What is driving Putin’s thinking on Ukraine?

by Philip Ingram, MBE

Watching the debacle that was the rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the huge amounts of equipment abandoned, destroyed, or falling into Taliban hands as the Afghan security forces melted away, with the political ramifications that spread across the US and UK in particular with the mad scramble, and failure to get all of the locals who had helped the coalition out of the country, it is likely President Putin smiled. Russia had its own debacle in Afghanistan, but it left in a more orderly fashion.  Vladimir knew the West was a shadow of its previous self.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan the then Vladimir Putin of the KGB was finishing his career as an intelligence officer, destroying files in Dresden in the former East Germany. As the wall came down, he moved to be an advisor on international affairs to the Mayor of Leningrad, Anatoly Sobchak, where, by his own admission, he resigned from the KGB in 1991 not wanting anything to do with the post-Soviet regime’s intelligence machinery, his destination was politics.

However, his foundation, the belief at the core of his soul, was the USSR, and a USSR as a world leading global power. He has never lost that belief and has resented everything that has diluted the reality around it.  When it comes to Ukraine, for over 10 years before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin ran a long media campaign aimed at suggesting that Russians and Ukrainian’s were one people but painting them in the eyes of ethnic Russians as “little Russians” and mobilised strong anti-Ukrainian sentiment in the run up to the Annexation. He hasn’t stopped since.

However, what this says is that Putin has a long-term plan, measured in decades not months and his actions into Crimea, support for separatists in the Donbas region, cyber-attacks, possibly assassinations and military deployments to the Ukrainian borders over the years culminating in the current deployment, clearly display his long game approach to achieving his objective; Ukraine being absorbed back to mother Russia.

What is different about this deployment is its scale, not just combat troops but combat support (artillery, engineers) and logistics. It is on a scale not seen before. In addition, it is no accident that Putin is having joint military exercise with Belarus, deploying Naval capability into the Baltic, Atlantic, Mediterranean, having joint exercises with China and Iran in the Indian Ocean, all at the same time. The Russian military has not been tested like this since the old USSR days, something Putin will be proud to have achieved but also concerned about the message at home.

So why doesn’t Putin just invade and take Ukraine immediately?

There are several issues around this simple question, the first is size. Ukraine is the second largest country by land mass in Europe at some 603,628 Sq Km and has a population of approximately 55 million people. That is a huge area to invade and a huge number of people to subjugate; it is not a simple military operation even for a country with the size of military forces Russia has on paper.  Even if he had enough land based military capability to take and hold Ukraine, he would very quickly become fixed and be able to concentrate on nothing else.

The second reason is the potential international reaction. Putin does care about the international consequences, especially if it will hit him and his supporters in the pocket too hard. Economic sanctions he can handle, even though the Russian economy is in turmoil, note how he is courting and getting increased Chinese support! Are we seeing or is there already a coalition of the leaders for life?

However, if it came to the point where his personal assets overseas or those of the oligarchs supporting him (keeping him in power) were badly affected then he would be concerned. Politically he needs to keep the oligarchs onside and able to keep their lucrative businesses, otherwise support to keep Putin in power would disappear rapidly from those with the power to remove him.

Remember the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with Novichok? That was to send a message to some errant oligarchs more than it was to assassinate Skripal.  Exactly 14 days before the last Presidential election, Putin wanted a greater percentage of the vote and at least one oligarch could have disrupted that. After a smear of Novichok in Salisbury, there was no dissent.

Of note Russia has just changed its position on Crypto Currencies from banning them to regulating them, could this be a move to allow Putin and Oligarchs to protect some of their assets in decentralised currencies, less easy to subject to asset freezing? Regulation would continue to allow him and his political friends to maintain oversight of their use!

What is clear is that Putin is playing a game of 3D or 4D chess, every time he moves, he sits and watches what the global reaction is. He knows that he controls the timings to an extent. Troops deployed without purpose can become disillusioned, equipment deployed where it can’t be maintained properly becomes unreliable, funding large military deployments is expensive and the court of Russian public opinion, no matter how much it is controlled, will only stay silent for a finite period.

His military exercises with China and Iran in the South China Sea, 240 nautical miles off the coast of Ireland, sending landing ships through the Mediterranean, mobilising elements of all of his Naval Fleets are doing two things – the first is sending a message to the West, “you don’t know what I am up to,” and the second is splitting intelligence and diplomatic efforts. Intelligence assets monitoring a large number of events simultaneously means there is less of a concentration of them to monitor what actually happens when it does at Putin’s time and place of his choosing.

When it comes to land-based deployments and his exercises in Belarus, it gives him the ability to outload and forward deploy the military capability he needs to take action into Ukraine but also place troops on boarders with NATO countries as a deterrent. The rationale is twofold – deterring NATO from physically getting involved and secondly splitting Ukrainian defences by suggesting potential multiple axis of invasion. However, no matter what numbers of troops and pieces of equipment are on paper, when analysing Russian capability, only a finite amount will be the newest, the best trained, the capabilities at proper combat readiness. The rest is there for show.

Diplomatically Putin’s manoeuvres are providing him invaluable insights to western thinking, possible reactions, weak points and options. He will continue to play the political and diplomatic game as long as he has options to manoeuvre in this area and gain and keep from his thinking’s perspective, the high ground. He has offered an olive branch to deescalate knowing the thorns on the branch make it unacceptable to the West who rejected it. However, from Putin’s messaging perspective aimed at his troops and his domestic audience, the West have been the aggressor.  This is reinforced by pictures of the US and UK and others sending weapons to Ukraine and talking of military deployments to shore up NATO countries. All of this will be played by Putin as aggression.  We just seem paralysed when it comes to confronting Putin in the information sphere, the Grey Zone!

Putin has found two major cracks in the EU, one he knew about, the inability of Ireland to influence the waters off its coast and how this provides a potential weak point on NATOs flank. However, the bigger weakness is Germany and her political stance not to send military support to Ukraine. From a longer-term perspective, Putin will see this as a huge victory proving the EU can and will never be one security entity and it easily manipulated and fractured economically.

What is missing currently are the final triggers and indicators of an invasion. They will likely start up to 2 weeks before troops move further into Ukrainian territory and will possibly involve false flag incidents in one or all of Russia, Belarus and the Donbas region and/or Crimea, followed by at least one in Ukraine itself, targeting the Russian speaking population. The possibility of a Russian target being subject to a false flag attack anywhere in the world, is very real. Around these there will be increasing cyber activity targeting NATO countries and political entities such as the EU. As these start and as they ramp up, we know an invasion is coming in days.

However, putting all the troop numbers and posturing to one side it is likely if Putin gives the green light to further invade Ukraine that it will be limited, probably just capturing Eastern Ukraine and up to parts of the Dinipro River, consolidating the Donbas region and another land bridge to Crimea. He will likely judge the International community would breathe a sigh of relief if he doesn’t attack all of Ukraine, but that is a dangerous assessment for him to make. However, he does have to do something and relatively quickly. Whatever that is his driving factor will be to maintain credibility domestically and internationally.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former colonel in British Military Intelligence and is available for comment