FY23 SCSS#8, 16 May 2023: “What If?” Russian Variables, Inflection Points and Game Changers

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 16 May 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Berlin, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. 


Our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West. SCSS#08 attends to the impact of Russia’s war of imperial aggression on Ukraine on Russia itself.

Narrative Matters

US stakeholders have attempted to shift the narrative over the war’s duration in the context of Ukraine’s slowly unfolding counter-offensive.  The assumption is that it will result in a ceasefire leading to negotiations and then sustainable strategic stability. European partners (Germany, France, the UK) will step up and give additional support to arming Ukraine. Shifting the narrative over war duration seeks to diminish it as an issue in the presidential election campaign in 2024.  

However, expectations are too high and pay too little attention to Russian military adaptation and learning over the last year: Russia has readied itself for a long war. They also down play intra-European divisions over the role of the EU and NATO in collective security and crisis management in the neighborhood.  In addition, there is no clear consensus over “when” (and in some cases “if”), Ukraine should gain NATO membership, despite ongoing “creeping” integration via interoperability and training and, ultimately, no clear security guarantee alternative to NATO membership.

President Putin’s calculus is that the longer the war lasts, the less Western resolve to support Ukraine and so the greater pressure on Ukraine for a ceasefire (effectively one on Russian terms).  A protracted war, such thinking goes, exposes tensions between Western elites willing to offer Ukraine reassurance and western societies willing to link rising living standards and lower energy prices to war termination at any price. Russian disinformation operations can and do accelerate such splits.

Countries in the “Global South” may condemn Russia’s invasion but do not support Western sanctions. In line with Russian propaganda, Russia is not understood to be an imperial or colonial but rather one that resists US influence in the world. Such sentiments are partly influenced by the perception of US global withdrawal in recent years, a diminution in Western soft power, Russia’s growing presence in resultant security vacuums and China’s systematic engagement with these countries. President Biden’s “democracy vs autocracy” black-and-white narrative does not acknowledge the reality of a “hedging middle” in a fragmented and nuanced world.  

Russia’s own main narrative is that its regime has stabilized. Society and elites have converged and consolidated not fractured. The regime can calibrate fear and repression, curtail or grant personal mobility and project via propaganda the patina of stability and the hopelessness of instability. This narrative suggests Russia has sufficient resources to sustain itself, sanctions are ineffective, and that as there is no chance to change Russia’s strategic behavior, there is no option but to negotiate.

Russia can spin all outcomes short of military-political strategic defeat in Ukraine as a “debatable victory”: “we took what we needed to take and now we are holding the line”. If Putin remains president, battlefield defeat will be understood as “regrouping”.  Even in the case of Ukrainian victory, Russia will argue that this outcome represents the “triumph of the hegemon”.   Russia was right but lost: “we took on the west and we lost because they dominate and are too powerful”. 

Losing in Ukraine allows Russia to address the larger threat – the “hegemonic colonial West” – at a global level and quietly reconstitute to retake Ukraine. “We fought the good fight but lost” narrative is dangerous as it stores up trouble for the future by suggesting Russia won the “moral argument”, but only lost the first round of the war.  The perceived benefits of ceasefire, armistice, peace treaty all remain out of reach until Russia can reconstitute its combat capability and returns to negotiate from a position of some strength. Putin and his propaganda apparatus can work to explain why Russia lost and why Russians should not feel bad about it. The “Stab in the back” myth will rest on a seductive populist notion that “Russia lost” because it was defeated by the foolishness and corruption of its own elites, elites that only held Russia back. Prigozhin’s power is rooted in his ability to channel and parrot such populist sentiment. Such narratives set the stage for “restoration”.  

Over the longer term though, Russia’s 2023 in Ukraine may be akin to Britain and 1956 (Suez) or France in 1962 (Algeria). That is to say, in 2023 Russia is forced to confront its imperial past.  In this year of reckoning, Russia like Britain and France before it, shifts from imperial mindset to “end of empire” mentality.  Russia gradually accepts that it no longer has the resources or the capacity to have global influence as an imperial player. Other alternative narratives include “triumph of the people/narod” alongside the “failure of Putinism” and the Putin model. 

What is not clear is how Russia’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine and its outcome and aftermath impact Russia and other post-Soviet countries. From a Russian perspective, a post-Soviet shift has occurred: Central Asia and the South Caucuses have become more important, if only to circumvent sanctions and develop new trade routes and they are more present. This shift reflects a weakened Russia, but one that is paying more attention and is more involved in Eurasia. The West needs to be more involved in these regions too.

The public personae of Wagner PMC head Prigozhin and Chechen President Kadyrov exist within a social media bubble.  Rather than being powerful in the system, they are in fact weakening.  They attract media attention and in doing so distract and obscure the importance of other key players with much greater resources and staying power.  Russia becomes more and more a black box, a hall of mirrors, a regime within which perception and reality merge towards mirage.  Any tracking of trends must accept this reality.

The West needs to invest in better information policy and create a coherent and compelling narrative identifying a Ukrainian “theory of victory” based on sustainment in a protracted conflict.  Such a narrative can argue that the costs of support are high but the costs will be higher if sustainment fails and Ukraine does not prevail. In a narrative conflict the need for narrative control is paramount.

Perspectives on Russia

Optimism about Russia and its prospects demands a long-term perspective.  Russia’s development trajectory in the mid- and long term will be influenced by its current brain drain (“the best and the brightest”), its disastrous demographic developments, relative technological backwardness and the degeneration of society and elites, who become less dynamic, more insular, more anti-Western and more China-dependent.  Whether Ukraine is a part of NATO or apart from NATO, Russia will be central to Ukraine’s long-term security in either case. A democratic, stable and prosperous Russia is Ukraine’s ultimate security guarantee. In reality, three key variables or possibilities may determine how Russia evolves and emerges and all revolve around the issue of war termination. Assuming the war does end – how does it?

Might it end in “Russian victory”? If so, this least likely option would suggest “victory” is redefined down, towards a minimalist definition.  Nonetheless, declaration of “Russian victory” consolidates Putin and his regime’s imperial venture and at the same time ensures a semi-permanent breach with the West. If rather the outcome is “Ukrainian victory” – Ukraine defeats Russia on the battlefield and regains its 1991 borders – will Russia as a threat be neutralized in practical terms? Do guarantees come in terms of treaty or agreement?  Just as it is unclear who defines victory, only the loser decides when it is defeated, particularly if that “loser” is Russia.

Even as Putin attempts to hold back the tides of time (Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, humiliated by marginalization, is not allowed to retire at 72), elite succession has already begun.  Lavrov aside, the generation of 68-72-year-old former KGB operatives are midwives to a new younger generation of klepto-technocratic manager-administrators, who gradually replace the older coterie around Putin.  They are pragmatists more focused on personal wealth than aged ideologues invested in Russian glory, but equally as hostile to the West as Putin.  Their gradual asset is more a guarantor of policy continuity than change.  Ideological and military indoctrination of Russia’s youth, with an education policy overseen by First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergei Kiriyenko, ensuring generational hostility to the West.

