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Russian President Vladimir Putin's decisions regarding Ukraine since his initial botched invasion on February 24, 2022 show a likely disconnect between his maximalist goals and his willingness to make the likely high-risk decisions necessary to achieve them. Putin probably operated under the mistaken assumption that Russian forces could force Kyiv to capitulate without significant military casualties, and saw an invasion of Russia as a limited and acceptable risk. Leaked Russian military plans, for example, show the Kremlin expects Russian forces to capture Kyiv within days, Russian intelligence services reportedly expect the Ukrainian army to disintegrate, and Kremlin propagandists preemptively publish a pre-written article extolling Russia's "victory" on February 26 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin's decisions regarding Ukraine since his initial botched invasion on February 24, 2022 show a likely disconnect between his maximalist goals and his willingness to make the likely high-risk decisions necessary to achieve them.
Putin probably operated under the mistaken assumption that Russian forces could force Kyiv to capitulate without significant military casualties, and saw an invasion of Russia as a limited and acceptable risk.
Leaked Russian military plans, for example, show the Kremlin expects Russian forces to capture Kyiv within days, Russian intelligence services reportedly expect the Ukrainian army to disintegrate, and Kremlin propagandists preemptively publish a pre-written article extolling Russia's "victory" on February 26 2022
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This is what the "Institute for the Study of War" (ISW) writes in today's brief analysis.
The failure of Russian forces in the battle for Kyiv - and with it the Kremlin's military plan - has forced Putin to face complex decisions as the Kremlin wages an increasingly costly and protracted conventional war.
However, Putin has not ordered the difficult changes in Russia's military and society that are likely needed to save his war.
Putin has consistently ignored, delayed, or only partially implemented several arguably necessary pragmatic decisions about his invasion.
Putin has been reluctant to order a full mobilization after the costly capture of Severodonetsk and Lisichansk in June-July 2022 and several failed offensives that depleted much of his conventional army.
He ignored repeated calls from the Russian nationalist community in May 2022 to mobilize reservists, declare war on Ukraine, impose martial law in Russia and modernize the army's conscription system.
Putin is probably afraid and instead prioritized the recruitment and engagement of relatively ineffective irregular armed forces over the summer.
He has also tried to maintain the facade of a limited war to shield much of Russian society from the scale and cost of Russia's war in Ukraine.
Putin also did not make many public appearances related to the war effort from the start of the war until mid-December.
It also did not try to silence the large group of Russian pro-military and ultra-nationalist bloggers and public figures who supported the military goals but began to criticize the half-hearted Russian military effort.
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Putin continued to choose relatively less risky options even as he faced spiraling military failures in the fall of 2022. Putin began to adopt domestically unpopular—and potentially risky—policies such as declaring partial mobilization or extending martial law far after the difficult situation on the front line after the Ukrainian successes, it became clear that the Kremlin needed additional combat power.
Putin could have announced a larger mobilization effort than the reported 300,000 troops, but he likely feared that the already unpopular prospect of mobilization would further damage his appeal in Russian society.
Moreover, Putin made a significant rhetorical effort to downplay the mobilization by framing it as a mobilization of selected reservists, despite the realities of Russian military recruitment centers unable to implement such a targeted campaign.
Putin also did not formally declare martial law outside Kherson, Zaporozhye, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but instead ordered regions outside Ukraine to build the legal framework needed to support the Russian mobilization.
Moreover, Putin only selectively appeased the milbloggers by complying with some of their demands, such as launching a "retaliatory" strike campaign against Ukraine's energy infrastructure, while refraining from implementing other follow-up demands, such as clearly delineating Russia's borders, which claims.
ISW assesses that the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) are belatedly implementing large-scale military reforms and treating Ukraine as a protracted and major war - but Putin continues a similar pattern of reserved decision-making.
ISW assessed on January 15 that the Kremlin was belatedly undertaking the personnel mobilization, reorganization and industrial action it realistically needs to take before it launches its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
However, Putin has apparently refrained from announcing a second wave of mobilization, with US and Western officials noting that Putin is again leaning toward a "quiet mobilization" due to concerns about the extreme unpopularity of the first wave of mobilization.
Putin is also reported to be conducting surveys to gauge Russians' perception of mobilization and has not decided when to begin further mobilization, although Defense Minister Shoigu has announced wide-ranging reforms to increase the manpower of the Russian armed forces on January 17.
ISW also observed conflicting statements from Russian State Duma officials and Kremlin officials about changes to mobilization and recruitment protocols, possibly indicating that Putin ordered the drafting of these regulations but was unwilling to make them public.
Putin especially relies on a group of scapegoats to publicly take risks for him and take the blame for Russia's military failures and unpopular policies.
Putin allows, and has sometimes contributed to, Russian milibloggers' criticism of the Russian Defense Ministry in order to deflect blame from himself.
Putin, for example, positioned Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Defense Ministry to be the face of his most unpopular domestic decision to date — ordering a partial mobilization — by having Shoigu explain the mobilization regulations in a television interview.
Putin has also repeatedly blamed the Russian Defense Ministry for any problem related to the implementation of partial mobilization, and has even publicly reprimanded the Defense Ministry and urged it to listen to criticism.
Putin repeatedly reshuffled Russia's command structure during the war and allowed successive commanders to take the blame, blaming overall Russian military failures on individual commanders rather than his unrealistic and maximalist goal of capturing all of Ukraine.
Putin's state propaganda networks also blamed the controversial Russian withdrawal from the west (right) bank of Kherson Oblast and the city of Kherson in November 2022 on the former commander of Russian armed forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergei Surovikin (who now serves as deputy commander of the Russian group in Ukraine under the command of the new commanding general of the army Valery Gerasimov) and Putin did not comment on this significant Russian loss.
Putin regularly uses Russia's State Duma to set the stage for controversial decisions to portray Putin as a balanced leader.
Putin has repeatedly rejected extreme proposals by the Russian State Duma, such as legalizing the Wagner group in Russia or fully engaging with calls to nationalize the property of Russians who fled the country during the war.
Putin also failed to fully engage with the ultra-nationalist rhetoric that naturally flowed from his maximalist invasion of Ukraine, although he used some of its elements in his justification for the war in Ukraine.
Putin's reluctance to take risks directly related to his conventional war in Ukraine indicates that he is highly unlikely to pursue nuclear escalation or war with NATO.
ISW has previously suggested that Russian conventional military threats against NATO do not match Russia's capabilities and that Russia uses nuclear threats primarily to intimidate the West.
Putin clearly values his domestic status quo and seeks to avoid risky and controversial policies in support of his own goals.
Putin also continues to demonstrate that he remains a calculating individual who places great emphasis on eliminating risks — even when his perception of the situation he faces diverges from reality.
In this way, Putin only sets maximalist and unrealistic goals for himself, calling on his government and military to achieve them.
He has, however, refrained from making the costly decisions that the large-scale and protracted conventional war he has launched is likely to require.
Russian invasion of Ukraine