Great artists know an essential truth about the road. Doing a one-off show is often harder than preparing a lengthy tour. True whether musically, theatrically or even politically. One date demands the same rehearsal time and clarity as a tour. A lot to ask for one gig. Far easier to wing things, hoping that charisma’s momentum and spontaneity will carry the day. History’s detritus shows a vast landscape of resulting tattered reputations – from humbled musical legends to self-immolating political candidates.
War, unsurprisingly, isn’t much different. Consider Tommy Franks’ war plan (albeit with OSD and OVP intrusions) 2002-2003. Jettisoning carefully prepared pre-existing plans, not only did he comparatively wing it, Franks did a two-for. He abruptly bugged out and retired in 2003 before mistakes became devastatingly obvious. Adding Wolfowitz’ last minute failure with Turkey for a northern front and one gets the point. Conversely, much of the American success in the Pacific 1942-45 famously grew from significant planning and thinking about amphibious warfare campaigns from the 1920s.
Germany 1935-45 also is a popular topic. Germany lost the improvised war on September 1, 1939. Yet German conceptual and economic preparations for an eventual intercontinental war with the US are often ignored by the still British-dominated historiography and certain cable channels. In the European context, Germany’s 1936-37 economic crisis spurred radicalization and thinking about a general war by 1943-45. Still, the Four Year Plan and industrial base began alignment in 1938 for the later ‘inevitable’ world war with the US. The Corporal’s improvisations within this vague overall strategic concept jump started events and doomed both.
Not everyone shirks planning and rehearsals. Even for a single gig. Led Zeppelin notoriously devoted an entire month in 2007 to rehearse a solitary 2 hour London show. Embarrassed after decades of calamitously unrehearsed ‘re-unions’, vanity demanded it.
So what of Putin’s War on Ukraine? We say it’s a one-off. And Vladimir Putin is no Led Zeppelin.
We know Putin launched his attack on or about the night of February 22nd relying only on his closest advisors, meaning almost no one. Assurances from MFA/MID and other senior government officials at the time otherwise meant nothing. He invaded Crimea based on a war plan dating back to the late 1990s to secure the Black Seas Fleet. We completely disagree with non-specialists who argue that a 2013 speech on the characteristics of emerging war by the General Staff is a modern “Hossbach Memorandum”, proving Putin long planned a carefully considered war of aggression on Ukraine. Such allegations by casual observers and social media hype usually misunderstand the culture, nature and purpose of General Staff discussions, planning and Putin’s 2014 context.
Putin’s war began as a ‘one night gig’, not a world tour. Out of pique.
Maidan, Berkut’s rout, Yanukovich’s flight, and cascading Lenin statutes wounded his personal prestige. Maidan’s an existential problem. Putin interprets spontaneity elsewhere as purposeful direction by others. Perversely, American general passivity re Ukraine post 2008, ceding lead role to the EU, merely compounded the Kremlin’s insistence that the US is an unseen, lurking controlling force – a Rumsfeldian “unknown unknown”.
Putin shares the Soviet/Great Russian prejudice that Ukraine is an unstructured cultural and ethnic ecumene. (“It’s not a country, George”). Yet his emotional volatility and impulsiveness triggered his war. And control him still.
Putin accelerated general re-armament and Russian geopolitical aggressiveness with his 2012 rollback. The time horizons for overall re-structuring targeted 2018 through 2025. Tellingly, for Ukraine in 2014 Putin’s government took no real advance (even clandestine) measures specifically to prepare the Russian economy, social sphere or even military force posture. Instead, he revealed prematurely Russian infowar/mass media and special forces tactics. Russia’s confused, self-defeating reactive response to even mild Western sanctions underscores the point. Much GRU success in Crimea simply is due to unopposed operations using extensive local Russian networks.
Like many improvisers, Putin started lucky. He gained Crimea without a shot. The history books can now say he expanded Russia, unlike Stolypin. For a narcissist this is non-trivial. His agitprop at home inoculates him against Maidan. Had he stopped there, March 2014, he paid no costs. Berlin, Paris and elsewhere “understood”. Granted, unarmed Ukrainians surrendering to Spetznaz in Crimea created a tragi-comical high school troupe re-enactment of a mini Koniggratz. But an ideological win is a win. Look at Grenada.
Putin’s mistake was to continue. Euphoria’s high. Even now he’s still groping for a landing. Zigs and zags since March show he’s trying to assert authority over Ukraine and Russian elements who sparked his worst instincts, trying to use Putin to ignite their own dreams of domestic radicalization.
Ukraine phase two after Crimea attempted a ‘spontaneous’ uprising across the country. We’ve detailed how it and subsequent escalations failed. Novorossiya ideologues supported by Russian special forces and mercenaries acted out racial, ahistorical and emotionally revanchist themes. Ukraine itself became a prop in a larger ideological agenda.
By May, Ukrainians clearly defeated Russia’s overall “hybrid war” bum rush. Almost all regions stayed loyal to Kiev. Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions largely stood with Kiev, rejecting Moscow. Even in the Donbass, the most lawless, pro-Russian, neo-Soviet region, Russians found little native support.