Two figures are characteristic of this generation: Alexei Dyumin, Governor of Tula Region and a decorated former Presidential Protective Service officer, and Deputy Prime Minister for Construction Marat Khusnullin.  Dyumin maintains ties to the security services but represents Tula in Moscow more than Moscow in Tula.  Khusnullin oversees the lucrative task of restoring infrastructure in the occupied territories and is able to funnel contracts to companies in Tatarstan, but maintains good relations with the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko in Putin’s inner circle as well as Moscow Mayor Sobyanin. Both Dyumin and Khusnullin highlight the growing influence of reginal elite figures and their networks, a gradual rise that slowly erodes and eats into the interests of the inner presidential circle.

What will be Western reaction to Russia’s defeat? Is there an offer that is not Versailles (“stab in the back”) or Munich (concessions understood as appeasement inviting further conquest)? How to modulate and balance the needs for retribution and reparations with desired outcomes over time: Russia’s reintegration into Euro-Atlantic space?  What incentive is there for Russia to address its responsibilities?  With sanctions still in place, long-term economic scarring will be serious. Post-Putin Russia will be characterized by greater regionalism, as failure will be more associated with Moscow.  Different regions will demand more from Moscow and if more is not forthcoming, they will steal from it.  China’s role in this context – one that optimizes benefits for China – will be critical.

Cracks in the system leading to palace coup or revolution have not occurred and the West’s ability to influence Russia through cooperative public diplomacy or coercive sanctions appear much less than supposed.  Elites can reconcile corruption and bank accounts in the West with holding power and propagating an anti-Western narrative: incongruity in ideals and action are not self-evident. Putin’s regime leaves only space for supporters of the regime – there is no grey space or scope for non-alignment, let alone neutrality or resistance.  The most progressive and liberal part of society has left the country.  The Russian opposition and surviving elements in its civil society are divided and no major emerging actor is focused on regime change. 

It is clear that Russia has socialized the West over the last 30 years more than the West has socialized Russia: normative transfer by osmosis has not worked. Western policy failures in the 1990s are evident. Propaganda and repression locks-in Russian elites and society around beliefs of the state as savior and the enduring status of Russia’s imperial past and legacy into the present. The ideal of a free and democratic Russia was suspended when the West acquiesced in both the storming of the Supreme Soviet in October 1993 and the falsifications of Yeltsin’s second term presidential election in 1996. Short-term opportunistic fixes and expedients designed to stabilize Russia helped generate cynicism inside of Russia and enable interest groups that were inherently autocratic to create a Russia which now exports instability to its neighbors.  An “anti-fragile” Russia needs external friction to manage its elites and society as it is vulnerable to tranquility.    

Russia appears resilient and stable, more so than the Soviet Union, but is it in fact unbending but brittle? Rosgvardia social media chat-rooms highlight unhappiness ad a heightened sense of risk in Russia. What type of systemic crisis might trigger change: Russian military culmination in Ukraine? A rolling economic crisis? Putin becomes incapacitated or dies? The need to evade blame and responsibility for the evident failures of Russia’s “special military operation” creates a destabilizing dynamic: “national patriots” must identify and scapegoat “national traitors” – the 5th and 6th columnist (a 6th columnist is a 5th columnist who is unaware of the “fact”) who are still alive and malevolent in Putin’s Russia.  Given non-systemic opposition are in prison or dead and Russia’s so-called “systemic opposition” are irrelevant regime placemen and loyalists, the stage is stage is set for intra-elite conflict.  Narrative control, framing and agenda setting goes to first mover: getting one’s retaliation in first is a must in Putin’s winner-takes-all system.

In military, economic and demographic terms, a defeated Russia is inevitably a much weaker adversary than it was on 23 February 2022.  Western Investment in deterrent capabilities will be less costly than if the conflict remains protracted, frozen, leads to a negotiated settlement or Ukraine’s defeat. A weaker Russia is not necessarily synonymous with a weak Russia. Russia can be a spoiler able to impact its neighbors, though with less resources and degraded set of capabilities.  Russia’s capacity and will to reconstitute its conventional combat capability after Putin is a “known unknown”.  The loser decides when it has lost.  If Russia is militarily defeated in Ukraine, it will only be when the hybrid phase of the conflict ends that Russia acknowledges this defeat.


What kind of Russia do we want to integrate? Ukraine as the victim of Russian aggression can identify what it considers to be an acceptable Russian end state, within the bounds of what is possible.  Just as we need a theory of victory for Ukraine, we also need a theory for managing Russia’s defeat. We need to have a long-term vision and long-term policy that acknowledges that without fixing Russia, we cannot fix Ukraine.  Until Russian society addresses its own responsibility for its invasion and admit collective fault and the reality of its toxic imperial past, society will not support an alternative to Putin. One beacon of hope may be the Russian diaspora who are better able to redefine their understanding of Russia’s imperial past and elaborate an alternative post-imperial future.  

The political West can define the conditions under which it is prepared to engage with Russia, aware of the emerging trade-offs and strategic dilemmas.  If we build a Euro-Atlantic system fit for purpose then it must exclude and contain Russia conditioned on Russia changing its strategic behavior.  A different Russia can be gradually reintegrated into Euro-Atlantic space. This process at best will take two generations, that is, 30 years. The West’s offer is gradual integration in return for standards compliance and behavioral changes. An excluded and rejected Russia will enable revanchist post-Putin elites to stoke feelings of resentment, anger and revenge in society.  To avoid this, we may build a Euro-Atlantic system that includes Russia in the hope of encouraging future behavioral change. If so, then the system will not be fit for purpose.  Western policy risks floundering between the Scylla of inevitable Russian resentment and the Charybdis of appeasement.

There is no strategic blueprint that has charted the likely contours of Russia’s end state and its implications, let alone identified which policy mix would promote the most desirable outcome and mitigate against the worst. Mapping is needed to allow us to choose the least bad options available and navigate between the inevitable trade-offs, back lashes and disappointments, as well as embrace emergent opportunities, learn from the last 30 years of engagement and value strategic patience.  


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Mark Galeotti, Stefan Meister and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

Berlin, 16 May 2023.

My adventures in Russian (mis)translation

“Washington’s dove of peace. Although they are sneakily disguising it, they cannot hide its dirty gut!”

Once, Russian sites such as InoSMI would run accurate translations of Western articles, but with acid little commentaries or new titles. These days, it is often the case that Russian news outlets will instead offer up doctored versions, slanted to reassure Russians that the West is divided and near collapse and its people unhappy with policy over Russia and Ukraine (I talk a little more about this in my latest podcast).

They seem to pay a lot of attention to the Spectator (as they should), both the magazine and its online blog, and not only do the Kremlin/Kremlophile trolls flock to its comment pages, but its articles often get this treatment. My most recent piece, on the Black Sea, seems to have attracted particular attention (and PolitRossiya, apparently unaware that UCL is not UCLA, describes me as an emeritus professor at the University of California), but an especially egregious example came in the increasingly nationalist ‘news agency’ Krasnaya Vesna (‘Red Spring’).

The essence of my article was that while we focus on the land war in Ukraine, there is also a naval dimension, and this has true global significance, as evident through the Russians’ capacity to strange Ukrainian grain exports by sea, which drove up prices worldwide. Although Crimea’s political future is a complex issue, so long as the peninsula is both Russian-controlled and heavily militarised, then it can disrupt activities in the Black Sea. That’s the nutshell version – do feel free to read the full version, as well as the Council on Geostrategy report I highlight.

