighting, simply because they have run out of rations. If field commanders lose their authority or their morale, then whole units may start falling apart.

What could change

All that said, a battlefield victory of sorts is not wholly out of the Kremlin's grasp. A victory or two might restore the army's confidence and coherence.

In part, this is simply about getting back to the basics: sweeping the skies of Ukrainian drones, not deploying tanks without infantry support, maintaining proper communications discipline.

As the logistics issue begins to be addressed, with new fuel pipelines laid and supplies trucked in, protecting these from Ukrainian attacks ought to be a priority. Finally, focusing on a single, achievable target at a time, such as Mariupol, would help minimise the stress on a military infrastructure that is patently not able to support war on three fronts.

Of course, if they fail, the fear is that Putin may be inclined to up the stakes and use chemical weapons. When you have already committed one war crime, it's easier to contemplate another to try to break Ukrainian resistance.

So it remains all to play for but how many people seriously predicted that, a fortnight into the war, Ukraine would still have such a chance? Indeed, the original Russian plan was for Kyiv to have been taken in two days and the whole operation to be over in two weeks.

Its goal appears to have been to take over the whole country, but last week Russia offered peace terms that represented a substantial climbdown.

While still unrealistic in its demands, Moscow is talking of wanting to have only its annexation of Crimea and claims to the eastern Donbas region recognised.

The lessons of history

Of course, Putin would like to be able to negotiate from a position of strength, and he will want to seize more cities. He is still threatening a major offensive against Kyiv. Much will depend on how the Kremlin feels about the impact of the wider economic and political war being waged against Russia, and how long it can sustain the present situation.

But the real imponderable is Putin himself. In his rhetoric about the invasion, he has repeatedly tried to evoke the Second World War, hoping to wrap this ill-conceived act of imperialism in the mantle of past heroism. Yet that war also offers an instructive parallel in a way that may not be so comfortable for Putin.

Stalin also imposed his own prejudices and assumptions on his generals. His certainty that Hitler would not invade the USSR until spring 1942 meant he refused to allow his forces to prepare when, in June 1941, it was becoming obvious to everyone else that an attack was imminent.

However, after the Wehrmacht confounded his calculations he adapted his approach. Henceforth Stalin largely just set the strategic objectives and let his generals decide how best to achieve them.

Hitler, on the other hand, remained a notorious micromanager throughout the conflict, who to the very end continued to impose his political views on military strategy. Stalin ended the war triumphant, Hitler dead in a bunker. Can Putin learn the lesson, or is he now even more out of touch than Stalin was?

This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 13 March 2022.