Putin suffered first public loss of personal control then. Russian Donbass fascist and orthodox activists with their Russian sponsors ignored his explicit public wishes. Soon they began to criticize Putin’s refusal to escalate more troops directly. Worse, these same Novorossiya ideologues were screwing up on the ground in Ukraine beyond international atrocities like MH17. They were losing despite Russian reinforcements.
Putin began switching from the passenger seat. Until then, Putin for a period genuinely seemed sensitive to his fascist, nationalist right, including referring to Novorossiya in March. Eventually, the Novorossiya idealogues’ continued public, personal disloyalty and failures forced his hand. They weren’t going to help him find answers but give him problems.
Putin instinctively turned to loyalists. On example is Surkov. Besides being a Kremlin grey cardinal of political manipulation, Surkov before March 2014 served as an emissary to Ukraine. In this role, he vied with neo-fascist sympathizer ‘economist’ Glazyev. Glazyev, besides calling for destruction of the world dollar economy and Russian autarky, is friendly with the well known nationalist/neo-fascist Izborsk Club. Novorossiya ideologues rightly saw Surkov’s ascendancy on Ukrainian issues as their defeat.
Surkov gives Putin discretion, loyalty and cynical political savvy – he knows how to make deals. Glazyev makes Rogozin look like Warren Christopher. Speaking of Rogozin, he too was sidelined when Putin personally assumed control of the VPK, replacing Rogozin as chief of the military industrial commission. (Putin’s direct role became essential and inevitable with sanctions. Political and economic tensions within the VPK and Ministry of Defense required his personal engagement as final arbiter anyway).
The Kremlin began to seek cracks in the ultra-nationalist/fascist wedge, too. Well known Kirginyan, founder of the uber-nationalist “Essence of Time” movement (among the 20 plus neo-fascist groups in the Russian constellation), aggressively disagreed with National Unity, Dugin, Girkin/Strelkov and a host of others over Novorossiya and the Donbass as a Putin cut out. Significantly, he did it in public and with media coverage.
Putin also canned a few senior and mid-level security officials (in part for particulars, in part to send a signal). The Power Ministries? Firmly his. He also rejected a major demand of the Novorossiya ideologues and neo-fascists. Since April they clamored for a larger domestic radicalization against so-called “Fifth Column” traitors who disagreed with war and escalation. Putin announced on national TV there would be no general purge of the so-called ‘Fifth Column’ (Russian fascists also identified sixth and seventh columns in the Kremlin, too, if you’re counting). Some Western observers missed the importance of Putin’s brief comment, hungry for more sensational news to tweet. Russian ideologues saw the writing on the wall.
By mid-Summer Putin still had no plan but attended to specifics. First, Dugin was fired from his professor’s chair. His entire department at Moscow State University also purged of like-minded. Significantly, court jester Zhirinovsky took Dugin’s place in an exquisite demotion of Dugin twice over. Dugin blamed Surkov which is to say Putin.
Putin’s broom also swept the Donbass. Girkin and the whole Novorossiya lot recalled and now twist in a vague, quasi obscurity. The intended message? What happens in Donbass will be because the Kremlin made the call, not idle orthodox radical oligarchs, an odd club and hired atavistic re-enactors. Putin’s replacements included an Old Guard from 1991 Soviet crackdowns and later Moldova’s frozen conflict. Will Putin’s deck clearing work? The jury’s still out. (With overt Russian military in the Donbass, Putin trimmed freelancing but also increased direct responsibility).
By August, Putin saw an outline of a plan. He attempted to nail his exit and smell his rose. He jettisoned the Novorossiya ideologues’ earlier dreams of bum rushing the whole Ukraine as in April. He settled for protracted negotiations over Donbass. His signal to the West? From Yalta in Crimea in early August. Before his government and international journalists, Putin veered far off standard Russian cant and declared Russia desired a unitary Ukraine, an independent country, a cease fire and federalization. These words are spikes through the heart of the Novorossiya ideological project.
Zhirinovsky specifically was assigned to sit on stage with Putin, playing again in the assigned court jester role. He trots out all of the fascist Novorossiya arguments comically, only to be cut off. Putin rolls his eyes in front of all several times before rejecting the Novorossiya ideology as merely Zhironovsky’s personal passion. Putin underscores those views are not official Russian state policy. Naturally, Putin can’t and doesn’t allow this to be televised at home. Its audience was abroad.
Putin’s stumbling included a stab at improbable role of humanitarian hero. Russia media ramped a concerted campaign to launch him and cast the Donbass in that light. “He’s above making war; he cares.” The Kremlin typically surveys Russians more extensively than an American presidential campaign with voters in October. He knows Russians don’t want body bags (Cargo 200) coming from Ukraine. Hence the initial humanitarian Potemkin Convoy for Russian TV. Was it a workable plan? Putin forgot Ukraine and the international community wanted a vote. Putin’s intended PR victory lap became an embarrassment. The convoy sat idle, mired in delays, the trucks exposed as empty.
