Lawrence Freedman: «Putin Is Scared of the Situation in Which He Has to Explain to Russians What Has Been Achieved»

Interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman — Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London.

Lawrence Freedman / photo: ABC

On the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the «Vchasno» news agency recorded an interview with one of the world’s leading military strategists and researchers — Sir Lawrence Freedman. Next, read the professor’s opinion about why Putin needs rash attacks in Donbas, about the spring counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the way to possible diplomatic efforts to end hostilities.

«We're looking to the middle of the year when it’s going to be a movement towards some sort of diplomatic efforts to at least stop the fighting in its current form»

«Vchasno» news agency: Why does Putin now need this rash offensive in east of Ukraine (Vuhledar, Bakhmut, Mariinka and so on)? Is it part of some big offensive that Russian «military bloggers» were talking about or is this the main attack?

— I mean, it’s a surprising time to launch an offensive. The weather is suboptimal. Russian troops have been fighting hard for some time. We assumed that they’d want to replenish and restore and retrain as I think the Ukrainian forces wish to do too before they launch their offensive. So one has to assume that there’s a degree of desperation and partly frustration. I think there’s not much more to show for all the effort they’ve been putting in to the war since they had to withdraw from Kyiv and the north at the end of March, then they faced the Ukrainian offensives in September. They’ve stabilized the position a bit, but they haven’t got much to show for all their effort.

And then recognition that the Ukrainian offensive could be quite serious because Ukraine slowly, steadily is getting western equipment. That will enable them we believe to mount a much more effective offensive than the one we’ve seen from the Russians at the moment. So I think they just wanted to get things in first, possibly to disrupt Ukrainian preparations for what they wish to do, to see if they can find an area of weakness in which they can advance. But I have to use the word «underwhelming» when talking about this offensive.

We have to see if there’s more they can offer with regard to, say, bringing more aircraft into play or perhaps developing attacks from another axis. At the moment it’s largely a continuation of what went before.

Battle map as of March 2, 2023 / Source: DeepState

— You once wrote that Russia is preparing for a long war. How long and what are the signs of such preparation?

— I think these questions about timetables are quite complex because people are talking about different things. You’re already in a long war that began in 2014, and for many months of that, not a lot happened. We’ve then had this extraordinarily intensive year of violence and destruction and loss, which will carry on for a while. But it may subside and it may lead to some sort of understanding or the withdrawal of Russian troops or there may be pressures for ceasefires or whatever later in the year. Who knows? We don’t know that, but that’s different from assuming that there’s a negotiated way out that will lead to somehow normal relations between Russia and Ukraine. I think we’re a long way from that. And any negotiations, when you look at the agenda, are going to be very difficult. You’ve got reparations and war crimes, sanctions relief, definitive demarcation of boundaries and questions of language and citizenship. I mean, there are issues that will have to be sorted. That will take a long time.

So I think if one’s waiting for a negotiated outcome, you’ll have to wait for some time. But doesn’t mean to say you won’t have some sort of truce or ceasefire or disengagement agreement, which may then leave the conflict in a Korean sort of situation where you’re not actually seeing a lot of fighting and Ukraine could get on to reconstruct and address all the problems created by the war. But you couldn’t wholly say «It's over».

On February 7, 2023, the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitriy Medvedev, in his Telegram post stated that Ukraine seems to be considering the possibility of a Korean scenario in the war with Russia, seeking to become similar to South Korea and hoping for the liberation of the occupied territories.

Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, responded to Medvedev on Twitter: «Ukraine is not Korea. There will be no 38s or other parallels, the stories of others and scenarios imposed from the outside. The coordinates for „Russian warship“ to go are set, no changes are foreseen, the Defense Forces of Ukraine are working.»

— But earlier we could already observe how indirectly the Kremlin talks about the negotiations through different persons. But at this stage, it is really difficult to imagine such a scenario that Putin would be ready to abandon his plans. So what should be this turning point in the war that will make the Russian Federation beg for negotiations? Or it’s impossible?

