Vladimir Putin has always been a tactician, not a strategist.
A year and a half into the conflict in Ukraine he still refuses to acknowledge that his blitzkrieg strategy has been a dismal failure and that he is fighting a long war for which neither his military nor Russia’s economy is prepared. He is trying to right the situation with a series of poorly thought-out, spur-of-the-moment remedies. As the war goes on, problems will get deeper and the remedies more drastic, creating a vicious cycle.
Putin is not unique. Most wars in recent history were conceived by their planners as triumphant lightning strikes, only to turn into dragged-out bloody nightmares.
At the start of World War I, the German kaiser expected to be in Paris by Christmas, while the Russian czar thought he would take Vienna even sooner. Four years and millions upon millions of dead later, both those major empires had been reduced to ruins.
Hitler’s military successes at the start of World War II were equally swift. After his Panzer tank divisions raced through Poland, the Low Countries, and France, he planned to smash through the vast Soviet territory and end the war before the advent of Russian winter. What he got instead was a protracted conflict for which Germany had not prepared, and in which Hitler wasted the combined resources of the entire European continent.
In this respect, the recent film Golda provides an interesting lesson. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria had put their hopes in a blitzkrieg, whereas Israel had been preparing – since its inception – to fight a long war against its hostile neighbors.
Although Israel was taken by surprise and suffered painful losses, its strategic preparedness allowed it to stop the advance of its enemies and to end the war quickly. In not preparing for a lightning strike, Israel actually accomplished one.
Much like Hitler, Putin was deceived by the quick victory of the Russian forces in Georgia, in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea, in 2014. But this time his hopes of taking Kyiv in a matter of days, and subjugating all of Ukraine in a matter of weeks, were dashed early on. Now, the two armies are facing each other across a 1,200-kilometer front line, with the Ukrainians slowly advancing and Putin’s army struggling to hold them back.
How Putin's lighting war fell into a long conflict
Like other blitzkrieg warriors before him, Putin had not been prepared for a long conflict. His best-trained, best-equipped professional military units were destroyed in the early days of fighting. His army now lacks soldiers and is facing shortages of even antiquated weaponry and basic ammunition, to say nothing of modern hi-tech armament.
His economy too, is in bad shape. Russia’s oil and gas exports have been shut out of highly lucrative European markets. Western sanctions make imports costly and more difficult to obtain. The economy is facing a labor and skills shortage. Inflation is accelerating and the ruble is plunging in value.
If Putin is still so obsessed with defeating Ukraine, he will need to start from scratch, withdrawing his troops to the February 23, 2022 line, stopping the war completely, licking his wounds, and going back to the drawing board. That would be difficult, of course. Even if Ukraine agreed to stop fighting before it recovered Crimea and Donbas, the issues of reparations, and responsibility for war crimes, would have to be addressed before Putin’s Russia could return to the community of nations, and re-enter the global economic and financial system.
Putin will never do that, since it would mean admitting defeat – even if temporarily. So he keeps repeating that his Special Military Operation, as he insists on calling his war, is proceeding in according to plan – and strictly on schedule – while running around trying to patch up holes in his strategy. He is buying drones from Iran and missiles from North Korea, recruiting Central Asian, Cuban, and other migrants to fight in the trenches, seeking alternative markets for Russia’s oil and gas, and building smugglers’ networks to obtain sanctioned products.
He is also at pains to present the facade of normalcy in Moscow. Store shelves are well-stocked, restaurants are crowded, and most people do not seem to know that their country is waging a brutal war, only a few hundred kilometers away.
However, Putin’s critics from the right, the so-called Z-patriots and military reporters, know that the war is not going well, at all. They are demanding that the government declare total war, put the economy on a war footing, and devote all of its resources to the fighting. They use Stalin’s brutal nationwide mobilization measures during World War II as an example that Putin needs to follow.
This is not a strategy either. It is another way to patch up holes, only a more radical one. It will not bring victory over Ukraine but result in more emigration, more deaths, more sanctions, and growing discontent. In any case, Putin is too cautious for such drastic moves and he will opt instead for a thousand cuts.
Nevertheless, as the war drags on, the holes will get deeper and the remedies more extreme. Putin will be sinking deeper into the hole he has dug for his country, ensuring that it will suffer a bona fide military and economic disaster.
The writer, a New York-based economist, is a member of the US Andrei Sakharov Foundation. In 2005-2008, he organized a support group for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, bringing together Soviet Jewish immigrants in the United States.