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Military means must not be considered separately from the political ends they serve. This political-military maxim is both elementary and often ignored. In an effective system, civilian and military leaders collaborate to craft strategies that establish realistic political ends and military means capable of accomplishing them at an acceptable cost. More often than strategists may care to realize, however, the conduct of operations renders political ends unachievable. This incongruence between vision and reality demands attention, but the remedy may prove volatile or de-escalatory depending on how actors on all sides frame the options. How states adapt their strategies is at least as important as the original strategy. Russia is now faced with a dilemma: adapt their war aims to reflect the falsity of their assumptions or accept a protracted attritional conflict that is unlikely to achieve decisive results.
Vladimir Putin’s original strategy for the invasion of Ukraine is no longer tenable. While there is some ambiguity surrounding the original aims, they can be broadly defined as 1) regime change to install a more pliant government, 2) suppressing Western and NATO influence within Russia’s perceived sphere of influence, and 3) officially severing Crimea and the Donbas from Ukraine. The Russian strategy to accomplish these aims appears to be based on assumptions of limited Ukrainian resistance and the military’s ability to quickly wrest the levers of power from the democratically elected government. It is increasingly difficult to see how Putin’s forces can accomplish his goals as his assumptions are proven ever falser. Even if a pro-Russian puppet government is established in Kyiv, the Ukrainian people convincingly demonstrated they will not idly accept an illegitimate government. Attempts to suppress Western influence resulted in a strengthening of the NATO alliance, non-NATO partners considering membership, and rejection of Russian influence throughout Europe.
Perhaps the most likely and palatable option for the leader recovering from strategic setbacks is pursuing more limited ends. Putin certainly would not be the first leader to reframe his objectives mid-stride to lower the bar for success and attempt to save political face. Indeed, ongoing negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials may indicate Moscow is exploring options that would allow them to claim victory without further pressing their beleaguered military. Russian demands could include guarantees of neutrality that would permanently keep Ukraine out of NATO and NATO out of Ukraine or territorial concessions in some of the previously contested regions. Regardless of the terms of the settlement, a post-hoc limitation of ends may provide the “off-ramp” needed to keep the Kremlin from feeling cornered. Until such an agreement is reached, Russian strategists will press the Ukrainian military and people to maintain maximum negotiating leverage.
Russian history provides some precedence for limiting aims during a conflict. The First Soviet-Finnish War, or “Winter War”, began in 1939 with Russian troops invading Finland ostensibly to ensure the security of Russian cities, including Leningrad, near the Finnish border. A full understanding of Russian strategic ends is difficult to decipher, but it is likely they considered occupation and regime change desirable. Just three months of fighting in subzero conditions inflicted appalling losses on the Soviet forces and brought them to the negotiating table. While Finland was forced to give up some territory, it retained its sovereignty and the integrity of the government. Likewise, the Soviets gained some territory and were able to cut their losses while saving face. The Winter War has long been viewed as a classic example of national resistance against a more powerful foe but also sheds light on how to salvage some political value from an unexpectedly poor battlefield performance- something the modern Russian regime should consider.
Maintain Current Ends
It is difficult to determine the political risk calculus of a personalist authoritarian regime like Vladimir Putin’s, but regime survival is certainly a top priority. For a regime that built its image and success on decisive and aggressive pursuit of Russian nationalist ideals, an outright reversal of course may prove more damning than prolonging a losing effort. In the short term, continuing to pursue the current ends could be the safest political course of action. Maintenance of the status quo assumes that the political and social structures supporting Putin’s regime, be they the military, oligarchs, etc., will continue at least tacitly supporting the war given the costs. But risk calculus is dynamic. As Russian casualties mount and the toll on the Russian economy grows, those supporting actors may decide their interests are best served by a change of strategy or a change of regime. Autocrats are not free from consideration of their constituents, though those constituents are a decidedly small and socially elite subsection of the population. Strategies that continue to pursue current ends may take three forms.
Putin may choose to escalate or apply greater means towards the same end. The most concerning potential for the Russians to continue pursuing their aims in Ukraine is they will feel compelled to apply more potent and risky means to gain leverage on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. To some extent, the increased use of cruise missiles and bombing and indiscriminate targeting of civilians may indicate the Russians are pursuing this course. Alternatively, the Russians could accept a prolonged conflict. Pursuit of the current strategy almost guarantees a costly war of attrition, but the Kremlin may accept those costs and believe they can outlast the Ukrainians. Finally, the Russian military could consolidate gains in areas already taken, and transition to a less aggressive and presumably less costly approach. This “economy of force” approach could provide time to prepare for a new offensive. The military may also use this as an opportunity to create leverage for negotiations, or to stall until a new leader comes to power in Moscow.
It is important to understand the assumptions and cultural filters on which we base our perspectives of Russian decision-making. Strategic adaptation requires leaders possess a clear vision of the strategic landscape that is unimpeded by parochial interests, sycophants, and ego. Further, assessment of strategic options is based on one’s subjective understanding of risks, relative advantages, and opportunities. Putin and the individuals keeping him in power clearly viewed the prospects of their offensive and the associated risks differently than Western logic would predict. To assume that they now perceive the strategic environment similarly to Western observers would be illogical.
Short of an unlikely withdrawal, Putin faces limiting his aims or continuing to press towards his lofty political goals through an attrition strategy or escalated inhumane means. That decision will have far-reaching implications for the future of the European balance of power, the world economy, and Russia’s national and military prestige. Taken from a wider perspective, how leaders adapt their strategies may tell us much about the stability of domestic political institutions and how decision-makers prioritize risk. In the face of a dilemma in which leaders face prolonged military failure or short-term domestic political backlash, how they reconcile decisions can indicate the workings and assumptions of their logic. All strategies are perishable. The current Russian strategy spoiled faster than expected, laying bare the assumptions the strategy was based upon. Operational realities test assumptions and create new realities. As Putin must now realize, avoiding an indefinite war of attrition necessitates adaptation in political ends or military means. Failing strategies demand remediation or a deep well of resources and domestic support. Staunch Ukrainian resistance and Western sanctions have placed Putin on the horns of a dilemma that will soon reveal the depths of that well.