— We've just seen a Chinese 12-point plan which really doesn’t add very much at all. I mean it’s largely just talking points. Largely on the Russian side, but it doesn’t quite endorse the Russian war aims. So I don’t think that’s going to lead to very much. I mean the difficulty for anybody who wants negotiations is that Putin gives not a hint of any interest in compromise. Listened to his two-hour speech the other day and he offers no way out of the conflict at all, and I think the reason for that is partly humiliation to end the war with everybody thinking of this as an event in which Russia has been defeated militarily, even if Ukraine hasn’t quite won back all it should. And because the way he’s defined objectives now in terms of the annexation of the four oblasts, in addition to Crimea, means he needs to take more Ukrainian territory. And if he can’t take more Ukrainian territory, then in a sense he has to recognize that these «new parts of Russia» are controlled by Ukraine.

My view therefore, I don’t think this is a unique view by any means, is that not much is going to happen until first, we see what happens with what counts as the Russian offensive at the moment and secondly what happens with the Ukrainian offensive, which Ukrainians seem to talk about as something for late April-May. That’s a while away and obviously, all sorts of things could happen over the coming weeks, depending on whether or not Russia makes any progress. So we’re looking to the middle of the year to take stock again and I think that’s when it’s going to be a movement towards some sort of diplomatic efforts to at least stop the fighting in its current form. I may be wrong, but I think essentially people are waiting to see what happens on the battlefield.

Putin’s speech on February 21, 2023 / photo: DW

«Putin believes that this is really about Russia versus the West»

— What does Putin is hoping for? I mean he hopes that Ukraine will give up and the West will stop supporting Ukraine? Or what is going on in his mind, I really don’t understand.

— We've spent a long time trying to work out what’s going on in Putin’s mind. And it’s not easy. I think in Putin’s mind, at least, Putin expresses himself and it’s not all made-up, it’s what he assumes, what he believes — that this is really about Russia versus the West.

But if it is about Russia versus the West, then you would have to be quite careful about how he proceeds because the West is much stronger than Russia. His main effort to discomfort the West with energy prices and it has certainly caused the West pain. Not as much as Ukraine, but it’s caused us difficulties. But not really changed the political perspectives of Western leaders and that period of maximum vulnerability seems to be over as the prices drop and we look forward to the spring and so on. So I think his first problem is he’s framed this now as a very existential crisis for Russia, largely about its relations with the West. But he hasn’t got a way of handling that.

He hoped to coerce Ukraine into giving up by the attacks on critical infrastructure, again, you’ve been through a lot of real pain and difficulty, but you’re still there, and there’s no indication at all that Ukrainian opinion has turned and seems as determined as ever to carry on fighting. So we’re left with the battlefield as the main arena in which there can be movement. And that’s all the Putin’s got left. And I think what was striking in his speech is how little he actually spoke about what’s going on at the front. He promised the wounded better prosthetics and he promised those still fighting two weeks leave every six months, but it’s not a very inspiring prospect. So I think Putin too is probably waiting to see what happens. But it’ll be interesting because again, we know so little about what he’s told and what he believes. If he has been convinced by his advisers that something really serious can be achieved through the current offensive because they keep on hammering away, they keep on throwing men at the problem and they keep on being rebuffed.

— And if we talk about the objectives of this so-called «special military operation», I mean he gave orders to occupy Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts five or six times and Russians still can’t reach this one goal. And now they not even speaking about demilitarization and denazification. I mean what they can consider now a victory?

— Again it is a part of our difficulty because the objectives about which he spoke just before the war began of protecting the enclaves in Luhansk and Donetsk got passed. Then it was about denazification and demilitarization, as you said, and nobody was quite sure what that meant in practice given Ukraine doesn’t need to be denazified.

Then it was back to Donbas at the end of March. Then in September, he added Kherson and Zaporizhia to Donbas. So I think now it’s a sort of long-term struggle with the West. So for an ordinary Russian, it must be quite confusing.

But it also matters in terms of how he could present what was made to end the fighting. So if we go back to last March when there were quite serious negotiations going on between the two sides, there were offers of neutrality, of Ukraine not being a member of NATO, there were discussions about, you know, the Russian language, dual citizenship, water supplies to Crimea. There are all sorts of things that if he accepted while withdrawing could have been presented as achievements of a «special military operation», but that’s all passed now. I mean Ukrainian attitude, and I don’t need to tell you, has hardened. Ukrainians expect more for all the sacrifices they’ve undertaken. So it’s much harder now than it was. He had opportunities at the end of March and in September to sort of cut his losses and he hasn’t taken them. So this is why I think there’s this apprehension that this could last a long time.

