To Cripple The Bear: The Defeat of Putin's Russia, and Permanent Tarnishing of it's Plausible Deniability
The key to defeating Russia is Western enhancement of Ukraine’s ability to attrit the Russian army over time, and with it, Putin’s strategic options and psychological judgment. This can be accomplished by turning the Russian methodology of “hybrid” warfare against Russia.
When we think of quagmires in war, America's conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq immediately come to mind, as well as the American and Russian catastrophes in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan. While Vietnam taught us the folly of putting too much credence to kill ratios in war, the current conflict in Ukraine is an attritional war, where kill ratios count; even with a draft, there is a limit to the number of troops Russia will be able to stomach sending into the conflict. The US retreated from Iraq and Afghanistan after losing several thousand soldiers, in comparison to a likely six-figure total of enemy combatants killed. While the casualty estimates in Ukraine of 100,000 dead on each side are terrible, it is actually statistically more in the favor of the Ukrainian defenders than other quagmire wars. In addition, this war will always be remembered by Ukraine, and her patriots. They will remember the sacrifice, the Russian brutality, and the group of international allies who stood by them in the hour of their most dire need. The darkness of this war will fortify and entrench the patriotism and valor of the Ukrainian people far into the future.
But in the present moment, the more pressing question is the immediate defeat of Russia by Ukraine. Yet potentially there may be a silver lining to this conflict when it is over: incapacitation of the asymmetric form of political-military force espoused by Putin, a form of aggression which has proved so ruthlessly effective for inter-state warfare and has enabled Russia to punch far beyond its heft in the international arena. This war could allow the curtain to be pulled back, and Russia’s lies to the international community to never be believed again.
For such a normally shrewd political poker player, Vladimir Putin has shot himself in the foot by betting all of his - and Russia’s - political capital on a single offensive. The true Ghost of Kyiv has been the Ukrainian populace, who have cast a specter over Putin with the horrendously high casualties the Russian military have suffered so far, with much fighting still to come and the Ukrainian insurgency still a formidable bulwark, especially with Western military assistance. No matter the veracity of actual numbers, even the discussion of a figure as high as 100,000 Russian dead puts this war as a catastrophe even when judged against the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these casualties have occurred for Russia in a much shorter time span.
Putin is vulnerable from several avenues at once; with general psychological pressure from the war mentioned above the first factor. The second is from the Russian people, especially the conservative block of his constituency, who for twenty years were promised a reunification of the Russian ethnic diaspora. Putin not only made clear his international ambitions for an increasingly nationalistic Russia, but had reason for confidence on the back of quick and efficient seizures in Georgia and Crimea. Yet now the burgeoning cost of the war will only grow exponentially larger as casualties continue to mount. Third, Putin is likely under significant pressure collectively from Russia’s oligarchs, whose businesses are being hammered by international sanctions, their commerce hampered by bans and embargoes, and who may eventually seek a change in leadership if Putin continues to falter. Most importantly, Putin’s psyche and intellectual edge is slipping, with his ego making bets his abilities can’t match; comparing himself to Czars, desiring historical comparison alongside Peter The Great, and ensconcing himself from accurate intelligence reporting by yes-men who distort their intelligence reports, strongly indicating that the once lethal chess player has lost his edge, and this slide will only continue.
The key to defeating Russia is Western enhancement of Ukraine’s ability to attrit the Russian army over time, and with it, Vladimir Putin’s strategic options and psychological judgment. This can be accomplished by turning the Russian methodology of “hybrid” warfare - honed by Russian general and commander of Russian troops in Ukraine Valery Gerasimov and demonstrated in the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 seizure of Crimea - against Russia. The crux of this strategy is using all possible means of political and military utility to win a conflict, not only the Western-centric decisive conventional military victory model which has proved so fallible in America’s recent wars. The essence of this attritional strategy - or “liminal warfare” that Gerasimov envisioned - is that “irregular forces can develop strategies that exploit familiarity with local conditions…leaving [the enemy] susceptible to fatigue, disenchantment, and a growing sense of futility. [contests of] endurance and will rather than between armies…with attrition, there is an implication of a notional breaking point when the enemy can cope no longer because it has run out of troops or money.” The attritional strategy engineered by the Russians is, ironically, the Rosetta Stone for breaking the Russian military in Ukraine, and with it, Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, and any Russian credibility in the international sphere for decades to come as a result of their naked aggression against a sovereign state.
Much has been made of the debate over delivering tanks to augment the power of Ukrainian forces against the Russian behemoth. There are several salient points here: first, it is true that modern tanks will represent a significant upgrade to the Soviet-era battle tanks the Ukrainian army has been relying on. Even if German-made Leopard 2 tanks are not the equal of the best tank in the world - the American M1 Abrams, which can even outmatch the ultra-modern Russian T-90 - the utility of tanks to act as a hammer in the type of maneuver warfare critical to retaking Russian-held territory is crucial.
However, there are two oft-ignored points within the tank discussion. First, tanks are not the only critical augmenting armor platform; so too are light armored vehicles, for example the Army’s Bradley or USMC LAV. Unfortunately, for those who did not serve in the military, the public is largely ignorant of the power of these vehicles. The Wall Street Journal, producing otherwise top-caliber war reporting, described a Bradley as “resembl(ing) a tank but with a smaller gun.” This is to completely misunderstand the purpose of the tool. A Bradley or LAV - called “The Great Destroyer” by Iraqi foes - is a true predator of infantry on the battlefield, a single one of it’s rapidly fired 25mm shells able to blow a man into pieces, in addition to it’s other capabilities such as troop transport, fire support against vehicles and houses, and a suite of advanced electronic battlefield equipment. Tanks can take out other tanks, but LAVs manifest truly horrific carnage on infantry. This is a crucial element in attriting the Russian army.
