For Putin, The War In Ukraine Is Hard To Win And Even Harder To End
Lawrence Freedman has spent his career studying war and diplomacy. A British historian, he specializes in international relations, foreign policy, and strategy. He has written academic works on the Cold War, nuclear deterrence, and the politics of military operations. In 2019, Oxford University Press published his book Ukraine And The Art Of Strategy, an “account of the origins and course of the Russia-Ukraine conflict through the lens of strategy.”
A prolific commentator on contemporary defense and foreign policy issues, he served as a member of the Chilcot Inquiry, a probe into the U.K.’s role in the Iraq War.
Freedman spoke to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about the futility of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of total victory for either side, and why he doesn’t think Putin will use a nuclear weapon.
RFE/RL: A recurring theme in your books on strategy is that wars rarely, if ever, go as planned. And when they don’t, then it’s all about costs for the errors made. Is the Ukraine war a classic case of that? If yes, what does that mean for Russia?
Lawrence Freedman: It’s an extreme case, in some ways. [Some of us] were skeptical about whether Russia would go to war. I never dismissed it; you could never dismiss the possibility. But the grounds to be skeptical were largely on the basis that it was very hard to see how Russia could ever win — just because of the size of Ukraine and the size of the population, the forces, the manpower, that would be needed to be committed indefinitely, to deal with insurgencies and resistance and so on and so forth.
[Russia wasn’t] even successful in the initial military operations [in Ukraine]. So this is an even better example [of wars not going to plan] than, say, Iraq in 2003. Because in Iraq in 2003, the military side of it went to plan initially; the problem was in the aftermath. They never even got to the aftermath in this war.
Instead of a few days, which [would end] up with a puppet government in Kyiv, you’ve now got this deadly war, which has shattered Ukraine and taken a decade of military modernization out of Russia, and seen tens of thousands — possibly over 100,000 — killed. For very little gain. The gains that the Russians made were largely made at the start of the war. Some they then relinquished because they couldn’t hold them; others they’ve been forced out [of].
If you look at military progress for Russia, even taking into account Soledar (a town in the Donetsk region) the other day, possibly Bakhmut (a city in the Donetsk region) to come, it’s very marginal. And what they’ve seized has been destroyed in the process. So it’s not as if they captured great assets.
So this is really an unusually futile war.
RFE/RL: Speaking of Iraq, your curt, yet very telling, reply on the lessons for Britain regarding its involvement in the Iraq War was, “Don’t do it again.” Do you at any point see the Russians embracing that bit of self-evident wisdom?
Freedman: I think at the moment it’s evident that there are many Russians who are fully aware of how badly this has gone, how none of [Russia’s] objectives have truly been achieved, and that this has set the country back years.
The economy did all right last year because of the energy prices, but energy prices have fallen, and they’ve lost their market. There’s no investment going into Russia. So it’s now in a period of economic decline, however fast.
So, a lot of Russians are well aware of that. But there’s sort of a rallying effect going on. It’s not an atmosphere in which people are going to express treasonable thoughts. And so I suspect, among many Russians, they’re in a state of denial. I think the problem for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is, in a sense, ending this without his objectives achieved.
RFE/RL: Can he end it?
Freedman: I think it’s very difficult for him because as soon as he ends it, there’s a reckoning. And the cost of this war will have to be posed against whatever has been gained. I think this is affecting strategy at the moment…. My one explanation of what’s going on, and the ferocity with which they’ve gone for Bakhmut, is that they still have this idea that if only they can take all of Donetsk and hold on to all of Luhansk, that might work.
RFE/RL: That might work as a victory? A victory they can sell?
Freedman: It could possibly work as a victory that they could sell. Their problem is the Ukrainians [at] most might accept a cease-fire. They certainly won’t agree to [a cease-fire] in terms of transfer of sovereignty. So, it doesn’t get you very far in practice. It just means you’re left with an inherently unstable situation. But that’s what you’re going to be left with anyway, as a result of this, until such time as you’ve got a different Russian government with a different attitude toward Ukraine.
The Tavberidze Interviews
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL’s Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war’s course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.
So, the basic lesson of wars is they’re easier to start than to end. One has to keep in mind that this war in practice started in 2014. But it was contained — and one of the issues for the future is whether it can be contained again in some way. [The conflict] wasn’t frozen; people still died. But whether it will be frozen in some way in the future, I don’t know. Among the possibilities, [a frozen conflict] is as likely as others.
A full peace deal I find almost impossible to see at the moment, because of the reparations, war crimes issues. In ending this war, you need a different government in Moscow, or you need Putin in some way to be sidelined. And there’s no sign of that at the moment. But it could happen. I mean, nobody really knows what’s going on in Moscow.
RFE/RL: Is an agreed cease-fire a more likely scenario than an outright victory for one side or another?
