Understanding the double nature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Top Israeli military analyst discusses Moscow’s miscalculations in starting a war in Europe and its broader ramifications

Understanding the double nature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Azar Gat is one of Israel’s leading military analysts specializing in war and peace strategy. As a theoretician of the military environment with a strategic background, he offers assessments of military variability and high strategy as well as critical situations, and his work is recognized internationally, most notably in his book “War in Human Civilization.”

He currently holds the Ezer Weitzman Chair for National Security at Tel Aviv University, where he is also head of the postgraduate MA in Security and Diplomacy.

understanding-the-double-nature-of-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine0What is the modern strategic dogma of Russia and what were the primary strategic goals of the invasion of Ukraine?

What we need to understand is the double nature of the Russian invasion. There is the quite obvious offensive element, the aggressive element. This is a blatant case of aggression, but it is a revival of traditional Russian imperialism. But what many people do not quite realize is also the defensive element. We have obviously studied the so-called security dilemma, that is that the Russians are really genuinely concerned about strategic nature, like the missiles stationed on the borders of Russia, only a few hundred kilometers from Moscow. They have been protesting this for years. I think that the whole idea of Ukraine joining NATO and the refusal to give even basic guarantees about this, let alone about the stationing of missiles, was an unnecessary provocation.

Did Putin underestimate the Ukrainian side or the West’s reaction?

Now, it is general knowledge that he has missed this, has misinterpreted everything. He misinterpreted the Ukrainian determination. They actually believed that once the Russian forces were in, the population would be very loud, some segments of them would join him, and there would be very little resistance. All of these have been proved entirely wrong. The Russians did not actually believe that the West would protest and impose sanctions. I never believed that the West would show the kind of unity that it has and the kind of very serious sanctions that they imposed. What was obviously hugely miscalculated was the fighting potential of the Russians, of the Russian Armed Forces.

What are Russia’s fatal weaknesses and how has the internal soft underbelly affected their plans?

What we all knew and Obama said a few years ago that Russia was a giant that rested on feet of clay. That is the economy. The Russian economy is very small, the size of Italy’s, which means that they have very little capacity in terms of breathing stamina. We all knew this. And we now see it even more clearly, because we see that they lack practically everything. So, this was clear. What was not as clear was that the morale would be so low that military capabilities in terms of military proficiency of both the ground forces and the air force are at a very low level.

‘The whole idea of Ukraine joining NATO and the refusal to give even basic guarantees about this, let alone about the stationing of missiles, was an unnecessary provocation’

In addition, what is no less important is the level of corruption. Russia is like a kleptocracy. The government is ruled by thieves and now it turns out that it is not only the top echelons, that is Putin and the oligarchs, but the corruption goes down all the way. And what we now understand is that the people, officers, junior officers, the maintenance people everywhere were stealing petrol. They did not do the things necessary for maintenance, logistics and so forth.

Regarding Putin’s primary claim for a special “de-nazification” operation, was the genocide of Bucha and other atrocities included in his plans?

I doubt it. I think that we do not know enough about it. Obviously, there was a massacre in Bucha, but we are not sure how things are in other places. We know that the Russians do not like brutality. Some of the reports are just saying that these were Chechen troops. If these were Chechen troops, this may explain something. However, the destruction is quite severe in many places. Mariupol is one example, maybe also Kharkiv. But I doubt that he wanted the policy of atrocities. Obviously, the image created is very, very bad and very harmful for the Russian case.

From blitzkrieg to the muddy Ukrainian lake. Do you foresee a Ukrainian war of attrition, with small units taking unconventional action against Russia?

Blitzkrieg has failed. What we see now, what we seem to see now, backed by official Russian declarations, is that they are pulling out the forces from Kyiv and that they are concentrating on the eastern part of Ukraine and the southeast, which they have managed to conquer. Now, in the east, Putin has committed himself to so-called liberating the two provinces, saying their full borders before the war, the Russians also only held one-third of them.

So, he is now concentrating his forces there. And also, they have made gains along the shores of the Sea of Azov and along the shores of the Black Sea. They are not going to be able to conquer Odessa. This is already clear. But they would want to hold on to their conquest there. I think that the prospects of the Russians advancing in the east, the prospects are not good. At the same time, I do not think that Ukraine, and given the continuous fronts that we have on that front, I doubt that the Ukrainians are able to make progress there. We have consolidated the front lines. It is not like what we had around Kyiv, where the Russians were exposed from all directions. As for the south there, the potential for the Ukrainians seems to be a bit greater. That is as the Russians are spreading along the shores of the Black Sea. The Ukrainians might be able to cut them off along these long lines of communication. So, it would be most reasonable to speculate that what we are going to see is the war bowing down to a kind of attrition in the east, maybe a little more dynamic in the southeast.

Concerning the grand strategy game, was the Russian invasion a smokescreen for Putin’s real intentions?

I do not think so. I think that Ukraine and Belarus are his intentions, that is the old Russian Empire. Ukraine, Belarus, and maybe also Kazakhstan because of the large majority of the Russian population. I do not believe that his intentions were more. American intelligence also said that at that time there were no signs of concentration of forces along the borders of the Baltic states. So, I think that although his plan was radical, it was not that radical. And that was it. I think that this was his intention.

Would the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, like Israel, Greece and Cyprus, acquire strategic advantages?

So obviously there will be greater demand for gas from the Eastern Mediterranean. But on the other hand, we still should remember that the dire production of the gas fields here is no substitute for the Soviet gas. The quantities are of marginal significance since Europe is now looking for any other source other than Russia. So, yes, with the gas that comes from the Eastern Mediterranean. But obviously, as I said, it is limited in its capacity, important but limited.