Putin's war of attrition

Destroyed cars in Bucha, Ukraine

Destroyed cars in Bucha, Ukraine (Credit: President Of Ukraine)

Destroyed cars in Bucha, Ukraine (Credit: President Of Ukraine)

On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. A year on, this article takes stock of why Russia did so, and what might happen next. Wars are unpredictable. This one, unfortunately, still has a long way to run. I do not make predictions. I do set out some thoughts about how the war might end.

Putin is something of an amateur historian. In July 2021 he published an essay setting out his view that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era…on the lands of historical Russia.”

Behind this lie some key narratives. First, about the Great Patriotic War (World War II), in which the Soviet Union saved the world from Nazism. This narrative justified the Kremlin’s control over central and eastern Europe after 1945 and is used now to justify Putin’s invasion of a Ukraine supposedly taken over by anti-Russian “Nazis”.

Second, about the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Putin does not share the West’s understanding of what happened or why in 1989-91. His formative experience as a KGB officer in Dresden in 1989 was one of horror and bewilderment at watching anti-government street protests. And of resentment at what he sees as the humiliations of the 1990s.

Today's Russia is unapologetic about the imposition of repressive regimes in central and eastern Europe after 1945 and is disinclined to accept that people in those countries wished to make alternative arrangements once they were free to do so after 1989-91.

What is the Kremlin trying to achieve through its narratives around the war that ended in 1945, the Cold War that ended in 1989, and the war Putin launched against Ukraine?

First, this is about internal legitimisation: convincing Russians that the rule of ageing and autocratic KGB men and their friends is in Russia’s best interests. Second, it is about reasserting Russia as a Great Power, with all that follows from this: the right to impose its will on neighbouring countries, and a right of veto over the actions of other Great Powers where they impinge on Russia's interests – where necessary, through the threat or use of military force.

In the months before 24 February 2022, Russia amassed an enormous military force on Ukraine’s borders. At the last minute, Russia sent the United States and NATO two draft treaties which, if implemented, would have completely redrawn the political map of Europe leaving Russia as the dominant military power in Europe. The treaties were clearly not negotiable, and I do not think they were intended to be. They read more like an expression of anger and self-justification for what was to follow.

On 24 February, Putin launched the biggest and most dangerous conflict in Europe since 1945.

Putin’s war did not go according to plan. Putin hoped for a quick victory. But he made several strategic blunders. He underestimated Ukraine’s willingness and capacity to fight. He overestimated Russia’s military capabilities. And he misjudged the West’s ability and willingness to support Ukraine and to impose heavy costs on Russia.

Ukraine and Russia are fighting different kinds of war. Ukraine is fighting for its national survival. Putin has three primary aims: to destroy Ukraine as a sovereign democratic nation; to rewrite Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture; and to discredit the United States as a security provider of last resort.

We do not know how or when the war will end. It is becoming a war of attrition, with no clear path to military victory for either side.

Putin hopes to outlast Ukraine’s western backers. His forces are destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure to raise the cost of resistance and to make Ukraine an economic burden. He is playing on European publics’ fears of direct NATO-Russia confrontation, which both Russia and NATO have a clear interest in avoiding. He is banking on food and energy costs eroding public support in the West and damaging the West’s standing in the global South.

Putin is also counting on electoral cycles to change the underlying political facts – in particular, the U.S. Presidential election in 2024. Russia has its own Presidential election in 2024. Putin will need to decide soon whether that is about revalidating his rule or planning a succession. His misadventure in Ukraine has greatly complicated that decision.

I see no realistic prospect of a negotiated settlement until that is clearly better for both sides than fighting on. Neither side is close to that point. If the time comes for a negotiated settlement, Ukraine will need to decide what is negotiable and what is not, depending on the circumstances and the choices available. It is not sensible to try to determine those choices at present.

Whatever happens on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, the underlying conflict will not end until Putin has left office and Russia itself is on a path to fundamental change. We may need to manage a confrontational relationship with Russia for many years.

But we should also think now about how we prepare for change in Russia – however long it takes. Three thoughts:

  1. How do we engage with the next generation of Russians and what kind of relationship we want with them – particularly with those who want a different kind of Russia? We should do what we can to keep open educational links. We should offer safe haven to those who need it.
  2. When the war ends, Ukrainians and Russians will still be neighbours. They will probably need help with the painful processes of truth, justice and eventually reconciliation. The Cambridge community may be able to offer relevant support, including a safe space for Ukrainians, Russians, and others to have difficult conversations about the disaster that Putin has wrought.
  3. We should build the next generation of people with real, deep expertise in Russia, Ukraine and the wider region. Understanding of the languages, histories and cultures, and the networks on which any lasting change for the better will depend.
Sir Laurie Bristow at Hughes Hall

Sir Laurie Bristow is President of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge. He was previously a British diplomat, serving as UK Ambassador to Afghanistan, Russia and Azerbaijan.

Published 24 February 2023