So, what did Krasnaya Vesna make of this? This is their piece (run through Google Translate, which generally does a decent job with Russian), in italics, with a few annotations of my own:

Spectator: naval bases in Crimea make Russia stronger than NATO in the Black Sea

OK, just for the record, this is not what I say…

Naval bases in Crimea make Russia stronger than NATO in the Black Sea. This point of view was expressed by Spectator columnist Mark Galeotti on May 14, the newspaper writes.

“As long as Russian forces are deployed in Crimea, the Black Sea will obey the will of Moscow – to threaten and suppress,” Galeotti believes.

According to him, “what is happening now in the Black Sea does not remain in the sea, and the waves of what happened are spreading all over the globe. ”

Galeotti cited examples where NATO air forces failed in a collision with Russian fighters.

Well, I talk of the civilian Polish plane almost forced into the sea by a Russian jet, the American drone which was crashed, and the British reconnaissance plane that a Russian fighter accidentally shot at… only for the missile fortunately to malfunction

In his opinion, NATO has long considered the Black Sea region a front line with Russia.

“And Crimea is both a platform for Russian strikes and a target for retaliatory Ukrainian air and sea attacks,” the observer emphasizes.

“It is Crimea that becomes the reason that the forces of the NATO countries arrange provocations here near the Russian borders. The purpose of these provocations is to challenge the influence of the Kremlin in the waters of the sea, which the West seeks to control ,” Galeotti concludes.

This is simply made up. I’ve looked carefully at my text to see if there is anything that could innocently or wilfully be read as this, and I find nothing. All there is, is a reference to Western FONOPs — Freedom of Navigation operations — in international waters. Like, say, the spy ship Viktor Leonov off the US coast. Or the missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the North Sea. Both this year; both Russian; both unhindered; but apparently neither a ‘provocation’.

Of course, disinformation is a tool of war as old as history, but this is not directed externally. It’s in Russian, for a Russian audience. This, alas, is the new line, trying desperately – including relying on outright fabrication – to persuade Russians that the evil West is out to get them. How long before we see the old-fashioned clumsy Soviet propaganda cartoons like the one above, with fanged, fat American soldiers and their bloodthirsty top-hatted or cigar-smoking capitalist masters?

FY23 SCSS#7, 18 April 2023: “The United States-Germany and Ukraine”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 18 April 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West. SCSS#07 attends to the nature and strength of US and German political, economic, and military support for the Ukraine and identifies factors/dynamics that might change commitment levels.  The seminar also characterizes Nordic-Baltic support for Ukraine following Finland’s accession into NATO, before concluding.  

Germany’s Zeitenwende Support for Ukraine:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an unthinkable shock to the German political elite, heightening perceptions of a direct military threat to Germany for the first time since the end of the Cold War.  Chancellor Olaf Scholtz delivered his Zeitenwende (“change-in-times”) speech and in absolute numbers Germany has delivered.  Germany is one of the biggest givers of financial, economic, and humanitarian support to Ukraine and this support was instrumental in Ukraine continuing to function over the winter of 2022/2023 and in helping Ukraine to rebuild what Russia has destroyed and increase the resilience of Ukrainian society.  However, when adjusted for wealth and size of population, Germany does not provide as much as Poland or the Baltic States. 

The invasion of Ukraine challenged “old thinking” in German policy circles characterized by ‘steady state’ notions of restraint, incrementalism, cautious multilateralism and value-neutral relations with Russia and China.  Given its starting point, Germany has had to change faster and further than any other European country, with Ukraine excepted.  In terms of energy policy, Germany switched from Russian gas to renewals and LNG.  Here changes were not gradualist but dramatic and decisive.  By contrast, defense gaps are evident.  A fully equipped German NATO division by 2025 able to “hold its own in high-intensity combat” will only be able to “fulfil its obligations to NATO to a limited extent” and manpower shortages are a constant.    

How can we explain this mixed picture? First, “new thinking” has yet to fully take root as initial threat assessment of Russia in February 2022 have diminished over time. Germany’s political elite is driven by fear and self-deterrence.  This can be attributed to socialization and experience. German finds itself in a new strategic environment, without a map or compass. Those currently in government have never been trained in thinking of categories of existentialism: war and peace; life and death.  The default thinking is: “if we don’t think about war, it just won’t happen”.  For many in the elite, including the Chancellor’s Office, the new reality (war is not only “thinkable” but it is happening) challenges their prior assumptions and narratives and represents a legitimation threat to their role as political actors and influencers.

Second, for the wider business elite, Germany’s Wohlstand (prosperity) business model built on high end manufacturing using cheap Russian energy was challenged by the new reality.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shed light on the scale and depth of connections and networks between leading politicians (for example, former Chancellor Schroeder), business interests, policies and personal interest and wealth.  Third, a core focus of the current Chancellor’s Office is maintaining societal cohesion, reducing friction and keeping Germany united.  On 2 February 2023 a Forsa opinion poll asked the question if “the problems of Ukraine matters for Germany and if it should get involved”: only 43% agreed with the proposition, down 11% from February 2022.  The three-party coalition (Liberals, Green’s and SPD) are subject to factional infighting and support for Ukraine could become a political issue if a consensus is broken.  This promotes incrementalism in policy formulation rather than decisive advances.

In the defense and security field, one minister of defense, whose tenure was characterized by inaction, has been replaced with another, Boris Pistorius.  After the delay in sending main battle tanks, the German government quickly approved Poland request to give 5 Cold War era MiG-29 acquired from Germany in 2004 to Ukraine. The decision to send main battle tanks has taken a questioning of German military support to Ukraine off the domestic debate table and broken the logjam.   

However, a more forward-leaning Pistorius faces a daunting and interlinked agenda: supporting Ukraine; rebuilding Germany’s hollowed-out armed forces; and determining German contribution to European defense.  Questions abound: What role will Germany take in rebuilding Ukraine after the war?  How will Germany contribute to help Ukraine defend itself against and deter Russia? What will Germany’s position be on security guarantees, particularly on Ukraine joining NATO?  

US Commitment to Ukraine:

The size of financial, humanitarian and military aid packages and assistance to Ukraine and the consensus voting for them demonstrate strong bipartisan consensus within the political establishment to continue such support.  A standalone bill in May 2022 was passed 86: 11 in the Senate and 356: 57 in the House.  However, current US commitment masks a growing opposition to Ukrainian solidarity, evident in the “far left” and “far right” wings of the Democrat and Republican parties. Interestingly, such opposition is based on different reasoning.   

On the “far left” we see parallels with German discourse, as progressive politicians and organizations highlight notions of “peace is good and war is bad”.  Here we see a tendency to push for peace at any cost and oppose military assistance to other countries no matter the strategic rationale, interest at stake or obligation under Article 51 of the UN Charter (“right of self-defense”).  The “far right” is potentially more influential in US politics.  It channels a long history of isolationism, a tradition reinvigorated by the Trump presidency.  Aspiring Republican Party presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis seek to gain support from this bloc.  DeSantis argues against “as long as it takes” by promising “no blank check diplomacy”, characterizes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” (though this statement was “walked back”) and points to more pressing priorities, such as “the Mexican border” and China’s “near peer” threat to US interests.