Freedman: I don’t think Russia could win outright victory because I just don’t see how it can subjugate Ukraine now. So, it can redefine victory.
RFE/RL: Can Russia be defeated outright?
Freedman: If Ukraine was able to push Russian forces out of all of Ukraine, that would be a defeat. It’s not wholly impossible, but I think at the moment it’s very difficult. It’s not impossible. I think to lose Crimea would be unequivocally a big defeat for Putin. To have the Russians being pushed back elsewhere — to the 2013 borders or the 1991 borders — could probably be manageable with guarantees for Russian speakers and so on. My guess is that there comes a point when there’s not a lot of value in holding on to what are essentially the same enclaves with which they started this with.
I’m not convinced that, if I was a Ukrainian general, that I would be that bothered about expecting to have to push the Russians back every inch of the way. I think at a certain point the need of the Russian forces to reconstitute themselves and the meaninglessness of [holding] bits of territory, if that’s all they’re holding on to, would probably mean it would suit [the Russian forces] to have a disengagement in the hope of giving them some breathing space….
On balance, the Ukrainians have got more chance of winning than the Russians, who I don’t think have got any chance at all in terms of their original objectives. But they might reconceptualize [those]. But for the Ukrainians, it’s very difficult, as well, which is why it’s more likely to have a messy conclusion than a neat and tidy one that’ll last for some time.
RFE/RL: What about a flawed, partial victory for Ukraine? How could that possibly look?
Freedman: If you look back at what was being said by [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy early on in the war, they could have lived, I think, with going back to February 23 [borders]. (Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022.) They might not have accepted it, but Zelenskiy was clearly thinking about shared citizenship solutions to some of the problems. There were ways, I think, in which they could imagine living with the situation.
That’s become much more difficult. There was then a period, September-ish, when the Ukrainians got quite optimistic about what they might be able to do because they seemed to be on the front foot — [but] then the Russians mobilized. And it’s become tougher because just the numbers made a difference. More so than I must say I thought it would. But they did. And the Russians are more organized now, generally. They’ve had time to sort out mobilization, to work out what they’re doing with the troops; the general shape has been better. And the weather has not been conducive [for Ukrainian troops]. So, both sides now are looking to new offensives….
I don’t think a lot of it makes sense for the Russians. I never have done. Because it’s very hard to occupy somebody else’s territory.”
Now, I think there’s a Russian point of view that they’ve got the numbers now, which they didn’t before, but they don’t have the equipment, because they’ve lost a lot of it. And so their equipment is pretty poor. So, they really would be relying on brute force and high casualties to push themselves through.
The Ukrainians are looking to have more maneuver. But as we’ve seen, maneuver is not easy on these battlefields unless you find a really vulnerable spot in the enemy’s front lines. So I think we’re waiting now for the next couple of months. And when we see how that’s worked out, we’ll have a better idea of the durability of both sides.
RFE/RL: Regarding Russian [military] leadership, let me ask you about this reshuffle that took place. General Valery Gerasimov was put in charge of the Ukrainian campaign, and he reportedly got an explicit command from Putin to conquer the entire Donbas before March. Is that a page from the book titled Take Kyiv In Three Days?
Freedman: If Putin wanted to do that, that may mean that he’s got it in his head that he would settle for the Donbas, if that’s the order. This is just a report [though]; I’ve seen it, too. [Gerasimov is] going to find it very difficult to do that. I mean, they may take Bakhmut. It’s a difficult battle for the Ukrainians now, but they’ve been heroic, but at a high cost.
There’s always got to be judgments about what costs you’re prepared to take, [for example] if that means you lose too many of your best troops for the later offensives. I think what they got before this latest reshuffle was better defenses; the Russian defensive lines improved. And then you had the [private paramilitary] Vagner group pressing on with the only offensive. I think [regarding] Putin, the view is that it’s not good enough just to [be] defensive. They want to go back on the offensive. And obviously, that’s the view from Ukraine, as well.
I think Putin’s impatience is a problem for the Russian command. Gerasimov has always been there; it’s not as if he was a newcomer to the situation…. What he’s doing is making sure that Putin’s will is realized, and Putin’s will…seems to need more offensives…”
I think a Russian offensive over the next few weeks…would be very difficult. The Ukrainians are talking up Russian numbers and the likely scale of the next mobilization because the Ukrainians want to keep [these weapons] flowing in from the West, which makes perfect sense…. I think Russia has got the capacity for a pretty tough defensive position. I’m not sure they have the combat power to [defeat] the Ukrainians [offensively]…. If I was the Ukrainians, I would almost be tempted to wait for the Russian offensive to come first because I think it would be easier to defeat that than to mount one on their own.
