This is only the first phase of Putin’s war plan

A Neokohn főmunkatársa, Izraelben élő biztonságpolitikai szakértő.

It is well known that there are three stages of grief. This is also true of grief over a prognosis gone up in smoke. In the first stage, those who for months had vehemently denied that war could break out between Russia and Ukraine did not allow themselves to be embarrassed by events and confidently declared that Putin’s decision was irrational. In other words, the white mouse under analysis was wrong to turn right in the labyrinth and not left. Analysis by Robert C. Castel.

In the second stage of grief in this example, the irrationality of the political decision was no longer the issue, but the unprofessionalism of its execution. Instead of trying to understand and explain the events as neutral observers, a great many analysts once again wandered into the hunting ground of value judgments and sat through the qualifying rounds in their respective fan jerseys.

Before we get to the third stage of grief, perhaps

it might be time to pause for a moment and reflect on the „anomalies” that have led to the „Putin was wrong” type of summary diagnosis.

These anomalies, are, in fact, facts. Facts that are not shrouded in secrecy and that can be debated by the any interested layman on an equal footing with an intelligence analyst in possession of classified information.

  • The fact is that, to date, the Russians have only deployed a fraction of their military and technological assets in the campaign against Ukraine.
  • The fact is that Russia has not sought to achieve total air superiority at all costs (See: The Ghost of Kiev), which is an obligatory starter on the menu of Western analysts.
  • In fact, Putin has not deployed his country’s cyber assets to cripple Ukraine’s critical infrastructure — water supply, electricity grid and internet (See: Ukraine’s access to the World Wide Web).
  • In fact, the firepower used has almost exclusively been based on high-precision equipment, which is not available in unlimited quantities in the world’s most modern armies.
  • The fact is that Putin has not sought at all costs to physically eliminate the Ukrainian armed forces as comprehensively as possible (See: the relatively low number of casualties).
  • It is also a fact that the Russians have so far not targeted the civilian population of Ukraine.

The knee-jerk response that „Putin was wrong” and will soon drink the consequences may give us some moral satisfaction in our outrage at the invasion, but it will hardly make us any wiser.

But if we are willing to entertain for a moment the uncomfortable thought that Putin may not have been wrong and that this is the result of a well-thought-out political and military planning process, then we have an opportunity to ask the question:

What exactly is the Russian president’s plan?

Such a question is particularly useful because the answer can provide a point of reference in space as well as time: What have we seen so far, where have we seen what we have seen, and what will be Putin’s next moves in the Ukrainian chess game?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question lies neither in fashionable slogans nor in dazzling military techniques. Knowledge of hybrid, asymmetric, network-centric, etc. forms of warfare is not necessary to understand the phenomena we are witnessing. Nor is it necessary to understand the mechanisms of action of hypersonic missiles and thermobaric warheads. To understand and explain Putin’s war plan, we only need to go back to the basics that have been studied and taught in military academies around the world for almost 200 years. The answers to the questions of the unfolding war in Ukraine are there, in Putin’s cadet officer’s school notes, if you just take them out and dust them off.

Since the 1950s, countless studies have been written about the influence that the Prussian military genius of the early 19th century, Carl von Clausewitz, had and still has on Russian military philosophy. Paradoxically, the Russians were among the first to rediscover and popularize Clausewitz’s works, far ahead of Western military thinkers. The Kantian methodology and the long years of experience in Russia ooze out of the author’s dry lines, and their charm proved irresistible to Russian military thinkers.

To understand the war plan for the invasion of Ukraine, it is enough to recall the best-known and most hackneyed Clausewitzian clichés.

  • War is just a continuation of politics by other means. When diplomacy, economic pressure, and other peaceful means fail, war is the ultima ratio regis, the last resort of kings. The fact that one half of humanity has given up this argument does not mean that the other half does not find it very effective.
  • The purpose of war is to break the will of the opponent. In war, psychological factors are three times as effective as physical factors. These are rather banal, yet often forgotten truths. The Americans did not withdraw from Afghanistan because the Taliban destroyed their last Hummer. The war undermined their will, not their physical capabilities.
  • The Clausewitz Trinity: the trinity of overcoming the Government, the Army and the People is a useful model for understanding war. The Great Prussian was fond of thinking in terms of different “trinities,” and the above-mentioned trinity is just one of many.

All the unexplainable “anomalies” presented as Putin’s mistakes suddenly fall into place when we try to reconstruct the war plan for the Ukrainian adventure from bits and pieces of Clausewitzian platitudes.

At the most basic level,

the aim of the war is to impose Russia’s political will on Ukraine.

Since Russia wants to increase its power by subjugating Ukraine, and does not want to create an economic and social blockade, it is important for it to achieve this goal with as little damage as possible. For this reason,

the first phase of the war is directed against the Ukrainian government, the apex of the Clausewitz Trinity.

The aim of combat activities in this phase is to achieve a psychological effect on the Ukrainian leadership. The message being communicated to the Ukrainian government is very simple: “Resistance is hopeless, surrender!” This is the aim of, among other things, the seemingly unnecessarily complex multi-directional offensive, the psychological effect of multi-dimensional encirclement, precision fire, and various forms of psychological warfare. This is also the purpose of the limited intensity of combat activity against the Ukrainian Army and the sparing of civilian infrastructure and the population.

Unless intensive psychological and moderate physical means can be used to make Ukrainian decision-makers surrender, or possibly to physically destroy it,

the next phase of the plan will be directed against the second pillar of the trinity, the Army.

In this case, too, psychological means will be a top priority, as the Ukrainian Army will be needed — a lesson learned from the invasion of Iraq — to pacify the country after the surrender. If the psychological effect fails to produce the expected result, what we will then see will be the systematic destruction of the Ukrainian Army’s manpower and military technology. Instead of precision weapons, we will see the use of conventional means of firepower more and more often, and the slow and methodical advance will give way to a more aggressive mobile war. This will be the moment when Russia will definitely carve out air superiority.

If the crushing of the Ukrainian armed forces fails to produce the expected result, then

the third pillar of the trinity, the Ukrainian People, will be the focus of Russian attention.

Here too, the first stage will be to increase psychological pressure through cyber and kinetic strikes against critical infrastructure, the destruction of targets of symbolic importance, and the use of terror bombings as a deterrent. High-precision devices will gradually give way to less accurate firepower based on the scenario seen in Grozny.

It is important to note that there are no firewalls between the three levels of the war plan.

The new degrees do not replace the existing ones, but complement them and take them to a higher level.

Is this really Putin’s war plan?

Only time will tell. To be more precise, not even time, because, as we know, no war plan survives the first encounter with its adversary.

The task of analysts is to observe perceptible phenomena and try to understand and explain them. It is highly doubtful that this explanation based on Clausewitz’ theory of war has any powers of foresight, but it is still a notch more useful than the endless „Putin was wrong” gag.

Ukraine and the love triangle of geopolitics

In geopolitics, there is only one really important question: which two in the superpower love triangle will get hitched and say „I do,” and which will remain lonely and isolated