If Russia’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine bleeds over in 2024, fatigue could become a factor, particularly in the context of a US presidential election, a polarized US electorate and bitterly partisan politics. Three factors promote continued commitment and so mitigate these trends.  First, mainstream bipartisan support for Ukraine remains strong, with still a comfortable margin of error in voting for further assistance bills for Ukraine. This provides a buffer.  Second, the potential success of Ukraine’s counter offensive in terms of further substantial territorial gains will solidify the perception that with a little more western assistance Ukraine can “finish the job”.  Such perceptions consolidate support.  Conversely, though, failure of the counter-attacks to regain territory will reinforce the perception of a stalemate and pressure to “push for a peace” deal, or at least a negotiated armistice, will increase. Third, Russian conduct in the war – new attacks on civilians and revelations of atrocities in occupied territories – may result in a surge of sympathy for Ukraine and strengthen American commitment. A potential Black Swan can be identified, namely the US debt ceiling and US debt default that could place economic and financial constraints on US support for Ukraine.

A part of the US defense community understands China as a US priority.  Attrition of Russia in Ukraine “sequences the threats” but military and financial support for Ukraine runs the danger of placing the US in a position where it cannot effectively support Taiwan due to depletion of resources that cannot be replaced quickly. The US seeks to balance support for Ukraine with holding materiel in reserve for a potential future contingency, not just in Asia but also potentially a spillover from Ukraine into a Russian war with NATO or NATO member state.  

In addition, US commitment to managed or calibrated support for Ukraine is also informed by the notion that too sudden or total a Russian defeat risks either a “Putin panics” moment, where Putin orders the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons, leading to wider regional instability or Russian civil war and the disintegration of the Russian Federation (“loose nukes or warlords”).  A slower more gradual defeat normalizes Russian responses and lowers the risk of nuclear escalation. Lastly, the US has allocated a certain amount of money to Ukraine assistance.  This results in trade-offs that affect the nature of military assistance, since major platforms such as F-16 are expensive, and providing them means that the US has less money to pay for more immediately useful supplies such as shells for Ukrainian artillery or replacement air defense missiles.  

Nordic-Baltic Solidarity for Ukraine

Nordic-Baltic is more united in their support and solidarity for Ukraine than ever before. Germany, despite by geography and coastline constituting a Baltic state, is not considered part of this community, as its unwavering support for the Nordstream project alienated and antagonized its partners in the region and soured relations.

Nuances in Baltic-Nordic support are apparent.  The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Poland are very vocal in their support for Ukraine and calls to resist Russian aggression, while the four Nordic states (Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden) are less vocal and visible but give much more unpublicized materiel assistance. 

This lower profile Nordic support can be explained by two factors.  First, the key project for Nordic states is continued NATO enlargement of Sweden, now that Finland has joined.  Swedish integration needs to be complication-free and a lower profile fits this goal.  Second, unlike in Germany or the US, there is little room for debate over Ukrainian solidarity, such is the overwhelming public and political consensus. Although the Nordic states boast a long peace building tradition, with Karl Deutsche in 1957 coining the notion of a “security community” and Johan Galtung exploring “positive” and “negative” peace, experts in this tradition view Russian internal move to dictatorship and external aggression as creating the conditions in which “peace”, including “peace talks” and a “peace settlement”, are unthinkable as long as Putin is in power.   

If Ukraine is unable to trust Putin (a target of the International Criminal Court) to negotiate a “just” or “positive peace” then support for Ukraine’s right to defend itself and de-occupy territory taken by Russia by force becomes the logical response.  This response materializes in strong Nordic support for the tank coalition and now the F-16 fighter jet coalition.  Denmark is about to retire but can now donate F-16s to Ukraine.  Norway has retired its F-16 fleet and these jets are still serviceable. (Swedish Grippen fighters and Finland F-18s are less compatible with Ukraine’s needs).  Ukraine’s need for an air force to enable combined arms counter-attacks is taken for granted in the Nordic states.  Sweden’s contribution with 155-mm howitzer (Archer) makes a significant on the battlefield as it enhances the mobility of the Ukrainian military.

The defeat of the Finnish coalition government, though, gives pause for thought.  The outgoing government did not lose the election because of policy disagreement over support for Ukraine (there is none in Finland), but because of the state of the economy. Question of money, resources and funding will loom large in the future and debates over the trade-offs inherent in materiel and financial support for Ukraine will become part of national discourse.  This will likely constrain the quantity if not quality of future support.


Trade-offs and the need to balance policy priorities are apparent in the US context between support for Ukraine and the ability to address future contingencies.  In the Nordic states it is centered on resources, funding and priorities.  Germany is developing a national security strategy. This NSS will become a litmus test for German strategic consensus, particularly as it relates to Russia and China and the balance between “old” and “new” thinking.   It will likely confirm the proposition that Germany can do “do ethical policy on Russia or China, but not both at once”.

Another theme highlighted by this seminar is what might be termed the issue of “the day after tomorrow” i.e. Ukraine’s desired end state.  In theory a “mutually hurting stalemate”, the “ripeness” of the moment or UNSC enforcement actions can all freeze a conflict and lead to peace negotiations.  In practice, Russia believes post-September 2022 referenda in the four occupied regions that it fights now on constitutionally mandated Russian territory in Ukraine.  Not only is compromise with Ukraine impossible, but according to its own self-serving narrative Russia is now being solely defensive and reactive.  Through further Russian troop mobilizations and long-game attrition, Russian “victory” is possible.  

By contrast, Ukraine’s focus is on a military “breakthrough”, leading to a culmination point within the Russian armed forces. A breakdown in the Russian narrative is likely if this “unthinkable” for Russia unfolds, leading to Ukrainian victory possible regime change in Moscow.   One success would lead to the next.   What is clear is that Russian definitions of “victory” are minimalist – take Sloviansk in Donetsk region and Zaporizhzhya (the regional capital), declare a “Korean scenario solution”, continue to sanctions-proof Russia and receive tacit support from China.  Ukraine’s definition of victory is more maximalist, predicated on a military breakthrough and Russian battlefield capitulation.  

What is viable will only come into focus on “the day after tomorrow” following Ukraine’s coming counter-attacks and data from the battlefields. Ukraine postponement of the counter offensive generates anxiety as relative success or failure will translate into different alternative future end states, from victory/defeat to protracted conflict, frozen conflict and negotiated peace. This debate has yet to take place.  When it does, it is likely that a new set of trade-offs will be discussed, based on territorial control, security guarantees – Ukraine’s future defense and deterrence capabilities – justice and reparations. Discussion should not pre-empt Ukrainian choices and decision-making but should be joined with Ukrainian leaders and strategic community as a way of understanding better trade-offs and informing choices. 

Russia’s own end-state will also come into focus.  Russia itself is too big and complex to constitute a North Korea, but Russia could impose near North Korean levels of coercion and control in the occupied territories of Crimea. Ukraine’s victory is unlikely to signal and then trigger the collapse of the Russian Federation.  Russia is less fragile and more resilient than it appears. It can absorb a defeat and survive, thanks to effective propaganda, repressive apparatus and the alibi of “escalating” to fight the political West on the “central front” for the hearts and minds of the Global South, particularly its “hedging middle”. 