RFE/RL: As unsavory as it might be, I also wanted to ask you to look at this from the Russian perspective, too. To look at it through Gerasimov’s eyes and see what makes sense strategically.
Freedman: I don’t think a lot of it makes sense for the Russians. I never have done. Because it’s very hard to occupy somebody else’s territory. Now, there are the bits of the Donbas they’ve already occupied, which have now given up a lot of their manpower to this war. Maybe they’re in control there. Maybe they can impose themselves on Mariupol. (Russian troops captured the Sea of Azov port in May.) But it’s quite hard and there’s always going to be questions of sabotage and so on going on. It’s very hard — as we know, as the West knows — to occupy places [where] you’re not welcome.
I don’t think there are good solutions for Russia. I genuinely don’t. There might be solutions that satisfy the Kremlin in the short term and, as I say — given that it’s going to be very difficult for them to hold on, to take all of [the southern regions of] Kherson [and] Zaporizhzhya and so on — I think the best that they might be able to manage is the Donbas, but they’re still a long way from having all of [the] Donetsk [region]….
That’s militarily as much as they can do. And yet you always have this uncomfortable feeling that, for Putin, destroying Ukraine as a modern country is almost as important as anything else now. There’s a revenge aspect that they refuse to bow to his will.
Somehow the biggest thing we’re waiting for is a moment where Moscow determines that actually this isn’t going anywhere, and they can’t afford to keep it going with so little to show for it.”
Militarily, I think there are just limited options [for Russia], but they might try. I wouldn’t want to rush if I was Ukraine. I don’t think they’re going to get many chances at a major offensive, nor do I think that Russia has many chances at a major new offensive…. So, the next big moves are important….
I’d say, from a Ukrainian point of view, a situation in which the Russians have opened themselves up in an effort to advance — on the assumption that they can be stopped — would be better and easier to deal with. It almost looks like 1918, where you have the big German offensive, which exhausted itself, and then the Allies came back.
So, I think Putin’s impatience is a problem for the Russian command. Gerasimov has always been there; it’s not as if he was a newcomer to the situation…. What he’s doing is making sure that Putin’s will is realized, and Putin’s will at the moment seems to need more offensives, and they’re clearly gearing up for something. But exactly what and when, it’s hard to be sure at the moment.
RFE/RL: They’re gearing up, they’re doubling down. Should, can, and will the West double down, too?
Freedman: There are two sorts of constraints on what the West is doing; well, you can argue three [constraints]. One is economic. [The West] has taken the hit…so whatever Putin was trying to do with the energy crunch worked in the sense that it’s been an economically and politically destabilizing year for Europe in particular. But they’re sort of coming through that, with possibly more trouble to come, [but] not as much [trouble] as Putin hoped for.
Secondly, there’re these political questions about provoking Russia, [about] pushing too far at the risk of escalation, which you see in different ways in the Washington and Berlin debates. I think the Berlin debate is almost unfathomable at times: the narrow distinctions between types of tanks and so on. The American debate is more comprehensible: Basically, if you allow the Ukrainians to attack Russian territory in a sustained way, that may be escalatory.
And then you have the third element, which is the most serious, I think. [It] is inventories and stocks and logistics and maintenance and the sheer practicality of getting stuff that the Ukrainians can use effectively. That, I think, is an inhibiting factor, but that’s not one of commitment. I think the political commitment is there. You’re not hearing: “Oh, Zelenskiy, you need to negotiate.”….
If Putin had managed to come up with something that looked like a compromise, that looked like it might lead to some sort of way out, the pressure on Zelenskiy to take it seriously would be considerable. But he hasn’t. And I think [French President Emmanuel] Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz all recognize that, along with [British Prime Minister Rishi] Sunak and [U.S. President Joe] Biden.
There’s no point in being naive about this. There will come a point — if there still is what looks like a military stalemate…if things look, say, in six months how they look now — I think just the capacity issues will be pushing to try to find some way to at least pause the conflict.”
So, I don’t think commitment is an issue. Capacity is an issue. And they’re going to have to work quite hard on that. One of the disappointments in a way is [that] more effort hasn’t been put by now into gearing up the production. It’s happening, but it’s taking awhile.
RFE/RL: What would be realistic war aims for the West here? Do they differ from Ukraine’s aims?
Freedman: The position has always been that, in some respects, the war aims are set by the people who are fighting the war. And that’s Ukraine. Although I think one of the most dangerous ideas around at the moment is that this is a proxy war, and the Ukrainians are really fighting for the Americans.
RFE/RL: Till the last Ukrainian…
Freedman: I find that an obnoxious sort of analysis. That often goes with an assertion that the Western objective is to encourage the fragmentation of Russia, which I don’t think is the Western objective at all. I don’t think there is anybody who particularly believes that would produce stability in Europe or whatever. Some people might, but it’s not an official view of Western governments.
