Dec 19, 2022

The Cipher Brie

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video meeting with the Russia Presidential Council for Human Rights and Civil Society, a group with whom he usually meets once a year.  The meeting was broadcast on Russian national television and judging from that fact and the content of Putin’s remarks, the audience was the Russian people, not the Council.

Members of the Council were warned in advance not to pester the Russian President with questions about the conflict in Ukraine and his remarks were consistent with a pattern of his public remarks stretching back several years.  They show a leader clearly divorced from the reality of what is happening in Ukraine, to his country, his military, and to Russia’s standing in the world.  Some commentators have noted Putin seems to be living in an alternate universe.

If Putin’s remarks were a “one off” set of comments designed to boost the morale of the Russian people and solidify support for the war, that would be one thing, but Putin’s has now repeated his distorted interpretation of history and his own imperial greatness so many times, there is no alternative to believing that he means what he says and therefore, the west should act and treat him accordingly.

In his December 7 remarks, Putin noted the “Special Military Operation” (SMO) could go on for a long time.  He again compared himself favorably to Peter the Great and boasted of the achievements gained thus far in the operation, including the acquisition of enough Ukrainian territory to make the Sea of Azov a “Russian lake,” which he said was always one of Peter I’s goals.

Putin of course, made no reference to the enormous casualties.  According to an unverified Russian source whose reporting on Russian casualties has been in a range consistent with Ukrainian and western reports, as of December 11, Russia had lost 95,657 military-operational personnel to the conflict.  Together with casualties within Private Military Companies such as the Wagner Group (29,619) and Russian National Guard (5,776) total casualties allegedly amount to 131,052.

This is a staggering figure, even if inflated and does not include losses in military material, much of which cannot be replaced in the near term hence the reliance on drones from Iran and supplies of ammunition and material from other countries.

For all the pitiful performance of the much-vaunted Russian military since the invasion began in February, the performance of the Ukrainians has been skillful and inspirational.  From repelling the Russian attempt to capture Kyiv in the opening weeks of the war, to the offensives liberating significant captured territory near Kharkiv, to the recent recapture of Kherson, the Ukrainians have demonstrated strategic vision and tactical skill.  Now, the Ukrainians are taking the fight to Russian soil in the form of drone attacks targeting the airbases the Russian air force is using to launch the barbaric strikes against Ukrainian civilian and energy infrastructure.  The attacks show the Russian homeland is not off limits—nor should it be.  We may be witnessing the 21st century equivalent of the British Royal Air Force in Second World War, when Britain stood alone.  As Churchill said in 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Make no doubt about it, the front line of freedom in the world is in eastern Ukraine and the stakes in this conflict are incredibly high.  One wonders if enough western leaders and “influencers” realize what’s at stake.

It seems there are constant pleas and suggestions to not “provoke” or humiliate Putin, lest we risk escalation.  Such suggestions show a fundamental misunderstanding of Putin, Russia, and negotiation with dictators in general.  This is especially true of dictators who inhabit an alternative universe.  Negotiation and a path toward compromise is the preferred course of business and statecraft for most in the west.  And such an approach generally works well when

the parties involved have rational leaders and represent countries where the rule of law exists.  The Russian president is not rational in this sense and Russia is certainly not a country where the rule of law exists.

The sorry parade of western leaders traveling to Moscow to plead with Putin not to invade Ukraine did not prevent the war from happening and in a way, perhaps contributed to it because these visits likely reinforced Putin’s mistaken view that western leaders are feckless and weak and would not respond forcefully if he invaded.  Putin was wrong on those assumptions but now seems to be preparing the information space for the Russian people and western leaders that he is in this for the long haul.  We should be as well.

Putin’s strategy is clearly to bet on war weariness, fatigue and expense, to sap the strength of the western coalition supporting Ukraine.  And a little bit of nuclear sable-rattling in the background to remind anyone who may have forgotten that Russia is a nuclear power.

Putin said himself this month that, “Russians will defend ourselves with all the means at our disposal.”  He said the risk of nuclear war was growing, but also said, “We haven’t gone mad, we realize what nuclear weapons are.  We have these means in more advanced and modern form than any other nuclear country. But we aren’t about to run around the world brandishing this weapon like a razor.”

