by Observer R for the Saker blog
[typographical corrections 2/15/2023]
As the Ukraine war enters its second year, RAND Corporation entered the ring with two punches. The first was the January issuance of a study entitled Avoiding a Long War. The second was a February article by a RAND researcher entitled What Russia Got Wrong, which was published in Foreign Affairs. The latter article was sent by email on February 10, 2023, as part of an advertisement to subscribe to Foreign Affairs. It is an advance copy of the print edition for March/April 2023. That issue was not out yet and did not appear on the magazine website when this paper was written.
The January report, Avoiding a Long War, received wide publicity and comment because it seemed to overturn a previous RAND study done in 2022 that had suggested a long war in Ukraine would benefit the US. It was widely noted that RAND receives most of its funding from the US Defense Department, and that the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had suggested in late 2022 that it was a good time for Ukraine to negotiate a cease fire. His opinion was that Ukraine had achieved the maximum territory possible in the war and that things would go worse for Ukraine if the war continued. The Chairman’s opinion was outside the official narrative at the time and did not get much traction in public. Thus the RAND report in January was viewed as another attempt by the generals to educate the rest of the government and public that, in all likelihood, the Ukraine war would turn for the worse come the new year. The RAND report did serve to help open up space for a competing narrative that the Ukraine War was using up resources that would be better used in the competition with China, the real peer country. Thus one could argue that NATO was not giving up or losing a small war in Ukraine, but was simply reorienting efforts in preparation for the big war with China. One US general conveniently announced that he expected war with China to begin in 2025.
The February article from RAND, What Russia Got Wrong, is also a lengthy and well-written attempt at getting the new narrative in place. It serves in two ways: It explains the mainstream reported success of Ukraine in 2022 as being in large part due to mistakes by Russia and extensive support by NATO, and also warns that Russia is learning from its mistakes and will be much improved in 2023. In addition, the NATO supply of ammunition and rockets is running out and it is doubtful that NATO support will be enough in the future. While the article does not specifically call for negotiations now, it points out at the end that war is unpredictable and that Russia could win after all. The importance of the article is that it was published in Foreign Affairs magazine, the organ of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
What Russia Got Wrong shows an extensive knowledge and expertise on the part of the author. The beginning of the article lays out the author’s case: “Before the invasion, Russia’s military was larger and better equipped than Ukraine’s….Why Russia did not prevail—why it was instead stopped in its tracks, routed outside major cities, and put on the defensive—has become one of the most important questions in both U.S. foreign policy and international security more broadly.” The author then goes on for a major portion of the article explaining and answering the question. The answer included “excessive internal secrecy… an invasion plan that was riddled with faulty assumptions, arbitrary political guidance, and planning errors that departed from key Russian military principles.” Additionally, Russia underestimated both Ukrainian resistance and Western support for Ukraine. The article goes on for many pages listing Russian military capabilities and a long list of deficiencies.
The article continues to follow the official narrative through most of the many words, only to waffle at the end. One point is the emphasis on the initial thrust of the Special Military Operation (SMO) by Russia. It was very weak compared to the size of the Russian army, and the author notes it as a failure. There is a brief reference to Russian desire to avoid casualties and damage, but the author is basically looking at the situation as a military issue and assuming that major war strategy and tactics should have been followed.
Instead, Russia is berated for following a political strategy, without the article going into sufficient depth analyzing the war as a political issue. For example, one factor might have been that Russia was trying to keep the action as a small SMO in order to limit the scare it would give the European countries. Russia tried to portray the SMO as more of a police action to protect the separatist areas from Ukrainian army activities. Furthermore, it has not been clear to observers the reasons for Russian troops to venture into hostile territory so early in the invasion. There was some thought early on that the ventures may have had to do with the biological laboratories and the locations of nuclear materials, but this lacked clarification in the media.
In other words, perhaps Russia did not conduct the invasion of Ukraine according to Russian war doctrine because Russia was not intending it to be a war in the beginning. It appears that it was to demilitarize and remove any Nazi-type influence in Ukraine and to keep NATO out of Ukraine, but the methods were as much political as military. The military was to be kept to the minimum possible. The Russian plan almost succeeded: There were negotiations in Istanbul almost immediately between Russia and Ukraine, and some sort of partial deal was worked out. It is hard to find the exact terms agreed to, but presumably they were to have Ukraine become neutral, not join NATO, and recognize the local elections in areas to join Russia. These hopes were shattered when the prime minister of Britain flew to Kiev and reportedly convinced the Ukrainian government to trash the negotiated agreement. One of the members of the Ukraine team was assassinated when he returned to Kiev, with some talk that he was a traitor. This was murky enough, but got even more strange when, months later, he was declared a hero of Ukraine. In addition, the prime minister of Israel and the foreign minister of Turkey were very busy serving as mediators for ongoing negotiations among Ukraine, Russia and NATO powers to stop the war.
