Putin’s Wars

  • By Mark Galeotti
  • Osprey Publishing
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Bort
  • February 10, 2024

What fuels the Russian ruler’s thirst for conquest?

Putin’s Wars

Of all the questions hanging over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war in Ukraine, one stands out: What was he thinking? How could Putin have believed that subjugating a country of Ukraine’s size and population would be a cakewalk? That its capital, Kyiv, with nearly 3 million residents, would simply capitulate to Russian invaders?

Only Putin knows for sure. The rest of us resort to guesses: Putin, isolated during covid, fell victim to dreams of grandeur and his advisors’ echo chamber; he assumed Ukrainians would greet invaders as liberators; he was so intent on secrecy that he left troops and even commanders in the dark about the operation they were to carry out.

The conjecture seems reasonable enough. Mark Galeotti, one of the world’s foremost experts on Putin’s Russia, raises such theories in Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine. He admits he did not think an invasion was likely. And yet Galeotti himself supplies perhaps the most persuasive answer as to why Putin no longer wanted or felt he needed to haggle with the West for a few unsatisfying concessions on Ukraine and European security, and simply invaded instead. In short, he felt he was on an epic winning streak, and he had his military to thank.

Putin’s Wars is not nearly as much about the conflicts themselves — in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Ukraine again — as the title implies. Rather, it is a thoroughly researched accounting of Russia’s hard power. We get everything from Russia’s nuclear weapons to its cyber and intelligence assets to its lots of conventional weapons and equipment in the aerospace, ground, and naval domains to its forces of domestic control. It’s all here.

To be sure, Galeotti recounts each of Russia’s post-Soviet conflicts and the lessons it learned, or didn’t learn, from each. The Georgia War in 2008, against a much weaker foe, revealed so many shortcomings that it jolted Russia’s leadership into reforming and rearming the military. That military eventually transformed itself from a mass-mobilization organization into something more professionalized, with small, mobile brigades instead of big, mechanized divisions. The architect of the reforms, then Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, made so many enemies in modernizing and right-sizing the military that they forced him out on the pretext of a scandal that, by Russian standards, was ordinary.

Serdyukov’s successor, Sergey Shoigu, undid some of his predecessor’s reforms. But the Russian military had been remade enough to give Shoigu’s boss every reason to expect success after success, like Russia’s relatively light-footprint interventions in Crimea and Syria.

Galeotti, who finished this book before the February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, depicts Shoigu as popular and effective, which indeed was his image before the debacle. In text added after the invasion, the author acknowledges that Shoigu’s reputation “is now getting distinctly tarnished” and that “Putin himself may have become over-confident precisely as a result of the military’s apparent progress.”

Yes, that’s the point. It’s too bad, then, that Galeotti gives these updates such short shrift because they stand in contrast to his overall theme and merit more consideration.

Galeotti is at his best when explaining Russian narratives, including via vignettes from his own experience in country dating from 1991. Some of these, such as a story of a down-on-his-luck veteran in the Soviet Union’s dying days predicting the rise of a strong leader, illustrate Russia’s resentments of its lost superpower status and dreams of revanche. They help explain not only Putin’s motivations, but why Putin’s militarism has resonated with so many Russians.

The author is also to be applauded for exposing some popular but misplaced obsessions about Russian hard power. Regarding the war in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014, for instance, Galeotti writes that “[f]or all the attention paid to so-called ‘grey zone’ or ‘hybrid operations’ in Ukraine — the cyber attacks and electronic mischief-making, the propaganda and subversion,” the kind of war that really matters remains conventional and kinetic.

Galeotti is much less engaging when listing Russian order of battle, including units at each level and the arms and equipment they are allotted. Such enumerations run throughout. “The 22nd [Army Corps] is technically part of the Black Sea Fleet,” he notes with regard to Russia’s forces in Crimea in 2014, “and comprises the 127th Independent Reconnaissance Brigade, the 15th Independent Coastal Rocket Artillery Brigade, the 8th Artillery Regiment…” And so on for several more lines. It’s hard to know what even an order-of-battle wonk (such people exist) is to do with this information.

Such passages produce the impression that Galeotti obtained a General Staff directory and is relating its contents. At times, he does so too uncritically — for instance, taking at face value Russia’s claims that it is not fielding intermediate-range missiles in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia’s cheating was the reason for U.S. withdrawal from the INF in 2019. Buying Russia’s claims is odd given that elsewhere, the author scolds Westerners “who would still believe Putin over their own press and leaders,” as happened amid Russia’s attempts to deflect blame for the 2014 shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine.

Notwithstanding such occasional nods toward Russia’s narratives, Galeotti is not enamored of its military. He is careful to critique its failures and chronic limitations: its “green-water” (as opposed to “blue-water”) navy, good at most for sailing not far from Russia; and its ground forces’ over-reliance on railways for transport and logistics, limiting the time and distance they can be deployed. Some of its advanced weapons, like the nuclear-powered ICBM that Putin proudly touted five years ago, sound like hazardous white elephants.

Still, Putin’s Wars paints a picture of a military that had been on the march. For anyone who wants to understand what Putin was thinking, Galeotti supplies the answer. The Russian leader was seduced by his military’s new capabilities and his own lengthy winning streak. And he wasn’t wrong: Russia’s military had in fact become steadily more capable on Putin’s watch. It was better trained, better armed, and — seemingly — better led, right up until the day he, Shoigu, and company sent it off into disaster.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Chris Bort was National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council from 2017-2021.

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