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Russia's Ukraine war based on 'a disastrous miscalculation'

Roman Goncharenko
December 26, 2022

In an interview with DW, British historian Mark Galeotti explains why the West did not believe Russia would invade Ukraine and how he sees the war playing out in 2023.

Ukrainian soldiers fire an artillery system
Against the odds, Ukraine has managed to gain the upper hand against RussiaImage: LIBKOS/AP Photo/picture alliance

DW: There have been four wars since Vladimir Putin became Russian president: Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine. So why do you think the West was surprised by the Russian invasion?

Mark Galeotti: I think it's because of the scale. There's only three years of Putin's reign all the way from the end of 1999 to today, in which Russia was not engaged in one war or another. And yet there had always been limited ones. Putin had always essentially picked targets that he thought he could win easily. And the fundamental misunderstanding was not to realize the degree to which Putin had convinced himself that Ukraine would be an easy victory rather than, in fact, as it turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation.

In your book, you say that you, like many, were surprised by the decision to invade. Do you think it had something to do with Putin's isolation during the pandemic? Was his information bubble becoming too dangerous or too small? 

British historian Mark Galeotti sitting in an armchair
British historian and author Mark GaleottiImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

To explain that, let me pull back to my earlier assumption, which was that until we saw that televised meeting of the Security Council in the week of the invasion, it was only 30% to 40% likely. Precisely because it didn't seem to make sense. 

Right up to that point, in many ways, Putin was winning. He'd assembled this huge force on Ukraine's borders, and the presence of that force without crossing the borders was causing serious harm to the Ukrainian economy. And it was also leading to a stream of important leaders from the West traveling to Moscow, putting Putin in the position he likes to be, as they were petitioning him to not start a war. 

There was also pressure on Kyiv to make concessions. He was winning right up to the border. Now, we know much more about the scale of the misunderstanding, about the degree to which Putin had convinced himself that Ukraine was not a real country, that the Ukrainians would not meaningfully resist, that the so-called "drug addict," — Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy — would either flee or be captured. 

All these fundamental calculations or miscalculations were really at the heart of this war. And it also generates a clear image of the degree to which Putin has created a system in which it is disadvantageous for people to tell him the truth. The degree becomes clear to which his intelligence officers, everyone around him, was telling him not what he needed to hear, but what he wanted to hear. 

The situation is dire for Russian soldiers in Ukraine

Speaking of intelligence, you are an expert on Russia's Secret Services. Why do you think they misinformed him? Are they not as good as they're made out to be?

I think there are still — regrettably — good intelligence gathering capabilities. There are certainly smart analysts. But if I think back to 2015, I remember talking to a former Foreign Intelligence Service officer who had said this seven years ago. Even then he said, look, we've learned you do not bring unwelcome news to the tsar's table. In other words, it is politically dangerous to tell Putin things he does not want to hear. 

This culture of insulating the president from inconvenient truths has emerged. And most of the time that doesn't matter because he's not someone who is really in command of every single detail of running the country. There is a huge body of technocrats and officials, some of whom are highly effective, who are managing relations within the country. Where it matters is where you have a key decision that he will make, he will initiate, he will push and that can then drag the whole country into this kind of disaster. 

Would you say that Russia has failed to achieve its war objectives?

Absolutely. Frankly, the only question left is what defeat will look like. Putin is still hoping that he can outlast Ukraine and the West by signaling that this is a war which is going to go on for a long time, that he can, if necessary, continue to throw Russian manpower into the conflict. 

He's laying down a challenge to the West, saying, are you continuing to send billions of dollars, euros and pounds into Ukraine to keep this going when, frankly, you know, we can do this as long as you want? That is really his last hope of trying to achieve something that he can spin politically as a victory. But the point is they've failed to take Kyiv; they've failed really to expand their control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have the Crimean corridor, but that is now under threat. And obviously they've already had to withdraw from Kherson. 

This is not the story of momentum being on the Russian side. Quite the opposite. And as we look forward, Ukraine is increasingly fielding a modern 21st century army, thanks to all the assistance from the West, while in many ways Russia's military is degrading, it's going back to being a late Soviet army, fought by half-trained soldiers with weapons built in the 1970s. That is not to underplay the capacity. Russia is a large country; it has a huge defense industrial complex; it can continue this war, but frankly, it is not going to be able to make major offensives that really will push back the Ukrainians for any length of time.

One of your books is "The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia," which is about the Russian criminal world. We are seeing how Russia is trying to push prisoners to fight for Russia in Ukraine. We see people like Yevgeny Prigozhin with his Wagner mercenary group fighting in Ukraine. What does that tell us about the state of the Russian army? 

Well, we should note that Joseph Stalin recruited a lot of prisoners from the Gulag system, so, again, this is not entirely unprecedented. But it does say two things. One is you are right about the desperation for manpower. There is one more potential source of additional soldiers, which is the conscripts within the military. But Putin is aware that that would be politically disastrous and lead to massive draft dodging. 

Russian students standing in line waiting for their conscription papers
Vladimir Putin is desperately trying to beef up his forcesImage: Yevgeny Sofiychuk/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

So, there is a political challenge to find new soldiers to be able to throw onto the front line. And it is a mark of desperation that they are turning to the prison system. But more broadly, I think what we're seeing is a long-established informal alliance, shall we say, between the Kremlin and organized crime, taking a new form, because we're also seeing, for example, organized crime being used as an instrument outside Russia's borders. 

What are your projections for 2023? Can this war end next year? And if so, how?

It can end. And really it will depend on the Ukrainians being able to make considerable progress on the battlefield. At present there are no real grounds for negotiations because the Ukrainians feel they're on a roll. They would like to negotiate from a position of strength, if at all. 

Putin is desperately hoping that he can drag this out and hoping that come spring he'll have maybe 150,000 additional reservists who have been trained in Russia and in Belarus, and that by adding them, he can reinforce his line in Ukraine. 

But the point is, again, this is a war that has very much defied expectations in the past. I imagine that the Ukrainians, who have not only outfought, but also outthought their Russian counterparts, will be planning further major offensives. And I think it's only if they can demonstrate that they are going to win on the battlefield that they will have any chance of seeing the Kremlin feel it has to talk in any meaningful way.

Mark Galeotti is a British historian and honorary professor at the University College London. His latest book is "Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine." 

The interview was conducted by Roman Goncharenko. It was edited and shortened for clarity.

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