Sibylline – 0800 GMT 24 February 2022: Red Storm Rising by General (Retd) Sir James Everard KCB CBE, Sibylline Special Adviser
Putin Putin is either living in an altered state of reality, surrounded by yes men, or he is calculating and rational, but with a very different worldview from ourown. He is clearly prepared to use brute force to achieve his objectives and in both cases the question is how far is he prepared to go now (in Ukraine), and in the future (elsewhere on NATO’s Eastern flank). In other words is this Act 1 in a much larger tragedy.
The lessons we need to draw are as follows and I outline in detail later:
We are in a new paradigm in terms of our relationship with Russia.
We must stop applying Western logic to the Russian Mind.
The way of war has changed.
Sanctions do not concern Russia.
Beware Russian sleight of hand.
So, why are we where we are? What immediate lessons can we learn? And what happens next?
Since 2004 the Kremlin has repeatedly raised three concerns: the West has unilaterally imposed a one-sided security order on the world; this disregarded Russia’s vital interests; Russia must have a voice in this debate - and be listened to.
Russia believes it was ignored, and from a position of weakness has been deliberately working (since 2003-04) to counter the West by dividing the US from Europeand Europeans amongst themselves, and by investing in its military.
That Russia is acting so aggressively now (post Olympics; in deference to China) indicates that it believes the West to be divided, weak and weakening, not least with their dependence on Russian energy. Furthermore, that Russia has a military readiness advantage and now operates from a position of strength.It is worth noting that the Global Firepower Index now places Russia second only to the US and above China.
The Russian way of war leverages all means (including non-military) of national power to achieve the desired end-state. Russia will deploy the tools of propaganda, agitation, bribery, compromise, sabotage, espionage, infiltration, assassination and terror that underpinned the Soviet ideal of warfare without battle.
Lesson 1. We are in a new paradigm in terms of our relationship with Russia. This moment was always coming and yet despite clear warnings (Georgia,Crimea) we were busy elsewhere. NATO did not recognise Russia as a threat until 2018. To do so invited not only unpalatable questions, but difficult choicesgiven the 30% (+-) reduction in European defence spending between 1995-2015. You may remember Robert Kagan telling us that American power had made it possible for Europeans to believe that military power was no longer important. It is time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Lesson 2: We must stop applying Western logic to the Russian Mind. Normal restraints and conventions do not apply; for Russia this is a war without rules. We need to better understand the Russian mentality and strategic game-plan – at this stage each step will have a purpose - and yet this is largely a lost art in the West.
Lesson 3: The way of war has changed. You hear that 150,000 – 200,000 Russian troops is not enough to seize and hold ground in Ukraine. Not true given the likely extent of Russian objectives, and the changing character of war and the reach and speed of today’scollection and targeting systems (including from Space). This is enhanced by the power, range and lethality of joint fires (delivered from the sea, land and air). Additionally, the exploitation of information (think cyber operations) and strategic-level Special Operations Forces at scale - all achieve impact, often simultaneously, in near real-time to deliver a firestorm(shock and awe plus) to demonstrate Russia’s destructive power.
Lesson 4. Sanctions do not concern Russia. In 2019 the IMF told us that sanctions reduced Russia’s growth by a very modest 0.2 percentage points every year in 2014-18. Russia has been making economic preparations since 2014, including the amassing of USD 630 billion in foreign currency reserves. Sanctions also cut both ways, and Putin may see opportunity here to further divide the West.
Lesson 5. Beware Russian sleight of hand. As we are distracted by Ukraine we should look very carefully now at what Russia is doing elsewhere. A long list, but from the Balkans to the Sahel, Russia is active, often though the mercenarisation (if there is such a word) of its foreign policy.
What next (and I have no inside track)? Putin will ignore all sanctions. He also has a number of immediate objectives as part of a much wider grand strategy:
- To minimise casualties(read the Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexievich. Actually read anything by Svetlana Alexievich) and win without significant fighting. The FSB and SOF have been busy and are busy now. The ultimate prize for an ex-KGB operator, would be that Ukraine offers token resistance, does not fight and surrenders in full or in part by its own free will. Likelihood that this will work? Low.
- Not to lose face. With his move into the Donbas he had already achieved just enough to cover this base, but this deployment never achieved much(except to get the Ukrainians to mobilise and concentrate force which was probably the purpose of the operation), particularly given objective three.
- To demonstrate raw Russian powerand his willingness to use this power against Ukraine, against the West and in expanding Russian influence globally. He wants Europe to fear Russia.Deduction: He needs to expand the military operation to achieve this.
- To weaken Ukraine, humiliate (and possiblyreplace) President Zelensky. Deduction: He needs to expand the military operation to achieve this.
What Happens Next?
To expand the military operation in a number of phasesRussia must (all low risk to Putin):
Create the pretext for further engagement. Done.
Prevent any external assistance to Ukraine with the threat of quote ‘such consequences as you have never experienced in your history (aka nuclear force). Done.
Shape the battlespace with surgical strikes to disrupt Ukrainian command and control and increase the psychological pressure on the Ukrainian population.
Manoeuvre forces supported by fires to seize the coastline between Crimea and Russia as far West as the River Dnieper (because he needs the water for the Crimea) including a flashy amphibious operation.
On order execute a firestorm to isolate/defeat/destroy Ukrainian Armed Forces primarily East of the River Dnieper, but also in depth through the use of stand-off Joint Fires, including thermobaric munitions. Cruel? Yes, but cruelty is part of a ‘no rules’ doctrine.
Simultaneously Consolidate in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Consolidate in Belarus. I do not see him leaving.
Finally, threaten Kiev to exert psychological pressure and (possibly) regime change. I do not believe he will move to occupy Kiev. This invites too many problems and carries too many unbounded risks – if you are rational.
I think Putin thinks that this can be done in dusted in twenty days from now. Act 1 of this tragedy is then complete. Act 2 is another story, but then scary Putin may move to test and challenge NATO solidarity and Article 5.
Helen Thompson (New Statesman) wrote that Ukraine now exists in a state of permanent existential fear, caught between the idea of belonging to Europe and the reality of Russian power’. This for now is the hard-truthfor us all.