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Putin’s baffling war strategy

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t going as he planned. Here’s why.

Smoke rises from a destroyed Russian tank on the side of a road in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on February 26, 2022.
Smoke rises from a destroyed Russian tank on the side of a road in the Luhansk region of Ukraine on February 26, 2022.
Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

After four days of fighting in Ukraine, it’s not going especially well for Russian forces. According to Ukraine’s defense ministry, Russia has lost about 4,300 troops and nearly 150 tanks, and both Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, are still under Ukrainian control.

Casualty numbers are unverified and should be treated with some caution, but they’re still a sharp contrast to initial Russian expectations, which assumed the Russian armed forces’ greater numbers and access to more advanced weapons systems would result in a swift, relatively painless invasion. Ukrainian forces, however, have mounted a strikingly successful resistance.

In recent years, much has been made of Russia’s developing hybrid warfare, fusing conventional tactics like ground troops and air campaigns alongside information manipulation and electronic warfare like signal jamming. Nonetheless, on the information front, Russia seems to be losing the war; the sheer volume of video and information coming from Ukraine in real time, plus a young, social media-savvy president and broad, transparent intelligence sharing, have proved to be a powerful antidote to the Kremlin’s disinformation spin.

“It’s been interesting to watch in the last 48 hours, and good to see in many ways, that the Kremlin has lost control of the narrative, internationally, around this war,” Mason Clark, the lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan DC-based think tank, told Vox.

The conflict is also markedly different than other recent conflicts, such as those in Syria or Afghanistan. Despite the disparities between Russian and Ukrainian forces, it’s still a war between two formal militaries, as opposed to a decentralized insurgency.

Ukraine’s country-wide mobilization adds an additional element, with many civilians picking up weapons, learning to make Molotov cocktails, or simply confronting tanks in the road.

Clark spoke with Vox on February 26 about his observations of the conflict so far, how it compares with other recent conflicts, and the resources Russia is still holding in reserve.

The conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Ellen Ioanes

Can you walk me through some of the changes and upgrades that the Russian armed forces have been working on in the past decade or two?

Mason Clark

So, the short answer is that actually a lot of their equipment has not changed. A lot of the Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting with roughly on-par equipment with each other. There’s some Russian units that have better equipment, newer tanks, that sort of thing. But on the whole, much of it due to just the sheer cost of replacing Russia’s old inventory of equipment and weaponry and munitions, even, means that they’re not that much different materially than they would have been in the beginning of the war in 2014.

The main thing that the Russian military has emphasized as really improving is, strangely enough, capabilities that we haven’t really seen them use in the war so far. One, electronic warfare, which we have not seen employed at scale. And two, a lot of various forms of new weapons, either cruise missiles or new fighters, and strategic bombers that Russian doctrine — what they say they would do in this sort of war — we haven’t actually seen.

And I can delve a little bit [into] why we think that is. It appears Putin has wildly miscalculated and had a, frankly, bad plan going into this of how quickly the Ukrainian military would collapse, and is still trying to avoid using these very damaging weapons of concentrated missiles and airstrikes to destroy Ukrainian defensive positions, to preserve his narrative of this not being a real war and not requiring that sort of use of firepower.

Ellen Ioanes

Right, sort of a diminishing expectation of the enemy that they’re up against.

Mason Clark

Exactly. And, of course, as we’ve now seen in the last 72 hours ... to be clear, it’s not just that the Russians are doing badly, it’s also that the Ukrainian military is doing very well, putting up a very, very stiff defense in several areas. But likely what we’re worried about here at ISW and watching on the team over the next 48 hours is when, and if, the Russians will recalibrate their approach and shift back into deploying additional forces forward, and using these much more damaging approaches as they start fighting through Kyiv or Kharkiv, or as they start to push forward into Zaporizhzhya [a city in southeastern Ukraine] — they’re approaching the outskirts [on Saturday]. As damaging as the strikes on Kyiv and other cities have been so far, we haven’t really seen the full capabilities that the Russian military has and can bring to bear, the way it has, for example, in Syria, or in fighting in Chechnya in the early 2000s.

Putin’s war on Ukraine, explained

Ellen Ioanes

Right, so speaking of earlier conflicts, there are a couple of similarities, or possible similarities — such as, what we’ve heard of the bombing of hospitals, and I feel like I have reason to believe that’s true — but will those tactics like we saw in Syria be possible in such a magnified, and very scrutinized, landscape as we’re working with now?

Mason Clark

They’re possible, and unfortunately I don’t think we can rule out that Russian forces will begin to carry out those strikes on a more overt scale, even though, [in the] last 24 hours the Ukrainian military has been reporting that Russian forces have been striking residential areas, just strictly to cause intimidation and terror and, probably, to force a collapse of the Ukrainian military — that hasn’t occurred at all.

But as you raised, even with all of the gaps, the fog of war, and that reporting on exact control of terrain and things like that, there is so much video emerging from the fighting on the ground and documentation of Russian actions, and particular violations against civilians and strikes on civilian targets, that in many ways, it’s been interesting to watch in the last 48 hours, and good to see, in many ways, that the Kremlin has lost control of the narrative internationally around this war.