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel K. Baev, Dmitry Gorenburg, Christian Mölling and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

GCMC, 18 April 2023.

Does the Tatarsky killing offer clues to what happened to the Kerch Bridge?

It is still very early to draw any kind of proper conclusions about the killing of ‘turbo-patriot’ milblogger Vladlen Tatarsky (real name Maxim Fomin) on Sunday. The current account is that a woman of oppositionist sympathies called Daria Trepova was induced to bring along a bust containing a bomb to the meeting at which he was speaking. She stayed in the audience and was later arrested. By her account, she was set up – thinking she was in effect ‘auditioning’ for a job in Kyiv, she had been given the bust in Moscow and told to give it to Tatarsky.

There does seem to be video evidence supporting the claim that she gave him the bomb (the BBC did some good work on this) and the fact that she stayed in the audience suggests she didn’t know it was going to be detonated. Admittedly, she is a convenient culprit for the state given that she had gone to anti-Putin rallies organised by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, and it is conceivable that she was in fact ‘groomed’ for this purpose by the FSB or some other agency of the state. That does seem a little unnecessarily ornate a plot, but it can’t be ruled out.

But for the sake of argument – and with the inevitable caveats that this is a preliminary thought experiment rather than a straightforward assertion – let’s accept that she was set up and that the Ukrainian state (or elements within it) were responsible (as was likely to be the case with the assassination of Daria Dugina, too). In the process I am excluding the likelihood that this was the brainchild of some likely-mythical Russian anti-regime terrorists, despite some retrospective claims, as I have seen nothing approximating real evidence that they really exist, let alone have the resources and sophistication to carry out the kind of missions they have claimed without leaving any evidence for the authorities to uncover.

Anyway, this has a couple of interesting potential implications:

1. It helps explain what happened on the Kerch bridge on 6 October 2022, when it seems (as with everything around this war, there are alternative views) that a massive truck bomb blew three spans out of the bridge and started a fire on a passing train. One striking aspect of this is that it appears that the driver, one Makhir Yusubov, was still in the truck, which raised the question of whether this was a suicide bombing (which we haven’t seen before in this conflict) or a dupe, who didn’t realise what he was hauling? If the official line on Trepova’s story is true, then it does suggest that there are those in Ukraine – whether working on official sanction or not – perfectly willing to set up civilians in order to strike at Russia and the partisans of the war.

2. How many other Trepovas are there? Such an operation is complex (not least to produce the bust-bomb with remote trigger) and could easily have fallen apart if Trepova had been less credulous, unable to bring the bomb into the meeting, late, or whatever. This helps explain the ‘why Tatarsky?’ question – in other words, was he so special to deserve such an operation. He was certainly an odious individual whom Ukrainians had every reason to see dead, but it may well be that his was only one name on a list, and there are other ruthlessly imaginative assassination projects still in train, still being prepared or awaiting a suitably gullible patsy.

Of course, as I say, it is still too soon to know quite what is going on for sure…

FY23 SCSS#6, 7 March 2023: “Ukraine and Emerging Trends in Russian and Turkish Foreign Policy”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 7 March 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  SCSS#06 focuses on the three key trends in Turkey’s relationship with Russia in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, addressing defense and security cooperation in the Black Sea region, increases cooperation between the Erdoğan and Putin governments and the changing dynamics of interdependence.  It then addresses three emerging trends in Russian foreign policy – radicalization of ideology, isolation from West and reach-out to Global South and interaction via the grey zone – before concluding.

Trends in Turkish Foreign Policy

First, we can explore the Turkey/Ukraine axis in defense cooperation.  Turkey’s trade and tourism relations with Ukraine were dominant before 2014 but after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea the diplomatic and security partnership came to the fore. Turkey supports Ukraine politically by not recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and so upholding Ukraine’s statehood (territorial integrity and sovereignty).  In military terms, Turkish production of corvettes for Ukraine’s navy, the sale of Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and plans for their joint production, and the closing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships thereby preventing escalation in the Black Sea, all help Ukraine to assert its statehood. Turkey has been instrumental in sponsoring POW swops and the grain deal. At the same time, by supporting Ukraine, Turkey is in fact strengthening its own position in the region as Ukraine helps to deter Russian expansion which is a threat to Turkey itself. 

This cooperation can form the back bone of post-war Black Sea security.  In effect, as the war progresses the Ukrainization of Turkish foreign policy drives its Westernization. However, although Russia is not a Turkish partner, let alone ally, Russia is a state with which Turkey can engage with through situational cooperation that is rooted in mutual distrust of the West: Turkey is not so much pro-Russian as anti-Western. Turkey also benefits economically with Russia from commercial trade.  Do costs of balancing support for Ukraine and the West outweigh benefits of situational commercial deals?

Second, we can note increased cooperation between governments in Moscow and Ankara ahead of the critical 2023 election in Turkey.  These elections occur in the context of the earthquake and humanitarian disaster, economic and political insecurity.  Russian financial support and investments in Turkey, not least in infrastructure and critical sectors, can directly benefit the Erdoğan government and this nexus helps explain not only Turkey’s refusal to engage in sanctioning Russia, but its circumvention of western sanctions through engagement with Russian oligarchs and the reported sale to Russia of dual use technologies.

Rosatom’s construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant is a case in point.  Russia will build, own and operate, regulate (“regulatory capture”) and decommission the Akkuyu NPP, which has a service life of 60-80 years. Rosatom will also supply the fuel and manage the waste generated while helping Turkey build the necessary human capital (i.e. Turkish students in nuclear engineering to be trained in Russia). The Mersin-Akkuyu site of the NPP is located on the eastern Mediterranean coast close to Incirlik and Tartus.  Russia appears to assert the right to construct commercial ports and terminals for maritime transport, storage and loading and offloading NPP waste.  In effect, it constructs a forward base to meet the logistical needs of Russian naval ships in the Mediterranean.  This base may establish a search radar and an S-400 high-altitude air defense system in the Akkuyu region. These factors suggest that Turkey will become heavily dependent on Rosatom technology and energy can be used as a means of coercion.  The role of Rosatom and model of civil nuclear reactor construction is relevant for wider Russian NPP diplomacy to Indonesia, Egypt and Hungary. 

Third, changes within the dynamics of interdependence in both countries are also in evidence. As Russia becomes further embroiled in its war with Ukraine, Turkey can displace Russia in South Caucasus and challenge Russia in Central Asia.  Russia’s military underperformance in Ukraine helps dispel myths prevalent in Turkey of Russia as a “great power”. At the same time, Russia as Turkey’s strategic rival can destabilize Syria and remains a major source of Turkey’s energy imports, economic benefits, and financial resources.  Turkey does not confront Russian state-affiliated media propaganda targeting Turkish public opinion.  Russian state-sponsored Sputnik News Agency and RS FM (Voice of Russia–Sputnik FM) operate freely in Turkey. Pro-Russian narratives can also promote President Erdoğan’s coalition with the Eurasianists and undermine Turkey’s cooperative ties with West, blaming the West/NATO/US for instigating the war in Ukraine and causing regional instability and steer Turkey toward Russia, Iran and alliances with non-Western countries, like BRICS, under the cloak of promoting a fair and inclusive world order.