It may take something happening in the Kremlin, in Moscow to create the conditions for a serious move away from warfare. But again the fact that a lot of these conversations are taking place when there hasn’t been a lot of movement on the front lines either way for some time and should that movement start, especially if it’s in Ukraine’s favor, then we’ll have to see if that shakes up the Russian system and makes them look for different ways out. It’s not there at the moment, but I think that’s the whole point of the next stage of military operations.

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Turkey / photo: BBC

— While he lost opportunities and all this uncertainty in some questions, what level of dissatisfaction with his actions inside of Russia? I mean among the population, among elites, and among the military, because we’ve already seen conflict between the last one. I mean between a private group of «Wagner» and the Ministry of Defense of Russia.

— It's hard to know for someone who is not there. The polling suggests that there’s a chunk of the population that’s up for war, quite excited by it. Very nationalist. There’s a chunk of the population that’s very unhappy, many of them have left. And then there’s a lot in the middle just watching, patriotic and they don’t want to see their country humiliated but are worried about where it’s all leading. So far, not really making that much of an impression on Russian policy, though I suspect the Kremlin worries about it. But I’ll worry more about attitudes within the elite, and I’ve always thought that the best chance which doesn’t mean the likely chance of unlocking this from the Russian side is for the Russian military to start to worry about their condition, about their long term, about how they keep this going. It’s not just a question of artillery stocks they’ve lost or even the loss of soldiers who they may consider to be quite expendable, but they have lost a lot of their young officers, a lot of their best kit and they’re still losing it faster than they can make it up.

And if they’re pushed back then the humiliation and the reputational damage that they may face may encourage them to say, you know, «Look, we need to think about some way of giving ourselves a chance to recover and reconstitute and prepare again for the long term», so that again everything takes us back to the situation on the ground. If that can be moved to Ukraine’s advantage, as I hope, then that’s the only way I can see to get movement at the moment. Otherwise, Putin is sort of prepared for the long term.

«Russians stuck with these sorts of grinding attritional advances without quite the combat power always to follow them through»

— You mentioned the shortage of artillery in the Russian army and also the big losses in their manpower. I mean, why is the Russian military tactic like that? Is that the consequence of the old Soviet school or maybe some narrow way of thinking of these commanders on the front? I mean they’re learning something, but they still act in a rather formulaic way.

— Well, I think it’s partly because of what happened in the first weeks of the year (2022) when they lost a lot of professional people and a lot of the best kit. And I think that they also had to learn respect for Ukrainian capabilities and these capabilities improved. I think they’ve got real problems in logistics, not that they can’t supply, but the means of supplying the front has become more inefficient because of the ability of Ukrainian forces to target material relatively close to the first line. I think that’s also affecting their ability to concentrate forces for offensives because again, we’ve seen Ukrainian artillery in that sense being used quite effectively.

And I suspect just in a traditionally they see soldiers as an expendable resource. This is especially true with the sort of «Wagner» criminals. True with the «LNR» and «DNR» forces who were also used as sort of second-rate soldiers. I think it’s slightly more problematic with the «mobics» as to how much they can use them in that way, I think they’re a bit bereft of ideas because they don’t really have a strong capacity for maneuvering at the moment. And maneuvering is difficult anyway. I mean, it’s not as if Ukraine is necessarily going to find it that easy, but Russia since the first days of the war has not really tried very much, so I think they’re just a bit out of tactics. So they stuck with these sorts of grinding attritional advances without quite the combat power always to follow them through.

So even when they do make these tactical breakthroughs they can’t build another, but you know this may change. We’re watching the situation in Bakhmut anxiously. We were told after Soledar that Bakhmut was going to fall quickly. I think it has suited the Ukrainian Stuff as long as they can keep on getting reinforcements themselves to Bakhmut to let the Russians funnel forces in that direction because of the attrition that is being caused. Obviously with a lot of pain to Ukraine as well. So I just don’t see how the Russians know how to abandon this. Instead of just trying «That's not working, we’ll go somewhere else», once they’ve committed in this sort of way, the idea of having to withdraw seems to be quite difficult. So I suspect that they may or may not create a situation in which it’s prudent for Ukraine to evacuate, but for the moment they’re sort of stuck with trying to push forward to take a city that’s a very little strategic benefit, particularly at the moment.

Bakhmut / photo: 93th brigade

— Can the Western weapon that will come to Ukraine in the coming weeks change the situation on the battlefield?

— Without these weapons, Ukraine would be in more difficulty. There’s clearly an important short-term need that is hard to fulfill for ammunition, especially for the armor and artillery sort of the Soviet era. So that’s quite urgent and probably
the area of greatest difficulties, I think.