Ellen Ioanes

So, I think another point to that, in terms of the information and what we’re able to see and document, a part of Russia’s hybrid warfare that I feel like everyone and their mom has been talking about for several years, doesn’t seem to be working here.

Mason Clark

No, and I would agree, and that’s been an interesting aspect of this. They have lost control of the narrative completely, even into Russian domestic audiences. I think Putin is facing more pushback than he anticipated. One of my colleagues, Katya, we ran an update on this last night. It’s interesting, Russian media is simply not portraying the war.

To date, they’re claiming that the only fighting that’s happening is around the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the proxies that Russia recognized, and they’re not showing fighting across the country, they’re not showing any Russian casualties, and rather than showing Russian footage, they’re trying to take Ukrainian footage out of context and use that to portray the war. And even then, they’re facing large backlash from the population, and the early stirrings of what may cohere into a true anti-war movement, which would be quite the feat considering how built-up the Russian repressive apparatus has been the last few years.

On those wider hybrid methods, it seems that this has been, I would say, not necessarily a break from them, because we assess that this was not Putin’s first choice. This seems to be something he has been forced into after a long period of a buildup and trying to coerce demands out of both Ukraine and NATO, and in particular, I think US intelligence did a very good job, as well as with European allies, of exposing so many of what were more of those hybrid methods that the Kremlin was using throughout December to February.

For example, thinking of the multiple reports of Russian plans for a coup in Kyiv, and the fact that they even picked out the people that they wanted to take over the government, or US intelligence exposing in late January that the Russian military had filmed a fake video of civilians being killed by Ukrainian forces, that sort of thing. I think that there’s a very high likelihood that that’s how the Kremlin wanted this war to begin, with some sort of muddled thing that they were able to doctor and spin in the information space. But because so many of those were exposed, they’ve had to do this very overt, direct invasion of Ukraine.

Ellen Ioanes

Right, it seemed as though there were many attempts at narrative-spinning, from “Oh, Ukraine has always been a part of Russia, we’re the same people,” and then, abruptly, “Ukraine is committing genocide against Russian people,” which you can’t do if you’re the same people — you know, these sort of mixed messages.

Mason Clark

A nuance on that, that’s actually important to capture on how Putin is spinning this war at home is, the Kremlin and the Kremlin-run media is trying to draw a very sharp distinction between the Ukrainian population, which they seem to expect will greet Russia as liberators and Russia has no quarrel with them, and the regime in Kyiv, which they portray as being neo-Nazis and drug users. I do not know where that one came from. And it’s this interesting balance where I think it’s a mix of them trying to pitch to the Russian people that this is not a war against Ukraine, it’s a very targeted intervention to get rid of the regime.

But at the same time, we’re having this growing view that we, frankly, were wrong about how rational the Kremlin was, to be honest, and it seems very much that they seem to have drunk their own Kool-Aid, so to speak. They may have actually believed that all they needed to do was take out the government in Kyiv that they do see as this foreign-imposed fascist government, and the Ukrainian population would be completely okay with that, which is just, quite simply, as everyone is seeing, not the case.

Ellen Ioanes

Is that an indication that Putin is, maybe, cut off from reality a bit, if indeed that is the belief? Because I’m not sure, if we’re operating under the idea that he does believe that Ukrainians will welcome Russians with open arms, I don’t see that as the same sentiment or motivating idea as Chechnya or Georgia, where it was like, we have to bring these back into the fold, we have to conquer these areas. Can you draw that parallel at all?

Mason Clark

It’s a tricky one, because Chechnya was framed as more of a domestic terrorism issue, and Georgia — there are certainly some parallels in some of the broad strokes of defending a separatist enclave in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, of course, and comparing that to the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, but the framing is very much different. Even the 2008 war with Georgia was framed as a purely defensive measure to protect these enclaves. There was no framing at all of it being a war of reconquest or to bring Georgia back into the fold or anything like that, where this Ukraine conflict very much has been.

On your first point, I want to hesitate, because I don’t want to fall into the trap of armchair psychology, of ascribing a reason to it, but in short, yes, it does seem that something has shifted in Putin’s approach. It could be his way of thinking — the popular theory going around is that all of his isolation the last two years during Covid has really gotten to him; he seems to be listening to different people in his government than he used to, and there’s been a number of leaks — that haven’t been fully confirmed — that he’s not listening to proper military advice, and that Russian military officers are also unhappy with this plan and the war as a whole. I don’t think I can assess why, but I would agree, at minimum, that this is not the same Putin that we were watching two years ago.

Ellen Ioanes

Along with the mobilization of Ukrainian volunteers and civil society, there is a strong desire to fight and to work together in solidarity that you see in Ukraine, and people have been training for this for eight years. Of course, Russia has a much larger military, but I don’t know what their training looks like. Can you say how well-trained these troops are?

Mason Clark

That’s actually a very, very interesting question, and one of the strangest quirks of watching this offensive in motion, from a Russian doctrinal aspect, which is what I’ve spent the last few years studying — essentially their training and lessons learned from Syria and other conflicts. The short answer is this doesn’t make sense, this doesn’t follow Russian doctrine and everything that they should be doing, according to their own procedures.

