“Russians became first victim of their own hybrid war“, says expert who predicted Ukraine invasion

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a damaged city center after a Russian air raid in Chernigiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022

Despite repeated intelligence warnings, many were caught by surprise when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week. One of those who predicted that this was likely to happen was  Jan Kofroň, an international relations scholar at Charles University’s  Faculty of Social Sciences. I caught up with him earlier this week to discuss his impressions of the conflict thus far and began by asking him why he thought it was likely that Vladimir Putin would order the invasion.

“I was thinking like this: Vladimir Putin has some demands vis-a-vis Ukraine. These include Ukraine remaining a neutral country, ideally the end of the NATO accession process and he wants the federalization of Ukraine under very specific terms.

“It was very easy to see that Putin wasn’t able to get concessions for these demands neither from the west nor from Zelensky . So, from this perspective, the war was basically the last option he had, if he wanted to achieve his goals.”

I am guessing that you also took seriously Vladimir Putin’s 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in this analysis and his long-term idea of wanting to restore the borders of the Soviet Union to some degree?

Jan Kofroň | Photo: Marián Vojtek,  Český rozhlas

“It is possible that this played some role. On the other hand, I think even without this essay and this world view, the Russian demands remain as they were. They’re clearly a non-starter for negotiations, so even if the aim was not to restore some kind of a Soviet Union, it was relatively clear that the war was the only option through which to achieve even limited goals like the ones I mentioned before.”

The invasion has now been going on for nearly a week [interview was conducted on Tuesday]. How do you think it is developing for the Russians? Many people say that they underestimated Ukraine.

“This is interesting, because, prior to the outbreak of the war, my estimates were that the Ukrainians should be able to mount an effective and integrated defence against Russia for at least two to three weeks. That was my preliminary assessment. And by trying to model the situation with the help of, for example, [Stephen] Biddle’s model about the force employment, I was not able to get to lower numbers. So, my initial expectation was two to three weeks for an effective defence in the classical conventional military sense. That was the minimum.

“It seems to me that [the Russians are] the first victim of hybrid warfare in the sense that they actually started to believe their own lies.”

“Therefore, from this perspective, I am not very surprised at this stage. However, what is surprising is that the Russians probably thought that they could destroy the Ukrainians’ will to fight back within a few days. This seems to me almost ridiculous - a total misunderstanding of the situation. It seems to me that they’re the first victim of hybrid warfare in the sense that they actually started to believe their own lies. They believed the Ukrainians would be welcoming them and will not be willing to fight back at least for some time. This was entirely wrong.

“It is very likely that the Russians underestimated the Ukrainians and now they are trapped in a relatively costly war against a determined opponent. They are fighting with units, their own Russian units, that are not willing to fight very much.”

Why do you think this happened to the Russian armed forces? Do you think Vladimir Putin just ended up believing his own propaganda, or is this one of those situations that we sometimes see in authoritarian states where the commander issues an order, but there is…

“It seems to me that the people around Vladimir Putin are more and more incompetent.”

“…There is no feedback from the lower ranking officers. I think this is precisely what might have happened. You know, the regime right now is almost a classical personalist regime. And it seems to me that the people around Vladimir Putin are more and more incompetent.

“Also, what is important to note, a few years ago, Russia created Rosgvardiya, another military group, which is outside of the normal chain of command. So, they created some kind of a parallel structure. No wonder that we hear stories right now about Rosgvardiya’s companies trying to seize Kyiv single-handedly. That seems absurd. It’s very likely that they are not coordinated with the rest of the army. And even the rest of the army does not coordinate well with each other. But the problems with Rosgvardiya will most likely be even more extreme. In those personalist regimes, it’s typical to create those parallel structures: both military and informational structures.

“It’s not so surprising that the people in this environment, when nobody can be sure about his own status and it’s very much connected with the goodwill of the leader, in this case Vladimir Putin, that nobody is willing to provide honest feedback to plans, information, intel, whatever. Plus, the coordination of these doubled systems or doubled components usually tend to be extremely weak.”

You said in your assessment that Ukraine could hold out for two to three weeks.

“At least.”

In this analysis where you just counting on a Russian attack into the Donbas, or the attack that ending up taking place?

“Actually, my initial expectation was that Russia would try to topple the regime and try to get at least the eastern third of the country, on the left bank of the Dnieper River. I expected this, because it would make no sense otherwise if the demands were to end the accession process to NATO, to make the country more or less neutral and to eliminate its ability to produce arm. The only thing that would ensure such goals would be either occupation, which would be extremely expensive, or changing the regime. So, from my perspective it was always about at least the eastern third of the country.”