The second ignored point regarding armor is the strong-pointing of cities. Strong-pointing is the practice of intense defensive focus on one point of conflict in war, such as the defense of a castle during a siege. One example of this would be placing archers on the castle walls to maximize their protection and where they can inflict the most casualties. In modern warfare, urban areas can serve the same purpose, where local knowledge of both inanimate and human terrain allow defenders to dig in and stymie or defeat much stronger opposing forces. Anyone can remember the brutal and bloody reclaiming of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi, cities effectively strong-pointed by a host of Iraqi and foreign insurgents. However, these foes lacked the “home-field” advantage of patriotism that Ukrainians possess - paradoxically, serving a fanatical ideology can be a much weaker impetus to bravery than true patriotism - but the insurgents in Iraq had no armor. Armor can be strategically placed at critical defensive points throughout a city to magnify the destruction caused against the attackers. Plus, local knowledge, informant networks, and general ingenuity give Ukrainians the edge in knowing where to conceal death-dealing armor and infantry ambushes. The level of attrition that could be wrought by this concentration of factors against Russian forces could be catastrophic for not only the Russian army, but also Putin’s credibility and strength of resolve.
Western-supplied armor, however, is emblematic of the requirement of logistics that Ukraine needs, and the west can provide. Money and supplies are ideal for the type of support casualty-adverse European nations can contribute. So too is European intelligence support, which has the advantage of local familiarity that the American CIA, far removed and ensconced in its Langley headquarters, may lack. But the west must, and can, do better. Of utmost importance, logistical support for Ukraine is a simple (but not easy) component of hope for victory: Western efforts have been solid, but must continue and become even more efficient.
A straightforward but critical factor is air superiority. Putin likely overestimated Russia’s ability to gain air superiority, and their astonishing level of casualties early in the war were likely a result in large part due to the neutralization of Russian air power. Ukrainian counter-attacks into Russian territory to disrupt supply lines using drones, and conversely shooting down scores of Russian drones over Ukrainian territory is excellent for Kiev. The point is straightforward: this trend is good for Ukrainian advantage - especially with the augmentation provided by top-flight American and European weaponry - but, like the logistics component, this must be deepened and cultivated to eventually provide an overwhelming advantage to pummel the Russians into submission. The Ukrainians have mounted an admirable defense with subpar equipment, and if an enhancing western logistical pipeline is further cultivated, Ukraine could outright beat Russia in a decisive victory. As a bonus, Western militaries would get to “field test” their equipment against Russian hardware for future development of weapons and tactics, without taking casualties themselves.
Another point in aggregating advantage is artillery. Again, there is not much to be said. The Russians notoriously employ large amounts of artillery and have no compunction about shelling civilians. Advanced western systems such as the American HIMARs have been devastating, and this trend must continue. However, one of the best approaches to be taken would be to give autonomy to on-the-ground commanders to respond without command-approval delays to hit Russian artillery behind enemy lines when the ideal opportunity presents itself. This could be done with counter-artillery such as the HIMARs or classic Howitzers, or with old-school commando raids assisted by clandestine western operators. Though Langley analysts may lag behind the Europeans in local intelligence capabilities, this does not apply to CIA Special Activities Division and Delta Force operators, whose hard-won experience makes them the best in the world at not only augmenting combat power, but doing it quietly and with plausible deniability in the international news sphere.
One final point of aggregation of attrition against Russian forces is embodied in the operational imperative of the US Army’s storied Green Berets: By, With, and Through. By training local forces with superior American warfighting skills, America’s best asymmetric facilitators can augment the fighting capabilities of Ukrainian forces clandestinely while exposing themselves to limited risk, a far cry from the dreaded “boots on the ground” level of troop deployment. There are additional advantages which could be integrated into such a plan, for example the training of Ukrainian snipers, a devastating advantage for urban defenders, as demonstrated not only in Iraq, but ironically, by the Russians in the siege of Stalingrad during WW2. In addition to the usual suspects of SAD, Delta, and SEALs, Army Rangers and USMC Scout Snipers give the American military the best and deepest corps of snipers in the world. Logistical challenges in training Ukrainian troops on western equipment are inevitable, but sniper training is much simpler, and can manifest battlefield advantage for Ukraine much sooner. It would be inexpensive and frighteningly effective to let our best marksman train a new cadre of Ukrainian snipers to strike terror into Russians fighting in Ukrainian cities. American operators, professional European spies, and local Ukrainian agents could be a lethal cocktail of attrition in grinding down the Russian military.
In sum, Russia’s own “all instruments of strategy” hybrid attritional warfare can be turned against them to secure a Ukrainian victory, augmented by western technology and expertise. It must be remembered that this is both a chess match against the Russian military on the ground, as well as against Russia’s strategic leadership: Valery Gerasimov, and Vladimir Putin himself. Fighter jets and naval force escalations may not be necessary, as these shows of absolute dominance may spook Putin into rash action. Putin knows that use of nuclear weapons in a conflict of initiated aggression would potentially destroy Russian credibility for decades, if not hundreds of years. Better is for the west to emulate the mentality of a boxer, last until the end of a fight, and continue to cultivate and reinforce our Ukrainian allies in the methods which have already been put into place. A knockout blow may not be needed. Exhausting the Russian bear will cripple its capabilities, and catalyze the political and psychological collapse of the once formidable spymaster-in-chief, Vladimir Putin.
 Jonsson, Oscar. The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019. Pg. 152
 Freedman, Lawrence. Ukraine and The Art of Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pg. 12.
 Jonsson, Pg. 58.
 Freedman, 42.
 Kilcullen, David. The Dragons and The Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pg. 161.
 Freedman, 47.
 Kilcullen, 245.
 Kilcullen, 237.
DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.