Russia could also be viewed as not wanting to start a war, but rather as issuing a wake-up-call to bring the various parties to the negotiating table. In this regard, Russia was successful. The fact that the negotiations failed can mean that Russia made a mistake, but if Russia had not gone the political route first, it also would have been later viewed as a mistake. In other words, Russia was “damned if it did and damned if it didn’t,” and many words can be spilled arguing each side and every point. Another instance where it appears that Russia tried to save the Ukrainian army and the people of Ukraine from destruction was when Moscow openly called on the Ukrainian army generals to carry out a coup and stop the war. This also failed, but even now some in the Western mainstream press suggest that factions would like to have the top military man in Ukraine take over the presidency with an eye to changing the situation.
Regardless of whether one views the first phases of the battle in Ukraine as an example of gross Russian ineptitude, or as the initial Russian moves in a game of three-dimensional chess, even the Foreign Affairs article admits that Russia improved a lot during the later stages of the battle. Among other things, the Russians have learned to use obsolete missiles and drones, instead of aircraft, to overcome Ukraine air defenses, and how to jam Ukrainian communications without jamming their own.
The conclusion of the article is that “there are reasons to think the shift will not salvage the war for Russia, partly because so many things need to change, no single factor explains why the war has gone so poorly for Russia thus far.” However, it goes on to hedge as follows:
“But analysts should be careful about forecasting outcomes. The classic adage still holds: in war, the first reports are often wrong or fragmentary. Only time will tell whether Russia can salvage its invasion or whether Ukrainian forces will prevail. The conflict has already followed an unpredictable course, and so the West should avoid making hasty judgments about what went wrong with Russia’s campaign, lest it learn the wrong lessons, devise incorrect strategies, or acquire the wrong types of weapons. Just as the West overestimated Russia’s capabilities before the invasion, it could now underestimate them.”
So, while the first punch from RAND warned that a long war in Ukraine is not in the US’s interest, this second punch from RAND warned that the US should be careful because it is possible that Russia might win the Ukraine war. Many analysts assume that these two RAND initiatives have occurred now because Russia really is winning and the “powers that be” want to break the news very gently to the public and the politicians.
A well-written article by a retired British diplomat, Alastair Crooke, does an excellent job of elucidating further on the topic of Ukraine:
“Olexii Arestovich, Zelensky’s former ‘spin doctor’ and adviser, has described the circumstance of the Russian SMO first entry into Ukraine: It was conceived as a bloodless mission and should have passed without casualties, he says. “They tried to wage a smart war… Such an elegant, beautiful, lightning-fast special operation, where polite people, without causing any damage to either a kitten or a child, eliminated the few who resisted. They didn’t want to kill anyone: Just sign the renunciation”.
The point here is that what occurred was political miscalculation by Moscow – and not military failure. The initial aim of the SMO didn’t work. No negotiations resulted. Yet from it flowed two major consequences: NATO controllers pounced on this interpretation to trumpet their pre-conceived bias that Russia was militarily weak, backward and stumbling. That misreading underlay how NATO perceived Russia would prosecute the war.
It was wholly incorrect. Russia is strong and has military predominance.
On the presumption of weakness, however, NATO switched plans from a planned guerrilla insurgency, to conventional war along the ‘Zelensky Defence Lines’ – thus opening the path for Russia’s artillery domination to attrit Ukraine’s forces to the point of entropy. It is an error that cannot be rectified. And to try it might just lead to WW3.”
Note that the author states that “No negotiations resulted.” He claims that it was a political miscalculation by Russia. Another opinion could be that it was a political gamble by Russia that did not pay off. In any event, it seems strange to claim that no negotiations resulted, when the news was full of reporting the mediation efforts by the foreign minister of Turkey and the prime minister of Israel. The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine met in Antalya, Turkey, in early March 2022, but the discussions did not yield concrete results according to Reuters. Russia-Ukraine peace talks began later in March in Istanbul. The Turkish foreign minister attended the talks and worked as a mediator. He announced that the two sides were close to agreement. However, no actual final result was obtained.
Mr. Crooke does know how to turn a phrase, so this article will borrow one of his paper’s final paragraphs to help wrap up this analysis:
“However, the reality is that the Ukraine ‘Balloon’ is popped. Military and civilian circles in Washington know it. The ‘elephant in the room’ of inevitable Russian success is acknowledged (albeit, with the compulsion to avoid seeming ‘defeatist’ – that persists in certain quarters). They know too that the NATO (as ‘formidable force’) ‘balloon’ has popped. They know that the balloon of western industrial capacity to manufacture weapons – in sufficient quantity and over a long duration – has popped also.”
The official narrative about the Ukraine war is changing. The word “narrative” has replaced the older term “party line” that was used in the days of the Soviet Union. But the meaning is similar. The articles by the RAND researchers are an illustration of how the new narrative is broadcast to everyone concerned. The update in the party line is taking effect as the headlines in the mainstream media reflect the bursting of many dreams and delusions about Russia and Ukraine.
Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe, RAND Corporation, January 2023
What Russia Got Wrong: Can Moscow Learn From Its Failures in Ukraine?, Dara Massicot, Senior Policy Researcher at the RAND Corporation, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2023
Endgame for Ukraine: America vs America, Alastair Crooke, Strategic Culture Foundation, February 13, 2023