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Foreword: A Reckless Gamble: Wars rarely go to plan, especially if you believe your own rhetoric

As we try to take in the news from Ukraine it can be challenging to work out exactly what is going on and to where it all might all lead. There is no shortage of information, but social media does not give the full picture and can’t always be trusted. Even in the digital age ‘the fog of war’ never quite goes away.

Despite their superiority, Russian forces made less progress than might have been expected on the first day of the war when they had the advantages of tactical surprise and potentially overwhelming numbers. The initial assaults lacked the expected energy and drive, and the Ukrainians demonstrated a spirited resistance. Though the Russians may eventually prevail, this will be an extraordinary difficult war for Putin to win politically.

One of the main reasons why wars can turn out badly is underestimation of the enemy. Putin’s speech and his statements reveal his preferred rationale for war and why he thinks he can win. If it is the case, as Putin has consistently claimed, that Ukraine is a non-state, then it would not be surprising if he also supposed that ordinary Ukrainians would not fight hard for such an entity or even greet the incoming Russian forces as liberators.

Coupled with an underestimation of enemy forces can come an overestimation of one’s own. Putin has by and large done well from his wars. He gained the Presidency in 2000 using the Second Chechen War to demonstrate his leadership qualities. He bloodied Georgia in 2008 to warn it off joining NATO and eliminating the separatist enclaves Russia had already established there. He extracted Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and more recently successfully supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. Yet his most recent military enterprises have not involved substantial ground forces being deployed. In Ukraine the operations, including the annexation of Crimea, were largely run by special forces, along with the militias recruited by the separatists in the Donbas.

Their experience of large-scale ground operations is therefore limited. When this is coupled with arrogance about the limitations of the potential enemy, then this may have contributed to the less than sure-footed start to this campaign.

And whilst we cannot conclude from the first day’s engagements that Russian forces will struggle in the future, nonetheless first impressions are important. We have been reminded that the morale and determination of those defending their country tends to be higher than that of those mounting an invasion, especially if they are unsure why they are doing so.

Evident Ukrainian resistance, and of the costs of war for both sides, also raise the stakes for Putin at home. As others have noted as Russia runs out of stocks of precision-guided missiles and gets drawn into urban warfare, the fighting could get brutal. It was odd for Putin to insist that Ukraine should really be part of Russia and then expect people to tolerate fellow Slavs - often their relations - being bombed. Putin, like most autocrats, has a residual fear of his own people, and may start to be concerned about how they might react to even more casualties of their own, brutality in Ukraine, and international condemnation.

For those of us who have long wondered why Putin would embark on an aggressive war, the core puzzle has been what he could hope to achieve politically. A limited campaign in Eastern Ukraine made some sense as it would carve out an area that could be sustained and defended over time. The current scale of operations makes less sense because it essentially requires regime change in Kyiv.

If a compliant figure could be installed as Ukrainian president, they could not expect to last for very long without the backing of an occupation force. Russia simply does not have the numbers and capacity to sustain such a force for any length of time. Ukraine shares a land border with NATO and equipment can pass through to Ukrainian regular forces so long as they are fighting - and then to an anti-Russian insurgency should this conflict move to that stage. This is why it is important not to focus solely on whether Russia achieves it military objectives. It is how it holds what it can seize against civilian resistance and insurgency.

Wars rarely go according to plan. Chance events or poorly executed operations can require sudden shifts in strategy. The unintended consequences can be as important as the intended. These are the pitfalls surrounding all wars and why they should only be embarked upon with good reason, of which the most compelling is an act of self-defence.  

The decision to embark on this war rests on the shoulders of one man. As we saw earlier this week Putin has become obsessed with Ukraine, and prone to outrageous theories which appear as pretexts for war, but which may also reflect his views. So many lives have already been lost because of the peculiar circumstances and character of this solitary individual, fearful of Covid and a Ukraine of his imagination.

Putin reminds us that that autocracy can lead to great errors, and while democracy by no means precludes us making our own mistakes, it at least allows us opportunities to move swiftly to new leaders and new policies when that happens. Would that this now happens to Russia.

This piece was based on a longer article in Professor Freedman’s Substack which you can read in full here


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Lawrence Freedman

Lawrence Freedman

Emeritus Professor of War Studies

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