Russia and Turkey are likely to remain “frenemies”, strategic rivals linked by post-imperial identities, a willingness to project power outside their borders, authoritarian trends and benefits of economic cooperation.  To counter Russian influence in Turkey is difficult. The starting point is recognizing the need to manage a pragmatic, assertive and transactional Turkey that seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs in relations with all of its partners. Therefore, to keep Turkey engaged with the West, anchored as it is in NATO, it’s important to increase the costs of Turkish support for Russia, on the one hand, and to make clear the benefits of being strategically orientated westwards, on the other. Confidence building measures to address the lack of trust to the West, including through earthquake diplomacy, Western investments based on conditionality, joint initiatives around alternative energy sources (the “Middle Corridor” initiative) and support for Ukraine-Turkey cooperation in a post-war context and in maritime security are crucial to this end.  Russian propaganda can be countered through greater emphasis on Turkish language outlets providing counter-narratives.  The greater EU and NATO cooperation with Turkey, the less the interdependencies between Ankara and Moscow. 

Trends in Russian Foreign Policy

Three key trends mark Russia’s wartime foreign policy. The first trend is a radicalization of Russia’s ideological beliefs.  Russia is now more ideological, promoting a toxic mix of radical geopolitics, anti-Westernism/anti-colonialism and ultra-conservative “traditional values” (gender roles and religion). Its geopolitics are now more openly imperial (seeking as it does the restoration of “historical Russia”) and more radically revisionist, promoting a full-on assault of the liberal international order.  Russia, in effect, through maximalist rhetoric, seeks to “make the international system safe for emerging empires”.  Putin uses ideology as a tool of reflexive control, setting Russia on a future path that his successors cannot easily or quickly reverse. Such is the vehemence of Russian anti-Westernism that is difficult not to conclude that Russian policy-makers appear to deliberately box themselves in, placing themselves in an “iron cage”.  Russian ideological beliefs can be understood as a façade for power politics, but it rests on core ideas that are genuinely held by this currently elite in Russia, even if much is instrumentalized. Russia is still pragmatic when necessary.  It balances support for Iran with not totally alienating Israel.  Azeri-Turkey and Turkish-Israeli military cooperation is balanced by a Russia-Armenia-Iran nexus. Revisionist Russia offers a vision of how states can break with the current international order and survive if not yet wholly thrive. The litmus test of survivability for Russia is steadily increasing the number of sanctions avoiding states. 

The second big trend is Russia’s diplomatic outreach to the Global South. Despite the remarkable unity shown in the UN General Assembly votes, Russia has managed to maintain a bloc of about 50 countries which are willing to abstain on votes against Russia or be conveniently absent. These include big democracies such as India and South Africa. A wider group of states is happy to vote with the majority in the UN on the principle of invasion or annexation – but prefers not to actively work against Russia – that left just 93 states willing to vote Russia off the Human Rights Council. This group includes for example the Gulf States and some Latin American countries. And there are even fewer willing to impose sanctions.

Why is Russia having this traction? A number of explanations can be advanced. Some countries have long memories of Russia as an anti-colonial power in the Soviet period.

Russian propaganda is more effective in parts of the Middle East and Africa than in Europe. There is already a strong dose of anti-Westernism in many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa – few major non-Western powers wish to see a re-invigorated collective West that may impinge on their national interests in the future.  Above all, it’s a sense that Ukraine is a European and not a global issue and that for most countries there are more pressing local and regional concerns – food security, economic instability, their own conflicts, which have often been overlooked.

We can see these attitudes emerging in opinion polls. Attitudes towards Russia have polarized across the world. While 87% of people living in the West hold a negative view of Russia, in other regions some 66% view Russia positively. The war has hit Russia’s standing overall, but it has remained largely stable in countries like Egypt and Indonesia or declined only slightly, as in India and Vietnam.

 In terms of Global South outreach, we can distinguish three zones crucial for Russian foreign policy.  First, Eurasia and China, as a huge borderland for sanctions-busting.  A 2 March 2023 joint statement from the US Departments of Justice, Commerce and the Treasury noted that countries such as China, Armenia, Turkey and Uzbekistan can be used as “transit points” for the illegal transfer of prohibited goods to Russia or Belarus. In the first nine months of the war in Ukraine, the volume of goods supplied from the European Union to Russia decreased by 47%. In the same period, the supply of European products to Russia’s neighbouring countries, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, increased by 48%.  Second, the Gulf States as vital deal making, logistics, finance and business hub for Russia.  Third, Africa as a new zone of competition with the West.

A third notable trend is Russian foreign policy increasingly operating in the greyzone. Russia has a network of informal and illicit networks that are the main levers of Russian influence. Illicit finance and organized crime will be vital for the Russian state to survive the threat of sanctions and political and information warfare will offer continued opportunities to challenge the West. Wagner Private Military Corporation (PMC) demonstrates the mixing of arms, mercenaries, ideological and information campaigns and niche economic opportunities.  Wagner operates in small countries, where they can effectively capture part of the state apparatus.  Wagner’s networks are self-financing and have become adept at creating financial and trade networks that bypass sanctions and regulatory regimes. Russia becomes deeply embedded in Central African Republic and can then use CAR as a platform and develop routes out through Cameroon and Sudan, so establishing a wider illicit network. 

The war in Ukraine provides the opportunity for Russia’s ideological oligarchs – second-tier figures who use their aggressive patriotism to lever business deals, at home and abroad – to become players in Russian foreign policy.  The flood of Russian money into occupied territories of Ukraine is already proving a lucrative source of rents for Russia’s military, Chechen warlords, and well-connected construction companies. In effect, the criminalization of the Russian elite is sanctified in the name of patriotism, sovereign internationalism and strategic autonomy.  Russia believes great powers break the rules, indeed that rule-breaking is the hall-mark of a great power.  Such beliefs are reinforced by bad governance norms in Russia where ‘rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law’ and the blurring of internal-external, war-peace and regime-state are central pillars of Putinism.


Turkey is emblematic of third-party states with direct interests at stake in the outcome of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and whose strategic response is pragmatic realpolitik balancing.  But the longer the war continues the harder such balancing becomes. China’s so-called “12 Point Peace Plan” aims to bolster its own reputation in the Global South as a peacemaker, rebut accusations of silent complicity and its rejection potentially create justification for increasing support for Russia.  China supports Ukraine’s statehood but blames NATO “expansion” for the war and condemns Western sanctions while largely observing them. China seeks to avoid its nightmare scenario – Russian defeat leading to regime change in Russia and a pro-Western government – but realizes that unconditional support to Russia would damage China’s economic and technological advancement.  Unconditional support would force a break with the West – a point Western “red lines” messaging effectively conveys. In reality, a weaker more isolated China-dependent Russia allows China through calibrated oil and gas purchases and potentially facilitating the supply of weapons to attempt escalation control over the war.