I think the more modern equipment takes time to be delivered to work out the maintenance procedures and to train people to use them, but they’re already starting to arrive in numbers. And I think if the Ukrainian General stuff is wise, by large they’ve been and is patient, which may be difficult because you have to see what the Russians are up to, then by this spring Ukrainians will be ready for the sort of offensive that they haven’t been able to mount before and which the Russians don’t seem to be able to mount now. And there must be a big test because, you know, the experience up to now is that the defense is stronger than the offense, that entrenched defenses have been able to impose a lot of damage on those attacking them. There’s largely been Ukrainians damaging Russians, but it has been the other way around as well, so I think one of the interesting questions at the moment is whether the Russians deplete their capabilities by trying their own offensive and opening up areas that Ukraine can exploit when it gets around to an offensive.

I am not making a prediction on that, but that’s one of the questions. Just as when Russia moved to block a Ukrainian offensive in Kherson they left themselves vulnerable in Kharkiv, which obviously was one of the most impressive breakthroughs on the Ukrainian side of the war.

— Surovikin was a fan of the strategy of defense. I think he proposed to make a defense and then plan a Russian counteroffensive after the Ukrainian offensive. But Gerasimov is in charge now in Russia and I think he has his own vision of how it works. What can we see from him in the following weeks?

— Well there’s a number of things going on in all of this. I think there are power struggles within Russia. Surovikin, Prigozhin and «Wagner», the Chechens — Shoigu and Gerasimov felt being challenged by that group and you’re still seeing it obviously going on with Prigozhin claiming that his forces are being denied artillery deliberately.

So I think part of all of this is Putin keeping the loyalists in charge, the people who’ve been with him for years. But these people delivered the first offensive, which wasn’t a great success. And so there’s no particular evidence that Gerasimov is an imaginative and inspiring commander, and that he has a different plan, whereas his predecessor at least knew how to organize defenses, which he did quite well. It’s unfortunate, but he did it quite well whereas Gerasimov has shown no particular aptitude for operations of this sort, and my guess is he’s probably not actually that involved in sort of detailed planning and would be leaving it to a subordinate. I think he’s somebody who Putin says to do this, he’ll try and do whatever it is.

So I think in the end there’s a degree of desperation in this. They need a successful offensive and they don’t want to concede the initiative to Ukraine.

«When you listen to Putin, it’s sometimes as if he’s on another planet»

— We see the military, political, social and economic degradation in Russia. It seems like Russia can have a future only after Putin.

— Yeah, I think that’s true. I think Russia would be better off without Putin. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who can make that choice for them. It’s not really how they can make that choice either. They’ve got elections in 2024. But on past experience. Putin won’t be troubled by those, I think.

You come back again to whether this famous Russian sort of stoicism fatalism, endurance is enough whether there’s going to be more dissatisfaction with the turn of events or with where it’s all leading. And again, I’m not claiming to know the answer to that, but I think one of the reasons Putin doesn’t want a piece of negotiation or even necessarily a ceasefire is that he is scared of the reckoning, of the situation in which he has to explain what has been achieved.

And was all the cost of the loss of 20 years of development worth it? I think those are questions he wants to avoid. I mean, you know, Ukraine will face some of those questions as well, but with a different experience and different expectations. We have to question how long Putin can keep going without anything to show for it?

And what we’ve been doing for a year is trying to speculate what’s going on in the Kremlin, how they really view it. Do they actually understand what the situation is at the front? Is Putin only told what he wants to hear and does he believe it?

— Yeah, it’s a good question. Because sometimes there is a feeling that he does not quite realize the real situation. Why can it be this way? Because he surrounds himself with people who only give him the information he wants?

— He doesn’t surf the Internet and he’s not looking for his own independent sources. So he is looking to people he trusts to tell him that it’s all OK now, and there have been moments when the army has clearly told him it’s not OK. I think those moments were middle of March and the middle of September. I think he couldn’t escape the trouble the Russian forces were getting into.

But other than that, you don’t get a sense from him of even interest in the practicalities, the issues that President Zelenskyy talks about and, you know, without being that involved in military decision making he knows what the military issues are. When you listen to Putin, it’s sometimes as if he’s on another planet, he’s still just very distant from the front line.

The interview with Lawrence Freedman was recorded on February 24, 2023

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