just asking questions

Does Putin Even Have a Strategy in Ukraine Anymore?

Targets hit by the Ukrainian Army on the frontline in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Two kinds of misery now characterize the war in Ukraine. Heavy combat grinds on in the country’s south and east, where Russia clings to territory it seized in the spring. Meanwhile, blackouts mark daily life in Kyiv and other major cities as Russia bombards Ukraine’s population and infrastructure amid an already freezing winter. Although Vladimir Putin has succeeded in devastating the country even further, he appears no closer to achieving his goal of a subservient Ukraine. I spoke with Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation who specializes in Russian military strategy, about how the war is progressing almost ten months in.

Since Vladimir Putin ordered a huge mobilization of troops in October, it doesn’t seem like the war has gone any better for Russia. They continue to strike with deadly missiles all over Ukraine and are making a lot of people miserable. But Ukrainian forces took Kherson last month and are now threatening Melitopol, which is an important link to Crimea. Russia is still the aggressor in some places, but it’s not making a lot of progress on the ground. What are your thoughts on the overall state of Russian military capability right now?
Mobilization was really done to stop the bleeding. There was a mismatch between the amount of soldiers they had in the country and the objectives they were trying to hold on to. Right now, Russia’s transitioning to the defensive. Putin says they have 75,000 mobilized troops that they’ve put into these very depleted, broken units on the front line in Ukraine and another 75,000 that are operating inside Ukraine but performing logistics or other support tasks. And then around another 150,000 who are still rotating through training centers inside Russia.

The first weeks and months were very chaotic. Russia’s mobilization base was neglected for a decade. They had other priorities at the time, and then they commanded it to snap to attention, and of course it performed terribly. Over time, they’ve tried to work with it as best they can. Now that they’re settling into a defensive position, building trenches, we’re going to see those front lines start to stabilize.

The transition to the defensive seems like another sign of weakness. Don’t they want to be the aggressor at some point again? 
Well, they downsized their political objectives, I think, to match the reality a little bit better. In my view, they’re not capable of another large-scale offensive for multiple months. I have some unresolved questions about what they’re doing at the training areas inside Russia. Are they training those 150,000 people for infantry-type tasks, which would imply they’re going to use them to occupy what they have? Is there some training in small units like on battalion or a company size on tanks or other armored equipment that would suggest later on, maybe in spring or the summer, they’re going to try to make some more limited offensive movements? But I just don’t have enough information on what’s happening in those training ranges to know for certain. But through this winter, I think they’re settling in for the defense.

There was concern on the Russian side that these new troops were inexperienced, too old to fight, unmotivated, and so forth. Have there been visible signs that they’re less effective than the troops they replaced on the battlefield?
It’s highly variable based on where you are on the frontline. I’ve noticed it’s different depending on whether you’re up in Donetsk or Luhansk or farther south near Zaporizhzhia, the makeup is very inconsistent along the line. But from the larger perspective, yes, every wave of troops arriving are less trained, or their skills are older. If they were in military service prior to being mobilized, the training that they’re getting inside Russia is, from what I can tell, very, very, very rudimentary. So is this force capable of occupying defensive positions, is it capable of manning checkpoints, is it capable of intimidating the local population? Yes. Is it capable of large-scale combined arms operations? No, highly doubtful. There were problems with that in the start of the war when Russia committed its most professional troops. There’s no reason to think at this point, despite battlefield learning, they’re going to be able to do something that looks more competent at a large scale.

And none of these problems, presumably, would be solved with further mobilization? There’s no better-trained group that hasn’t been tapped to go to this war. There’s no backup plan here, in that sense.
Well, there are more people that they can mobilize, but I think the question is the way they’re doing it. What Russia’s not doing right now is creating mobilized units from scratch with soldiers, NCOs and officers, and training them together for four to six months out in Siberia as a cohesive unit and then picking them up and deploying them as such to the front. They’re training people and then they’re splitting them up and putting them where they’re needed. You don’t really get a lot of unit cohesion. You’re having people fall into different units, no one knows each other, and they’re not necessarily using the same equipment. So it’s just very chaotic. But that may change over time.