I guess that what is happening, from your perspective, is not so surprising, at least if we are not talking about the seemingly botched initial Russian attack. Ukraine still has some time to hold out. People are optimistic and some believe this may develop into Russia losing the war, but, of course, Russia has overwhelming force and others argue that it’s just a question of time regarding how long the Ukrainians will hold out. You are saying that they will hold out for at least two to three weeks, if I understand you correctly?

“That would be my guess, and by now I think that it’s more likely to talk about four to six weeks, maybe even a little bit more, it depends. This is because, thus far, the Russians have made some huge mistakes. The question now is how quickly they can adapt. The Russian army is not well known for its ability to adapt, but we cannot rule it out.

“It’s also possible that Ukrainians will make some huge mistakes. The Ukrainians did a really great job around Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. However, they were not very well prepared in the south. The Russians were able to break through the Perekop Isthmus, which should have been relatively difficult, and within six hours they were able to occupy a bridge in Nova Kakhovka over the Dnieper. So, they were able to get to the other side of the Dnieper.

“That is a tragedy. I expected that the Ukrainians would be able to mount an effective resistance there for several days. Meanwhile, in the southern sector, you can see that the Russians were able to get to Berdiansk, an important city close to the Sea of Azov. They are very close to Mariupol. And it seems that they will be able, if they will continue in the operation for the next few days, to get to Dnipro. This would make the situation very complicated for the Ukrainian army fighting with the separatists. The Ukrainian army would have to choose: either to move out as soon as possible or to risk encirclement.”

Indeed, the Russian advances seem to be going relatively fine in the east and south if we don’t count large cities. That brings me to the negotiations between the Ukrainians and the Russians in Belarus [as of Tuesday]. Do you think the Russians may be downscaling on their demands now, or is it way too early for that? What would be your guess on the content of these ongoing negotiations?

“It's just a guess, so take it as pure speculation. My hope, a small reason for optimism, is that the Russians were quite surprised by the SWIFT sanctions. These are quite strong and are hitting the Russian economy quite hard. What is also important in this respect is that it seems that Russian soldiers are not very happy about having to fight this war. That’s also very important. Indeed, the Russian population as a whole is not very happy about the war and the Putin regime tried to conceal it. I find this strange and really quite puzzling, because it is nigh impossible to conceal such a huge war and yet they were trying to do so.

“It is therefore possible that it might be relatively difficult for Putin’s regime to now say: ‘Ok, now we need to deal with this situation, let’s move towards a planned war economy’. That would be an extreme shift from the current pattern. It wouldn’t be just sanctions, you would be issuing some kind of a ration system. These would be really extreme economic steps, which could save the Russian economy for several months or years, but would also hit the population very hard.

“I am hoping that the Russians start feeling the pressure soon and that they realize that they do not have plenty of time to accomplish all of their goals. Then, hopefully, they could be willing to change at least some of their initial proposals. But the question is whether it will be enough for Zelensky  to accept.

Exactly. I guess there is that other Ukrainian factor now. The Ukrainian side does not want to give up any territory. Is there going to be a will from the Ukrainians to make compromises?

“It seems to me that, just as the Russians seem to have been full of optimism before the war, it’s possible that Zelensky  is catching the same disease right now. And I do understand it. Obviously, we should stay realistic. It’s also fair to note that the situation in the south looks terrible and it might turn bad there very soon. Nevertheless, it’s true that Zelensky  holds some cards in his hands right now and, if he plays them smartly, I think that he could try to reach some kind of an agreement. Obviously, the question is if he is not being too optimistic now.”

What do you think of the risks of a possible escalation of the conflict in the near future, as some experts have been warning? The Russian Federation has put its nuclear forces on standby.

“I think that the probability of some kind of nuclear strikes or full out nuclear war is relatively small. On the other hand, I would not underestimate this possibility. Vladimir Putin has been saying for years that if Ukraine continues on its path to NATO membership, there will be harsh consequences. It was pretty easy to deduce that he was talking about a war. Now we have a war.

“I’m not saying that NATO expansion or accession is the only cause here, but it was obviously one important part of this whole story. That’s the reason why I would be careful about the prospect of nuclear weapons being used. It’s pretty clear from the words of Vladimir Putin that he is saying ‘this is my red line’, so it makes sense for NATO to be relatively cautious about this possibility.”

We were talking about escalation. I guess we should also take a look at the bigger picture, namely the international system. Some people accused Vladimir Putin of attempting to challenge, or even destroy, the liberal order in the international system that has been in place since 1989.  Do you agree with that? Do you think this is something Putin really wanted to do and that he may have looked for Chinese support in this respect?

“Hard to know, but it’s certainly clear that Putin does not like the current international order, if you want to call it ‘order’. I would rather use the term ‘international balance of power’. He probably thought that he will be able to topple the current system and create something more favourable for Russia. I think that what we see right now is that he simply was not strong enough. He was not capable of achieving that.