We said at the time the convoy’s mission was (1) PR optics for Russian domestic politics; (2) exfiltration of men, casualties, equipment & evidence; and (3) a replay of Germany post May 1945 re seizure of capital plant. A little of all occurred, but Putin’s improvised hero moment fizzled out. Still, he did not escalate militarily. Ukraine’s ATO controlled Luhansk, most of the Donbass except for Donetsk and the extended pocket. Merkel, criticized at the time, travelled to Kiev in August to caution Poroshenko about over extension.
Denied a hero role, Putin in sullen mood then went to Minsk in August to meet Ukraine’s Poroshenko, Lukashenko (Belarus) and Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan). It was an inauspicious day. Putin offended the other presidents from his own micro Customs Union. Already high tensions only grew. Poroshenko then forgot Vladimir Putin’s personal truth: everything is personal. Unfortunately, Poroshenko and the Ukrainians were perceived as acting as though the ATO already secured victory. Russians claimed to be annoyed by Ukrainians’ alleged difficulties clarifying if a bilateral Putin-Poroshenko meeting would occur and when. When the two met, a bad day got worse. Poroshenko left to the Ukrainian embassy to give an address, blowing off a planned wrap up session with all four presidents. Ukrainians spun the day as a success; the Russians hinted Putin took it all as a series of personal slights.
The next day the Russian army overtly entered Donbass in moderate force without pretension and assaulted Ukrainian volunteers exposed and unsupported by the Ukrainian military. Luhansk fell. Poroshenko finally saw the difference between an ATO and a focused military campaign. On TV Poroshenko claimed 60% of forward-deployed Ukrainian military equipment was destroyed. For domestic reasons, Putin slapped the Novorossiya label on the now much stronger Russian position in Donbass. The title gave a sop to sidelined Russian ideologues calling for troops; really, Putin now claimed Novorossiya for himself, personally.
Many in the West misunderstood Putin’s move post-Minsk. Tactical escalation didn’t herald an imminent, wider offensive into Ukraine. (Mariupol was the first clue). Putin still undermined his own clumsy PR by boasting he could take Kiev in 2 weeks. Russian is complicated with subjunctives. Without hearing the conversation, our sense at the time was Putin tried to brag his position. “Look, I’m standing where I am. Don’t you think if I wanted to take Kiev we would have done so already?” As with most Putin self-puffery, it rings hollow. The Russian Army fully mobilized would be pressed. Domestic Russian tolerance for war and casualties is already low. And of all peoples, the Russians should know taking something and holding it are worlds apart.
We’re essentially back at Yalta. Putin called Poroshenko’s ATO bluff and raised the ceasefire ante. Putin flirts with dangling a unitary Ukraine hobbled with pro-Russian federalization (Kiev rightly wants the much different de-centralization). Kiev controls far less of the Donbass than before Minsk and suffered extensive casualties. Amidst cease fire negotiations and provocations, Kiev must focus on the economy, which teeters. Ukraine’s capacity to function as a society must come first. Sustaining that beyond short term loans will require deep reform and anti-corruption.
Western aid is and will be vital, including less glamorous things like advising on General Staff reform and C3 issues. Ukraine’s westward story will be told in years, not months. Kiev should be realistic about non-political options for changing ground truth immediately. Weapons alone won’t be the answer.
Will Putin settle for a frozen conflict now? Unlikely. Improvisers like Putin generally don’t know when to stop. The gamble is the next hole card an ace. Still, Putin needs this (temporary) truce as much as Poroshenko.
Putin will remain tactically opportunist. His position, allegiances and personnel can change for clear, short term gain. Ukraine should focus its priorities – on reform, economic progress and anti-corruption. That Ukraine, simply by existing, rebukes and threatens Putinism.
Putin’s still emotionally volatile. Following the Minsk Summit, he went out of his way to question his erstwhile ally Kazakstan’s sovereignty and national viability. The sizable number of Russian speakers there make a threat of another Ukraine resonate. The Baltic allies, too, see Russian provocations. Russian planes perform intrusive stunts from Alaska to Finland.
The good news? Putin’s overt war on Ukraine was and remains to date a largely unsuccessful one-off improv. The costs are still mounting. Western sanctions disappointed many but ample signs of impact are real. Raiding rival oligarchs for cash and assets already beginning. Capital outflow continues at staggering levels – $3,805 every second. The sober view? Putin’s larger quest to upend the Western order and undermine perceived American influence will continue in different guises, if not expand.
Ukraine withstood irrational, nihilist violence, propaganda and concentrated subversion. Almost everything Russia could throw. Putin’s so-called “hybrid war” to gain all or most of Ukraine on the roll failed. Ukrainian newborn nationalism fought Russia almost to a standstill in the most pro-Russian region outside Russia itself. Despite Ukrainian treason, local oligarch duplicity and surprise. Putin may spin his mess in Donbass a win. He’ll certainly keeping looking for the next hole card.
Kiev’s commitment to the West means Putin and Russia lost the real prize. That’s encouraging to all supporters of freedom along the periphery.