Vladimir Putin's plan to win quickly in Ukraine failed. Russia is now implementing an even more brutal strategy

Vladimir Putin's plan to win quickly in Ukraine failed. Russia is now implementing an even more brutal strategy

Originally posted in the ABC


In a December 2022 interview with The Economist, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhni, noted that the Russians "were not idiots". Despite their various missteps in this war, the Russians have demonstrated the ability to learn and adapt.

One important element of Russian strategic adaptation in the past six months has been Russian President Vladimir Putin's embrace of a revised strategy that draws out the length of the conflict.

This evolved Russian strategy has embraced the idea that while assistance might be flowing now, Western populations and politicians will eventually tire of the war. Putin has also stated publicly that he expects a long war in Ukraine, calling his invasion a "a long process".

This approach is supported by a revised Russian military strategy since January 2023 which might be called "Operation Don't Lose in 2023".

This operation has many components but, broadly, it has been implemented in two phases.

Phase One: Buying time

The first phase was pre-emptive operations. These are actions which either prepared the Russians for the Ukrainian offensives or aimed to degrade Ukrainian combat power before their mid-2023 offensives.

This pre-emptive phase began in September 2022 with the partial mobilisation activity undertaken by the Russians. Newly mobilised personnel soon found themselves reinforcing Russian units across southern Ukraine. They were able to stabilise their defensive lines and fill out the severely depleted Russian combat units.

The simple reason Putin likes his incompetent General Gerasimov

Another element of this pre-emptive phase was the Russian offensive of 2023, begun in January after General Valery Gerasimov assumed command of the Russian operations in Ukraine. Attacking on multiple fronts, this offensive gained almost no new territory and resulted in the loss of approximately 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded.

However, it did buy the Russians time. This time was critical for a final element of the Russians' preparations for the Ukrainian offensives.

While the Russians fought their 2023 offensive, massive obstacle belts were constructed across southern and eastern Ukraine. Consisting of anti-tank ditches, mines, wire, strong points as well as hardened and camouflaged headquarters, the Russians have prepared an extensive defence zone, dozens of kilometres deep, through which the Ukrainians must fight in the coming weeks.

Phase Two: Defend on multiple fronts

The second phase of Russia's plan to "not lose" this year has been in action since the beginning of the Ukrainian offensives.

A key element of this is the missile and drone attacks against Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. This has drawn large amounts of air defence capacity away from the battlefield, opening up Ukrainian ground forces to attack from the Russian air force and attack helicopters.

There has also been a stepped-up strategic influence campaign designed to project a failing Ukrainian offensive. Regardless of Ukraine's gains, Russia will be messaging to Europeans, Americans, Australians and others that the Ukrainians are failing and not worthy of further assistance.

Finally, since early June the Russians have engaged in the hard business of close combat and longer-range strike to degrade Ukrainian combat formations and hinder their progress. They have been learning and adapting. They are slowly but unevenly improving their tactical performance and using an expanding number of drones for reconnaissance and attacking Ukrainian units.

Recently, they even used a remotely controlled tank full of explosives to attack Ukrainian positions. Regardless of how professional and well-led the Ukrainians are, it is inevitable they will sustain casualties in the offensive. But taking casualties is not the same as losing.

Putin, having failed in his initial 2022 gambit to quickly change the government in Kyiv, is now implementing an even more brutal and cynical strategy. He cares nothing for the greater number of Ukrainians (and soldiers) who will perish or suffer from his plan for a longer war.

How can the West defeat Putin?

There are strategic and humanitarian imperatives for the West to defeat Putin's latest theory of victory.

Achieving this will require the kind of decisive and courageous political leadership we have seen from Baltic and Eastern European governments, the United States, as well as Jens Stoltenberg at NATO.

To this end, the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius will be an important international meeting. Not only will it serve to confirm NATO's strategy for supporting Ukraine, but it will also allow for a multitude of national leaders to hear first hand why their ongoing support and strategic patience is vital for this year and beyond.

The other way to ensure Russia fails in its "don't lose" strategy is rapid, and continuous, military assistance.

Historical experience from the 20th century indicates that operations of the magnitude now being conducted by Ukraine take weeks to generate momentum. The scale of fighting now underway in Ukraine is beyond the experience, or even imagination, of most of our citizens. Casualties will be heavy, the consumption of ammunition massive and loss of equipment will be ongoing.

But the Ukrainians, as they have throughout this war, trudge on. Their army is grimly working its way through Russian defences and defending the skies from a Russian missile and drone onslaught.

The West should consider sending Ukraine everything needed to defeat the Russians as quickly as possible.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies