Dissecting Putin's 'Military Mind'

Published March 2nd, 2022 - 09:14 GMT
Ukraine tanks on the streets of Lviv
In the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. (AFP File Photo)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine was fundamentally ignited by the geopolitical worldview of the Russian Federation’s ruling clan.

Having started their careers in the intelligence and security apparatus of the Soviet Union, and having seen the collapse of the empire, the siloviki elite of Russia consider contemporary sovereign Ukraine to be a “geopolitical anomaly” on their doorstep. 

Thus, the possibility of Ukraine becoming a NATO member one day is far beyond the Cold War-remnant imaginations of President Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer, and his faithful followers in the Russian Security Council. Alexander Gabuev describes the ideological mindset of Russia’s strongmen to be an “odd amalgam of Soviet nostalgia, great-power chauvinism and the trappings of the Russian Orthodox faith.” This dangerous trio is evident in Putin’s ambitious paper arguing the inevitable unity of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

The ongoing war, which has recently seen the notable launching of the Russian military’s Iskander missiles from Belarus and the pounding of Ukrainian territory, is merely the manifestation of Putin’s article via armed forces.

Russians not fighting like Russians 

The military-geostrategic character of the Russo–Ukrainian War interestingly resembles the initial stages of the 1973 Arab–Israeli bonanza, known as the Yom Kippur War. Then, the two main fronts of the conflict, Sinai and Golan Heights, were shaped by distinctly different warfighting and operational art trends. From a military standpoint, this is more or less tantamount to the present situation in Ukraine.

The Russian advance is unexpectedly slow in the north. At the time of writing, the Russian combat formations were short of outflanking the capital Kiev, and they could not capture the railways-hub city of Kharkiv. The logistics appear to be badly coordinated. The Russian armoured platforms were not stopped by the Ukrainian terrain’s infamous Rasputitsa, the early-spring muddy roads, but simply because they were out of fuel.

Even more bizarrely, the Russians have not been fighting like Russians in terms of doctrinal approach and concepts of operations (CONOPS). Military literature suggests that the current Russian way of fighting is centred on Soviet Red Army-fashion echeloned offensives, with motor-rifle brigades forming the first wave, followed by heavy tank divisions secondly, and Rosgvardia (the National Guard) personnel as the final wave for protecting critical facilities and pacifying any local resistance. 

Instead, so far, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation have been sending in small airborne troops detachments and reconnaissance units. We have not seen combined arms warfare or massive armoured assaults – yet. More importantly, we have not seen principal manoeuvre units, first and foremost the First Guards Tanks Army, staging breakthrough operations from the forward-assembly areas in Belgorod pushing all the way into Kharkiv.

I believe the above-mentioned shortfalls pertain to two major mistakes by the Russian planners.

The first misstep has emanated from the imperfect intelligence preparation of the battleground. Having misjudged the discipline and warfighting will of the Ukrainian security forces, Moscow leadership expected an inevitable collapse of the Ukraine Armed Forces following the first shots fired in the streets of Kiev. That did not happen. 

The Ukrainian military focused on conducting mobile defence operations, which is a dynamic defensive strategy centred on counter-attacks when the adversary is overstretched, the waging of systematic manoeuvre warfare when defending, and the smart management of reserve forces. 

The second mistake stemmed from the Russian Airborne Forces’ (VDV) opening moves in the Antonov Airport on the outskirts of Kiev. Apparently, the Russian plot aimed to take control of the facility through the elite VDV pioneers, then use the airport as a “portal” to bring follow-on units into the Ukrainian capital and insert a puppet regime. 

The Ukrainian security forces repelled the air-assault operation time and again. Importantly, the Ukrainian military has also developed close cooperation with the local populace who have helped defy various penetration attempts behind the frontlines.

Overall, the northern sector was not the best of the news for Putin’s plans for what used to be the “Kievan Rus” which he sees as the heartland of the Russian identity.

Southern exception

The south of Ukraine, however, is a different story. Despite personnel and material losses, the Russian military has fought its way deep into southern Ukraine. At the time of writing, the cities of Melitopol and Berdyansk have been captured by the Russian Federation, putting the coastal city of Mariupol in a very dangerous envelope from the west and the breakaway Donetsk in the east. The US Naval Institute even reported an amphibious landing some 30 miles (48 kilometres) from Mariupol a few days ago.

The port city of Odessa, on the other hand, is always under threat. Russia had already flexed its amphibious muscles before the conflict erupted. As of early February, detachments from the 810th  Naval Infantry Brigade were put on high-alert, conducting exercises. The unit is garrisoned in Crimea and can be deployed at any time. Open-source intelligence suggests that the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade was brought from the Pacific area, and elements from the 366th brigade had left Kaliningrad before the war for the Black Sea. 

Overall, the Russian marines, in coordination with the Black Sea Fleet, VDV units in the south (the 7th Division elements deployed in Crimea), and the army formations (including the 58th Army elements brought in from Kavkaz) can stage a joint attempt to seize the heart of Ukrainian trade.

The south can hold more dangerous results for Ukraine if not addressed properly. Russia cutting off Ukraine from Black Sea access, for instance, would be the true nightmare scenario.

What next?

The war is not over. The Russians have not fought well, that is for sure. Yet, Putin can always resort to his heavyweight fighters, like the First Guards Tank Army and the 20th Combined Arms Army deployed all the way from Klintsy to Kursk, and from Belgorod to Voronezh. 

The Russian military is also bringing in dangerous weaponry, such as the TOS-1 thermobaric multiple-launch rocket systems. Besides, open-source intelligence showcases a massive air assault buildup in Belarus. Ukraine is still under grave threat.

The Zelenksyy administration and the Ukrainian people showed heart to weather the first wave of the storm. But, militarily, Putin can still win as he enjoys stronger cards. Should the spy-chief President of Russia lose in Ukraine, he might have bigger troubles at home in Moscow than restoring the Soviet empire in Kiev. After all, a Russian president cannot look weak. Otherwise, he will not have to worry about the Ukrainian generals but his own.

Dr Can Kasapoglu is director of the defense research program at EDAM and a fellow on ‘Eurasian Military Affairs’ at the Jamestown Foundation. He holds a PhD from the Turkish War College and an MSci degree from the Turkish Military Academy and was an Eisenhower Fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome. 


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