Russia’s Turkey policy challenges the coherence and cohesion of Russia’s foreign policy amidst chaos, reactive thinking and intra-elite struggles exacerbated by the pressure of fighting a three-day war now in its second year. Russia undertakes pragmatic practice in the grey zone but cloaks such behavior on the ground in a radical take-no-prisoners black-and-white world view asserting simplistic ideological problem-blame-solution bromides. Russia is clearer about what it is against than offering a vision of what it is for. Many countries in the Global South do not want to make a choice – but few show overt support for Moscow. While illicit finance and organized crime are major challenges in effective sanctions enforcement, some key instruments do work in improving transparency, enforcing regulations and making it increasingly difficult for jurisdictions to cover up for Russian illicit behavior. The desire of many Russian businesspeople to continue to engage with the global economy may yet prove to be the key driver for change in Russia.

Ukraine itself represents a largely untapped counter-narrative in that it is pro-Western (identity, values and orientation) but not part of the institutionalized West (EU and NATO). Thus, Ukraine’s role in countering Russian anti-colonial rhetoric in Turkey, Africa and throughout the Global South.  Ukraine stands testament to argue that Russia is not the Soviet Union, which did fund training and education, but an imperial colonial power on a war of conquest, prepared to weaponize interdependencies and hold the Global South hostage to gain leverage over Kyiv. Indeed, Ukraine launches an African diplomatic effort to open ten embassies in key African states and exert untapped Ukrainian soft-power, being able to directly challenge Russian narratives about the war.


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Yevgeniya Gaber, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 8 March 2023.

FY23 SCSS#5, 22 February 2023: “Russia’s Strategic Débâcle: Regime Stability, Military Reconstitution and Relations with Belarus?”

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 22 February 2023 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.


This year our Strategic Competition Seminar Series (FY23 SCSS) activities focus on the theme of alternative Ukrainian future trajectories and the implications these may have for Russia and the West.  In this session we use the notion of “strategic débâcle” to question the implications of Russia’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine on the stability of Putin’s regime. What does the experience of war over the last year suggest about Russia’s ability to reconstitute its conventional combat capability?  Are we likely to see military reform allowing for build back better”, “build back late Soviet” or “build back worse”? What of relations with Belarus?  How has the war impacted Putin’s calculus towards its only ally and what are the prospects for a compensatory annexation?

Russian Regime Stability

Although the war in Ukraine cannot be characterized as the triumph of Putinism and an outright Russian victory, it is too early to state that the impact of Russia’s war of imperial choice will fundamentally reformat power in Russia. The maxim that suggested a “spillover effect” was in play was never realistic.  Ukrainian pluralism, decentralization, electoral democracy, reform and westwards strategic orientation would not act as a demonstration model for Russia. Historically these two societies have been different and are so today, especially so over the last 30 years, particularly since the 2004 “Orange Revolution”. Russia is more authoritarian and its society accepting of that fact. Putin may have started the war, but this is Russia’s war, supported as it is by 70% of its population. Opinion polls consistently show that 40% fully support the “Special Military Operation” (SVO), 30% give tacit support (rather support than not), and 35% of respondents will not support Putin undertaking ceasefire or peace negotiations, even if Putin decides this is the path he wants to follow. Defeat is not a catastrophe for the regime in that this regime will not agree to reparations, reform and/or regime change will not follow: Russia 2023 is more akin to Iraq under Saddam Hussein 1991-2003.  The Serbia scenario, with Milosevic at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, is not plausible.

The crucible of war has not led to culmination or break point but rather elites have pledged allegiance and loyalty to Putin and society (“upward mobility”) has consolidated and the economy functions and performs much better than expected.  Russia has lost perhaps 3-4% of its GDP and the effects of sanctions in 2023 will be greater than 2022. But Russians survived the economic crisis of 1991-92 and the systemic shock of 1998 and, this time, Russia does not have foreign loans and its informal (“garage”) economy is resilient, though some economic sectors (such as automobile production) are hit harder than others. A culture of poverty, subsistence, fatalism, patience (a tolerance for suffering) is encouraged by the state. Russia can survive economically at a lower level for decades. 

Putin’s Federal Assembly address on 21 February 2023 demonstrates that Putin has achieved the chaos he promised to unleash. His aides called upon him to be the “generator of entropy” and this is precisely the environment he has carefully constructed over the last two decades, with societal supports.  To give one example, the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, once its top-rated university and a hub of globalization, now builds campuses in Donetsk and Luhansk, fully embracing the reality of occupation. Militarism is promoted through propaganda and theatrics, such as the Immortal Regiment, the Victory Temple, and other quasi-sacred symbolic rituals that celebrate Russia is a nation at war. As war generates resentments and new legends around “fallen heroes”, it becomes normalized, woven into family history, just as Putin wove the “Great Patriotic War” into his own personal biography. Putinism” is now distilled to its essence – “war Putinism” – a condition that brings stability and an organizing logic and dynamic to his regime.  Does a ceasefire or, worse still following this logic, a peace treaty with Ukraine, entail Russian internal instability, perhaps even regime implosion? For Russia, war is peace, peace is war?

Moreover, while Russia is more isolated from the ‘political West’ (1bn people – the “golden billion” in Putin’s understanding), it uses narratives of anti-colonialism (despite clearly imperial actions regarding Ukraine and “historical Rus”) and anti-Americanism to appeal to the ‘Global South’ (Africa, Latin and South America, China).  Russia suggests that it is in the global vanguard of upholding the sovereignty of states, sovereign equality and the right to choose their own systems of governance. This is Putin’s world.  Outreach to the ‘Global South’ gives external legitimacy to and acknowledgement of Russian Great Power status.  In this perverse narrative the defeat of Ukraine is the defeat of the US and so of colonialism: the wrongs of the West in the past are righted by Russia in the present.

Russia represents a classic case of imperial overstretch, a fact perhaps unsurprising when one considers that Russia constitutes 2% of global GDP and the political West supporting Ukraine 40% of global GDP. Russia’s perimeters are currently bare as “everything to the front” is the order of the day.  The UK’s MoD reports that 90% of Russian border troops are deployed to Ukraine. The Pacific Fleet’s Marine Infantry Brigade has been reconstituted three times.  Troops on the Finish border and Arctic are rotated through the “SVO”. Russia does not have the capacity to police the empire, staff the garrisons, patrol the borders.  Russia was and remains a loosely organized patchwork filled with empty spaces. In the future, Russia could resemble more a number of large cities loosely connected by highways. However, this looseness does not translate into an impetus for reform as Russia does not face strategic coopetition in Eurasia. As the problem of imperial overstretch is perennial, inertia not reform rules. Putin’s regime has developed a raft of sophisticated soft management tools to control society. Society can be “retuned” through propaganda, as the era of glasnost and perestroika demonstrated when hope and imagination combined. However, there is a limit. Putin can use propaganda to explain defeat as victory – he can appeal to and amplify what people want to hear – but it cannot be used to impose on Russian society new and alien narratives such as “defeat is actually defeat”.

Russia’s Military Combat Capability Reconstitution

Gen Milley has stated that for Russia this war is a strategic, operational and tactical failure. Is this the case?  The use of the term “débâcle” is entirely correct when applied to the military-strategic context.  The war has proved high intensity, has lasted a year rather than three days and shows no signs of exhausting itself.  The Russian military is failing to learn from its mistakes, being unable to undertake a frank and honest analysis over what went wrong. Defense Minister Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov and General Staff itself are “learning backwards”, falling back to analog Soviet habits. The Ukrainian military is already more digitalized/computerized and with willing recruits able to “learn forward”.  The quality of Russia’s newly mobilized precludes the use of technology, even if Russia had it.