“By trying to stop NATO, [Putin] is making NATO more and more powerful.”

“It also seems to me that the whole situation is backfiring against him. Because he was talking about his dislike of NATO, and yes, to some extend we can understand it, but by his very actions, he is promoting the idea of NATO membership in Finland and Sweden. I expect that most of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe will start to increase their military expenditures, because they see now that war is an option for Russia. He is cutting the branch that he is sitting on. It’s a really paradoxical situation. By trying to stop NATO, he is making NATO more and more powerful.”

You were talking here about previously neutral European states that may now consider joining NATO. Germany has meanwhile decided to double its defence budget. Do you think this is a time when we should revaluate how we have been thinking about International Relations and Western strategy since 1989, or is that getting a bit ahead of ourselves?

“[Putin] is cutting the branch that he is sitting on.”

“Look, I have been a card-carrying realist for something like twelve years now, ever since I started my PhD studies, so I would say I personally do not have to revaluate anything. This crisis something which was to some extend predicted by realists.

“However, I certainly think that especially non-realists will have to think harder about the possibilities of war and about the so-called old concepts of balance of power. Society too will have to think harder about those very ugly questions of war and peace. International Relations it is not just about rhetorical positions, norms and ideas, it’s much more about tanks and your will to fight.”

What does it mean to be a realist in International Relations?

“International Relations it is not just about rhetorical positions, norms and ideas, it’s much more about tanks and your will to fight.”

Realism is not about norms and ideas so much. Realists do not believe that states behave according to some kind of norms. States behave based on their self-interest. And their primary self-interest is self-preservation.

“There are two schools taught in modern realism. One says the states try to achieve security, but that they do not necessarily want to gain more power. That’s because these authors think that extremely powerful states attract balancing behaviour from other states.

“Then there are offensive realists and they say that states try to gather more and more power even though they know it might lead to some hegemonic wars or balancing coalitions. These scholars believe that the pursuit of a potential hegemony is rational in situations when you think that you can change the situation on the ground quickly, and with relatively small costs.”

Do you think Vladimir Putin is a realist who miscalculated?

“I am not sure if he’s a realist, but he plays more along realist lines than at least some European politicians. However, this might be driven mostly by what cards Vladimir Putin holds. Gas? Yes, that’s one option, but that is a double-edged sword, because his economy is dependent on gas. Even in this current situation he is selling us his gas. He also has a strong conventional army and has nuclear weapons.

“It is therefore clear that Vladimir Putin is more reliant on brute force than some other world leaders. By the way, I am not saying that what he is doing is ok. I am just trying to understand, what is structurally behind this. I am not sure, if he truly is a realist. His remarks often hint at imperialist thinking, which is quite far away from realism. Realism is also about the ability to understand that occupying a foreign country, or toppling a regime is extremely risky and a potentially extremely costly business which can antagonize other powers. My guess is that Vladimir Putin somehow believed that the people of Ukraine will, at least in some regions, be happy with the Russians.”

What do you make of the reactions of China, and to a lesser degree rising powers such as India, to Russia’s actions? We saw that they abstained from the UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia. China also may have offered less support that it originally seemed it would to Russia. What do you think these states are thinking?

“This is a hard question for me to respond to. It seems to me that for China it makes no sense to heavily support Russia. What would be their gain? On the other hand, it makes sense for China, at least to some extent, to support Russia. The current global situation is really not that bad for China, because Russia will be hit hard and China will become a much more important trading and general partner on the international chess board.

“The United States will also likely be more focused on Eastern Europe now for the next few years and that’s a net gain for China in the South China Sea. The United States focused on this region a lot over the past decade, but now it seems possible that the US will have to divert its focus from there to some extent. On the other hand, it makes no sense for China to somehow aggressively support Russia, because I don’t think that they are prepared for an action that might lead to plenty of unexpected consequences even for them.”

We have been talking about major powers – Russia, China and the US. What do you think of the response of the Czech Republic and Central Europe as a whole to the Ukraine situation?

“We can certainly see that Czech Republic is trying to help somehow. The same goes for Poland. Obviously, the capabilities and options of the Czech Republic are different from Poland. For example, we sent arms, we are delivering some humanitarian aid, and that is probably all we can do now. We are probably planning to send some heavier equipment. Obviously, we are limited by the fact that our army was quite depleted over the past two decades, so we do not have plenty to give away.

“On the other hand, Poland has much bigger stockpiles, and they were much more serious about preparing for a war, so they can do much more. That said, the Czech Republic is certainly doing something. With the limited options we have, it is not reasonable to expect that the Czech Republic could do much more than this.”

Authors: Tom McEnchroe , Martina Kroa
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