So is Russia’s strategy right now to immiserate Ukrainians with missiles, remain mostly on the defensive in the ground war, and just hope that the air assault will do enough to wear down western resolve so that Ukraine will come to the table at some point? 
I think their position right now is kind of adrift. You get the sense when you read pieces of information from Russian social media or from the tone in some of their state-controlled media that there’s not a lot of clarity in where they’re going from here. I see the defensive positions, I see the trenches — they want to hold what they have. They are launching large barrages of missiles at Ukraine to make life unbearable for Ukrainian civilians and grind the gears of government functioning to a halt. When you don’t have electricity, when you don’t have water, you can’t flush your toilet, it just makes life unbearable.

It seems like they’ve been counting on Ukrainian resolve to weaken in the face of these attacks, and it’s just not happening.
Right. The resolve in Ukraine is only hardening. And there is a bit of a logic flaw in Russian strategy on this point. They can, successfully, in their mind, execute a strategy of targeting Ukraine’s electrical grid. Millions of people in Ukraine have no electricity. How does that translate into their desired goal of Ukraine capitulation? There are several steps missing there that are not clearly articulated in the strategy. So they’re just executing and hoping for strategic results. And, to me, I don’t understand how they get from point A to point B other than maybe creating a refugee crisis because no one wants to live in the cold. But, again, I don’t understand the logic to get to the desired end state with the resources they have.

There have been a lot of questions about Russian air capability. The U.S. has slapped all these sanctions on them, and they can’t get the sophisticated parts they need in a lot of cases. But Russia is able to keep manufacturing some missiles domestically, and they’re getting drones from Iran. Nobody seems to know how much capacity they might have at the moment. Do you have any insight on that?
Russia’s industrial-defense base still functions. It’s facing significant problems right now from sanctions and limitations in terms of the materials they can get, but those factories still exist. They’re still able to churn out shells; they’re still able to turn out missiles — maybe at a reduced rate, but they can still make them. And though we have all of these new laws and restrictions to try to limit Russia’s ability to get access to things they need for their missiles, it doesn’t mean they’re going to stop trying, that they’re going to stop creating shell companies to try to get after these components. It’s just harder for them.

Then you contrast that with the situation that Ukraine is in. Ukraine is very dependent on western support for a lot of things now because Russia has been attacking their defense industrial base all year. It doesn’t really have the ability to keep producing and keep cranking. So there’s different pressures at different timelines for both parties here. I would just caution that, even though Russia is scraping the bottom of a lot of different barrels right now, it doesn’t mean that, over time, they cannot reconstitute.

Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to get billions of dollars in aid, which may include a Patriot missile defense system. How long do you think that almost blank-check policy can last?
I don’t know. I can’t wager a guess. But right now, the support that they do have is being tailored for what they need at the time. I had hoped that air defense systems would’ve been provided to them before the war, or very soon after, but it’s better late than never. But it’s particularly important, and here’s why.

If Russia is able to keep launching missiles or Shahed drones at them, and Ukraine has to expend interceptor missiles to try to knock these things down and keep them away from the cities, then they run out of interceptor stockpiles. And then the Russian Air Force can come back in a less contested airspace and really start doing a lot of deep strikes. So western support, whether it’s NASAMS or IRIS-T or Patriot, helps bolster that capability to keep the Russian Air Force from trying to come back on a much larger scale. I highly recommend the work done by Justin Bronk and Jack Watling at RUSI on this point.

To what extent do you think Ukraine right now has the capability of launching a major offensive initiative over these winter months in the east or south?
Well, it sounds like they want to keep going. They’re thinking, We’re not going to sit around and wait for Russia to create multiple defensive lines. That makes it harder for us over time, so we’re going to keep on. And I think the will is there. I’m not sure right now what they’re planning or what’s going on with their supplies, but I think that they are highly motivated to continue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Does Putin Even Have a Strategy in Ukraine Anymore?