Reforming the military in a war is challenging.  There is an inherent tension between what the war demands and what society can supply. Russia needs a larger military, and can use every and all means to recruit, but where do the recruits come from?  Russia faces long-term negative underlying demographic trends (every year’s draft cycle yields less and less), the under-reported effects of COVID, war casualties and mass out-migration to avoid conscription.  Extending the duration of servicemen is probably the only viable solution. In addition, military security may be strengthened with a larger military (quantity not quality) but this can impact societal cohesion and increase economic costs, both to the military budget and by creating labor supply shortfalls elsewhere.

Another lesson to be learned from this war is that airpower remains decisive.  Russia is not able to achieve “air superiority” let alone “air supremacy”.  Russia and Ukraine fly approximately the same number of daily sorties (one or two dozen), despite the fact that Russia has reported destroying the Ukrainian air force many times over. How to explain this underperformance?  Russia argues that it does not fight Ukrainians in Ukraine but the collective west in Ukraine. A looming kinetic war with NATO is predicted and so through prudence and pragmatism, Russia holds back airframes for the larger war to come. More to the point, Russia’s Defense Industrial Complex lacks key component parts and critical supply changes are broken. In addition, modern warfare demands real time targeting, an ability that HIMARS clearly demonstrates. This in turn rests on good intelligence, communication and functioning satellite constellation, areas where Russia is deficient.  A bureaucratic rigid military means that 48-72 hours may pass between the acquisition of intelligence and actual attack. In short, Russia cannot connect its air to ground forces and its airpower cannot give sufficient air support to enable the Black Sea Fleet to launch opposed amphibious operations against, for example, Odessa.

Lastly, Russia has invested heavily in its nuclear forces. These expensive systems can be used for nuclear blackmail.  Putin’s speech on 21 February announced Russia’s suspension from START II and the resumption of nuclear testing.  On 22 February Medvedev again suggests Russia will countenance nuclear first use if defeated conventionally in Ukraine. By suggesting a willingness to use nuclear weapons, Putin signals his commitment to winning the war in Ukraine at ever-increasing costs.  But aside from this signaling function, these weapons are impotent.  If signaling is the only function, then Russia could achieve the same results with less weapons, remembering that one nuclear submarine is the equivalent of ten combined arms battalion tactical groups.

Until 2022, there was the perception that Russia was overtaking the west in warfighting capabilities. Why did this not end up being true?  Why is the Ukrainian military learning much more effectively than the Russian? What makes the difference?  Prior to the war, it appeared Russia was learning from expeditionary coalitional warfare (Syria) while the Ukrainian army had essentially confined itself to trench warfare since 2014 along a line of contact in occupied Donbas, fighting with old Soviet equipment.  But in reality, prior to 24 February 2022 the Russia military had not fought a regular military since 1945. It ran on reputation and so could punch above its weight. Many analysts failed to understand the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a harbinger and had forgotten that Prince Potemkin was also a Russian general. Military culture plays a role. Russia’s military structures are hierarchical and vertical, Ukraine’s more decentralized, networked, with horizontal linkages. The quality of recruits, leadership, morale and training (the intangibles) appears critical. The lack of modernization in Russia, particularly societal modernization and a retrograde backward-looking political culture which viewed reform, change and the new as inherently destabilizing. While Russia replaces its weapons systems with older and more outdated equipment, the Ukrainian military receives a huge variety of increasingly more modern weaponry and its army learns everything rapidly.

Whereas one might expect communication between Russian soldiers and the society from which they came to generate pressure to root out corruption and inefficiency, this is not the case.  Inefficiency is a cultural norm and so expected. Veterans and others exposed to the horrors of the war do not typically share the pain they experience or wish to rejoin “for my buddies”. In trench or positional warfare, there are no communication links between Russians and Ukrainians, so TV propaganda labelling Ukrainians as Nazi becomes the default perception. Russian society largely sits within their own echo chamber, heavily influenced by state propaganda. The 11 million Russians with Ukrainian relatives do not act as a communication bridge to the larger Russian population. But knowledge of a war that is going very wrong is spreading through social networks. This is invisible to the Russian government as it fails to understand how social networks work.

Relations with Belarus

Putin’s calculus before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that Russia did not need the formal annexation of Belarus to have territorial, political and military control of Belarus. Putin achieves this control through President Lukashenka, an instrument in Putin’s hands, one that knows where the red lines are and does what is needed and required when push comes to shove. Lukashenka enjoys the status of being Putin’s only ally and each March, year after year, Belarus votes in UN General Assembly against Ukrainian territorial integrity. What does Russia really require?  Not the 9,000 deployable Belarusian military but use of Belarusian territory.  Russia has achieved this prime objective without the risks of possible elite splits replacing Lukashenka would entail.  Lukashenka’s regime is personalistic and so dependent on Lukashenka the person. Another challenge: which narrative could be deployed in Russia to explain to the Russian people the sudden need of a forced succession in brotherly Slavic “one people” Belarus?  The sudden rise of Belarusian Nazis?

In addition, whatever the political loyalty or opposition to Lukashenka, Belarusians can all agree that participation in the war should not be countenanced. The historical memory of the “Great Patriotic War” in Belarus is different than in Russia.  In Belarus it is remembered as a war of suffering, of victims, death and destruction not as one of unity, triumph and victory.  Belarusians do not harbor imperialist sentiment or an imperial complex, but are comfortable in their territory. Belarusian society knows Europe, constituting the largest number of Schengen visitors on a per capita basis in the post-Soviet space.  The demonization of the EU does not have as great a purchase and traction as it does in Russia.  This consensus and the “audience costs” factor – the fear of mismanaging a post-Lukashenka’s Belarus, preserves some autonomy and generates the alibi: “I would love to send troops but it will trigger an uprising”.  The notion that Belarus’ annexation could occur as a consolidation prize or compensation for defeat in Ukraine is not viable for the same reason. Putin’s plan for Belarus’ integration into Russia is not on the basis of the Union State construct but rather each of its six regions would agree to “voluntary accession” and be integrated separately.  Belarus’ integration as a single entity would make it too distinct and indigestible whereas individual oblast entry breaks its historical identity. Ultimately though, Russian annexation of Belarus is a distraction that detracts from the ‘problem’ of Ukraine.  As long as Ukraine fights, Belarus has a chance to uphold its statehood (territorial integrity and sovereignty).


Russia is overstretched but not at break point.  The single point of strategic failure for Ukraine is not political will or societal cohesion, but that it depends on external rather than indigenous sources of arms to maintain the fight.  For Russia, the single point of strategic failure is Putin’s health: the medieval idea of the political body of the nation being invested in the physical body of the tsar is resurrected. Contemporary Russian political order is physically invested in Putin’s body: “No Putin no Russia” is not just a sycophant’s slogan. The degradation of Russian analytical and forecasting abilities means Russia knows less about Ukraine and the West and this increases the risk of more mistakes and miscalculation. To mitigate the risks of uncertainty and unpredictability, analysts must widen the cone of analysis.


This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Baev, Sergei Medvedev, Arkady Moshes and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments. 

GCMC, 22 February 2023.

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