I think they would rather have a serious government in Moscow that would have a degree of legitimacy and was able to deal sensibly with its neighbors and the rest of the world. But that’s some way away. But there’s no point in the West having objectives for Russia because that will depend on so many factors within Russia itself; it’s not a reason to fight a war. So, Western objectives have been phrased in terms of the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. And that’s where we are.
WATCH: As Ukrainian artillery pounds Russian positions, a military doctor said work in his field hospital is increasingly intense and a drone unit reported that Russia was massing further columns of artillery. Current Time correspondent Andriy Kuzakov reports from the front line.
I don’t think the West would push Ukraine to have more radical, or more maximalist, objectives than the Ukrainians are prepared to accept. [If] the Ukrainians were ready to take a compromise outcome, I suspect that would be accepted [by the West], while if the Ukrainians want to fight that would be accepted….
There’s no point in being naive about this. There will come a point — if there still is what looks like a military stalemate, which I’m not sure is likely; I think there will be movement of one sort or another — if things look, say, in six months how they look now, I think just the capacity issues will be pushing to try to find some way to at least pause the conflict. I don’t think it’s an issue of the West wanting different things than the Ukrainians want. As it always is with wars, the ends and means have to be in alignment. And if the means aren’t there, then you may have to accept outcomes, at least in the short term, that are uncomfortable.…
RFE/RL: When the West is talking about not allowing Putin and Russia to succeed in Ukraine, it’s often coupled with the phrase “inflicting strategic defeat on Russia.” And I would like to ask you, what does that strategic defeat look like?
Freedman: Well, I think the moment that they’re facing strategic defeat — in that they set themselves an objective, which they haven’t obtained — they’ve already, in that sense, been defeated.
Now, you can then have subsidiary objectives. On March 25, the subsidiary objective was to take the Donbas, but they haven’t achieved that yet. So, I don’t think strategic defeat itself is a very difficult concept. The issue is how much the Russians recognize it. The problem [with] this from Day One has been that it needs the Russians to end this war. And Putin has refused to end it and is scared of ending it, I think. So, [the war] carries on with all the human costs that entails. And until there’s a determination in Russia that strategically this is a losing game and, somehow, they have to get out of this mess, that’s where we are….
Tactical nuclear weapons just introduce a whole load of complications operationally and risk — as [Putin’s] been told, as far as we’re aware — exactly the sort of Western engagement he wishes to avoid.”
If the West came in, if NATO armies joined Ukraine, then bringing this war to an end would be very simple but very dangerous…. And so, there’s just so many things that we’re waiting for, but somehow the biggest thing we’re waiting for is a moment where Moscow determines that actually this isn’t going anywhere, and they can’t afford to keep it going with so little to show for it.
RFE/RL: I think one of the biggest fears of the West is the scenario that Russia uses a nuclear weapon. You wrote, “The political risks of any nuclear attack on Ukraine would outweigh possible gains. These would include possible collateral casualties among ethnic Russians in Ukraine and radioactive fallout blowing into Russia.” I suppose, though, that analysis is based on the assumption that Putin will assess the situation and behave in a rational way. Will he?
Freedman: I’ve been pretty consistent on my view on this, and nothing has made me change [my mind]. Because [Putin’s] taken one stupid decision, there’s always a possibility he may take another. But the fact is, he’s used nuclear weapons very effectively as deterrence. If nuclear weapons didn’t exist, then there’s no reason to suppose that the West would not be fighting side by side with Ukraine to defeat [Russian] aggression.
Putin made it clear on February 24 [and] he reiterated it on February 27 [and] he’s said it since, that the risk of nuclear war — he didn’t quite put it in those terms, but that’s effectively what he means — comes into play as soon as NATO is directly involved on the Ukrainian side…. And that deterrence has worked. Equally, he’s been deterred from attacking NATO countries. So, that’s fine, it contains the conflict. He’s escalated; if he wants to hurt Ukrainians, he’s shown he can do it. And if he wants to use firepower, he’s got firepower. But actually, tactical nuclear weapons just introduce a whole load of complications operationally and risk — as he’s been told, as far as we’re aware — exactly the sort of Western engagement he wishes to avoid.
So, I think the scare was much greater a few months ago, when it looked like Ukraine was really doing well, pushing the Russians back, but I always thought it was overstated.
You can’t rule it out because Russia is a nuclear power with a lot of capability. But [it’s] high risk for Russia without obvious gain. Part of the risk is that they might use this stuff and the missile gets knocked down, knocked out, or it doesn’t explode properly, or it detonates or whatever. Nobody’s used this stuff for a long time. So, it’s not something you can exclude — [and] I think we would have a pretty good indication that something was up — but I don’t see it at the moment.