It’s interesting that Putin decided to assert that Russia wasn’t “mad.”  Despite Putin’s assertion, there are western and Ukrainian media reports that parts from Russian X55 cruise missiles have been found following Russian missile attacks as far west as Lviv, and in attacks on Kyiv.  According to a Ukrainian-based media outlet, an X55 missile fragment that was found after an attack on Kyiv in mid-November, contained a screwed on block that may have served as a dummy nuclear payload.  A former US general speculated that the Russian use of the nuclear-capable X55 cruise missile may have been a test of the range and accuracy of those systems for potential use in a nuclear strike on Ukraine.

Putin’s preparation of the information space for a long war and his repeated references to Russia’s nuclear status, really tell a story of the performance of the Russian military in the war thus far.  Putin doesn’t have any arrows left in his quiver to escalate the conflict short of what he is already doing, except to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The Russian conventional force capability that in many western estimates, posed a credible threat to NATO prior to the February invasion and served as the “or else” behind Russian demands for “security guarantees” in the run up to the invasion, no longer exists.

The Russian air force and navy have largely been missing in the conflict except as platforms to launch missile and artillery strikes against civilian infrastructure.  Whatever economic clout Russia might have had to use as geopolitical levers in the form of oil or natural gas, has been substantially neutralized.  Other than Iran, the axis of totalitarian states has largely provided only rhetoric to support Putin’s war.  Even at home, the latest polling suggests support for the war is finally waning.  Fewer and fewer Russians believe Putin did the right thing by starting the war.  According to polling by the Levada Center, 55 percent of Russians now support peace talks with Ukraine.   Only about 60 percent agree with the decision to start the war and among Russians aged 18-45, about 40 percent agree.

The percentage of Russians in all demographic groups that support the decision to invade has dropped over the past six months.  The number of Russians who have decided to leave the country since the start of the war, suggests even less support.  Moreover, for the first time a member of the siloviki, Wagner Group chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, seems to be posturing himself as a potential replacement for Putin.

On the strategic level, Russia’s situation is even worse; Sweden and Finland are now on a path toward NATO membership and NATO itself is re-invigorated and member states are in the process of re-arming.  Support for Putin and Russia abroad is ebbing—even the Chinese have expressed reservations about Putin’s performance in invading Ukraine.

Failure on the battlefield, economic difficulties, strategic setbacks and eroding public support suggest that now is the time for the west to show Putin that his “long game” strategy will fail.

The first step in this process is to recognize there can be no negotiated or diplomatic solution to the war, short of Russia accepting all of Ukraine’s preconditions which include the withdrawal of Russian forces to pre-2014 borders, reparations for war damage, remanding of war criminals to justice and security guarantees for Ukraine, which now almost certainly will end up in the European Union and quite possibly NATO at some point.  At a minimum, the epicenter of military power in Europe will shift further to the east, to Poland and Ukraine and the Baltic States.

We would do well to pay more attention to lessons of the states proximate to Russia that have learned the bitter lessons of what Russia stands for from years of occupation and intimidation.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas expressed this very well in her description of Russian negotiating tactics quoting Andrei Gromyko, a long-time Soviet diplomat, saying, first, the Russians demand the maximum — and indeed something that they didn’t even have before. In this case, that might include a withdrawal by NATO from central and eastern Europe. Second, they present ultimatums and make outrageous threats. Witness Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling.  (Russia recently announced it activated three RS-24 Yars missiles with a payload 12x stronger than the US bomb that struck Hiroshima.)  And third, they don’t give one inch in negotiations, because they assume that there will always be some people in the West who will offer them something. She is exactly right. We should be publicly and privately messaging Russia that the invasion of Ukraine was a mistake of historic proportions, and the price Russia must and will pay for that mistake will be high as well.

As 2022 draws to a close and we approach the anniversary of Putin’s invasion, there is no more important time to express and demonstrate western resolve to the Russian dictator and the kleptocracy that supports his rule.  Ukraine should be given the tools to defend Ukrainian territory, liberate occupied territory and take some level of death and destruction to the territory of the Russian Federation.  History will not judge current western leaders harshly if they act with resolve and force.

Defeating Putin and Russia in this war will send an unmistakable message to the axis of totalitarianism.  If we chose to hide in an alternative universe and take a path toward appeasement or a course of half-measures designed to show “restraint” to the dictator, history will judge this generation of leaders quite differently.


Rob Dannenberg served as chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center before retiring from the Agency.  He served as managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP and is now an independent consultant and speaker on geopolitical and security risk.