At the lower end of the spectrum, [Russia is] still predominantly a conscript-based military. It has issues, and we’re seeing that now on the front line, with a lot of units surrendering. There’s been several reports of Russian troops being taken prisoner and basically telling Ukrainians, “We found out about this invasion three hours before you did. We thought we were actually on exercises, and then suddenly we were told to cross the border.”

There are good elements of the Russian military — particularly the First Guards Tank Army that’s based around Moscow, and we’ve seen some elements of them around eastern Ukraine, but much more importantly, we’re seeing a wide disparity between the units in the south moving north from Crimea, [which] are just functioning much, much better than those coming from the northeastern Ukrainian border and from Belarus.

And we think the reason behind that — and this is something we observed in the months leading up to this, and frankly thought that Putin was not going to launch this offensive — is that only the troops facing Donbas and Crimea, in the southern military district, were ready and actually exercising at a large scale — entire divisions and regiments were carrying out these exercises. All of the troops that were on the northeastern Ukrainian border and in Belarus were pulled from all across Russia. We’re seeing units that were based on the Pacific coast that have been pulled all the way into Belarus and are now being thrown into northern Ukraine, and they didn’t seem to have time to organize together, and form these cohesive command structures.

So now we’re seeing them run into problems with logistics, running out of fuel, bad maps, all sorts of other things. And that’s having costs for the Russian military. The frankly strange thing about this is that, to be glib about it, they should be smarter than this. Again, we assessed until about five days before this began, that there would be no way they would be launching an offensive from the northeast because they just weren’t postured to do it — but they seem to have gone ahead with those forces anyway, which definitely lends credence to the arguments that this very much has been a Putin decision, he’s not listening to good military advice.

Ellen Ioanes

That has occurred to me as well, in terms of the lack of use of their sea power. We have the story from Snake Island, and Russia has a much more powerful navy, so it’s very strange that that has not been exploited — or it’s strange to me, as an outsider.

Mason Clark

I would agree completely. And we haven’t necessarily seen Russian strikes to take out the Ukrainian Navy — there’s been some very minor skirmishing from patrol boats, really, but there hasn’t been much in terms of actual attacks. Now, the Russian Navy and particularly the Black Sea fleet and some of their vessels pulled in from the Mediterranean and even as far away as the Baltic, are certainly carrying out a blockade of Ukrainian ports and preventing Ukrainian ships from breaking out, but we haven’t seen them used, I think, for two reasons: One, the same point in general [why] the Russians have not used as much air power and airstrikes is, quite simply, trying to downplay this and not get to that level.

The second is, they may not have drawn up the plans and been prepared to. We also have not seen any use of Russian naval infantry, which is their equivalent of Marines, being deployed, which was a big thing that a lot of folks forecasted prior to the offensive. There’s very much been this concentration of this ground breakout from Crimea, over everything else. A middling hypothesis is we think they may just be trying to secure ports with these ground forces before being able to land and move vessels in to provide further fire support, because they don’t want to risk the cost of having a naval landing go wrong.

Amphibious landings are quite difficult in even the best of circumstances, and they probably would take heavy casualties if they tried to do any of the direct landings against Mariupol or Odesa or any of those other major coastal cities. But it has indeed been an interesting gap in the capabilities that they’ve used so far.

Ellen Ioanes

That also leaves room for escalation, then, too.

Mason Clark

Exactly, and I hate to have to end it on this point, but it’s been interesting watching the reporting of how well the Ukrainian military has been doing the last few days — and they have been doing very well, there have been a lot of Russian errors — but I wish I could say, “Therefore I think the Ukrainian military’s going to hold out.”

Sheer weight of numbers, and if the Russians do start using the resources that they have, are going to overwhelm the Ukrainian military at some point, almost no matter how badly [Russia runs] this campaign plan.

And there are so many assets that have not been put into play yet, that what we’re really going to be watching in the next 48 to 72 hours is if the Russians decide to change tack and start using those. Particularly as Russian forces move into Kyiv proper, because we haven’t seen the Russians use armor and heavy artillery against an urban target yet, and they absolutely have the capability to do so, if they decide to abandon the approach they seem to be taking: of not taking the hit in the information space, of destroying large swaths of Ukraine and killing civilians.

Ellen Ioanes

This seems like a war from a time forgotten, a little bit. It seems like a battle from World War II, in a way. It does seem like a very ordinary urban warfare, conventional military campaign.

Mason Clark

Sure, and there’s definitely aspects of that. I do think we’ve seen a number of key differences in, certainly, the pace of some of the fighting and the use of what we have seen in terms of artillery and air support, and some of the key differences of how covered this has been on social media, and the importance of these narratives.

But I do agree, it has been very interesting observing it as, other than [Operation Desert Storm in] 1991 and [the invasion of Iraq in] 2003, this large-scale, conventional warfare and sweeping armored offense — or not so sweeping, because the Russians haven’t been doing well — [we haven’t seen that] for decades and decades.

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