Putin’s Pivot to a “Really Big War” in Ukraine

Andrei Soldatov is an expert on the Russian intelligence bureaucracy, and the functioning of Vladimir Putin’s security state. Soldatov is the author, along with Irina Borogan, of “The Compatriots: The Brutal and Chaotic History of Russia’s Exiles, Émigrés, and Agents Abroad.” They are also the founders and editors of the site Agentura.ru, which covers Russia’s security services. Two months ago, as it first became clear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was going poorly, I spoke with Soldatov about Putin’s reaction to the setbacks. I called him again on Monday, with the hope that he could explain what has been happening internally in Russia throughout the past sixty days. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Russia is preparing for a long war against Ukraine, how the Russian military sees the operation, and some of Putin’s biggest miscalculations.

Since we last talked, how have things looked internally in the Russian government?

The main thing is that, at least among the military, everybody now understands that it’s going to be a long, conventional war, not the small military operation they pretended it would be. And that is why some changes were made in terms of the structure of who is in charge of leading the troops on the battlefield. The military-intelligence agency was also put in charge of collecting intelligence information for the troops. [Previously, the domestic security service was doing so.]

When we talked last time, you mentioned thinking that there had been more purges on the intelligence side than on the military side. And in part that was because the military had developed so much power within Putin’s system. But the U.K.’s Defence Intelligence agency recently claimed Putin is now moving against figures in the military. Is your sense that something has changed with the military? Is Putin purging for past mistakes, or preparing for a long war?

Given that he is not changing the main people, it looks like he’s preparing for a long war. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is still there, and Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov] is still there, but there has been a big turnaround. And I think it was quite visible during the military parade of the ninth of May. Everybody knows that Gerasimov was not in attendance.

What about within the intelligence agencies? When we talked a couple of months ago, it seemed Putin was beginning some purges to punish people for the intelligence shortfalls in the initial parts of the invasion. What more do we know about that now?

The G.R.U. is Russia’s military-intelligence agency and Putin put the first deputy head of the G.R.U., Vladimir Alekseev, in charge of intelligence operations in Ukraine. So that was what happened in the beginning of May. It is a significant change because, before that, when we spoke in March, Ukraine was primarily a responsibility of the F.S.B., a domestic counterintelligence agency. The leader of the fifth service of the F.S.B. is Sergey Beseda, and he was under a lot of criticism and was arrested. A lot of things happened to him because Putin believed that Sergey could provide a political solution to the problem of Ukraine, that he could use the F.S.B. to instigate a regime change in Kyiv. But that failed, obviously. So now Putin is preparing for the long war, and for that he needs military spies, not political operators, and the F.S.B. people are mostly political operators—that is why he appointed Vladimir Alekseev to be in charge of intelligence gathering in Ukraine.

Does this suggest that Putin has simply blamed the intelligence agencies for the war’s problems? Or is it that he has no option now, other than to turn even more to the military?

That’s the problem. He’s actually out of options. He’s quite limited. He got himself in a big war, and right now the military is finally quite convinced that they are fighting a really big war, not just some limited conflict. So what’s he going to do? He needs to vow to keep going in Ukraine. And he understands that he’s fighting a conventional army, not some group of Nazis. And the military thinking is that in this big war, the Russian Army is on the losing end, because the Ukrainian Army is a completely mobilized army that actually claims it can call on hundreds of thousands more in reserves. The Russian Army is still largely a peacetime army.

At the same time, the Ukrainian Army is given the best weaponry that the West can provide. And this weaponry is tested against the Russians and the Russians are not in position to inflict any damage on NATO. They’re suffering heavy losses from the weaponry supplied by NATO countries.

For many years, the Russian military believed that they had a chance to win a conflict with the West, not because they have better technology—they knew that the West always would have better technology—but because the West, and specifically the United States, would never sustain heavy casualties like the Russian Army can sustain, because, to the leadership, the cost of life is different. But in this war, in Ukraine, all the casualties are not by NATO or by the American Army but by the Ukrainian Army. So even this cannot be played by the Russian Army. And that is why they think that they picked up a fight with NATO in the wrong place.

So if they’d been fighting a NATO country then presumably NATO itself would be experiencing losses. And now NATO is more willing to go along with the long war, because it’s the Ukrainians who are taking the losses?

Yes, absolutely. But the weaponry supplied by NATO

By NATO countries, really.

Yes, exactly. So the Russians are taking these losses and they are taking a hit from the Ukrainian Army with the best weaponry in the world, supplied by the West. But we are not in position to inflict any damage back on NATO.

You’ve said several times that this means it’s going to be a big, long war. What is the goal of that war? What does the Russian Army think it is trying to do?

The Army feels that it’s going to be a really long war. They believe that this pretense of running special operations should be abandoned and some people in the Army establishment are saying this openly. For instance, Vladimir Kvachkov—he’s a former colonel of Special Forces. He is respected in the Army because of his war record in Afghanistan. And he became prominent in 2005. He was actually charged with trying to kill Anatoly Chubais, a big name in the Russian reformist government back in the nineteen-nineties. Lots of Russians blame Chubais for the way reforms went in the nineties. So, allegedly, Kvachkov tried to kill him. He got caught and sent to prison, and then got acquitted and released. On May 19th, a statement signed by Kvachkov, which lots of people inside of the Army support, said that, Look, we need to admit that we lost the first stage of this war. The Special Forces part of the war didn’t work and the Russian armies were told to retreat from the Kyiv region and Kharkiv, so now we need to accept it’s a big war and we need to adjust our strategy. And I talked to some people inside of the military, and they are supportive of this point of view.

But do we know what the goals of this war are?

No, that’s the most interesting thing. The thinking is that, look, we are sustaining heavy casualties and suffering a lot, so the goal of occupying the Donbas cannot be the objective of such a war. We need something a bit more ambitious, and some pro-military channels on Telegram have just conducted polls and asked their subscribers, “What do you think? When will the objective for this war be achieved?” And only six per cent of people said that it would be achieved with the “liberation” of the Donbas, while thirty-three per cent said it would be when the whole of Ukraine capitulates unconditionally. People in the military and people close to the military want something much more ambitious than what Putin is saying.

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