Written by Stuart Poole-Robb, CEO at KCS Group Europe – a leading provider of security and intelligence services
What happens on the ground in Ukraine has never been Putin’s primary concern, according to our sources on the ground.
At the start of the war, if he’d had been offered Russia’s position as it is now – struggling to hold on to territorial gains, an international pariah, reliant on making threats of nuclear strikes, it’s likely Putin would have taken it.
This is not, obviously, down to the Russian President’s willingness to accept anything on offer, far from it. Rather, it’s because this war has less to do with what happens on the battlefield next door, and much more to do with wider geopolitical distraction, disturbance and disruption.
The real war is being fought worldwide and it began a lot longer than eight months ago. In September 2022, the US State Department released an intelligence review of Russian efforts to influence foreign politics.
The review estimates that Russia has spent more than $300 million since 2014, which includes support for far right-wing European nationalist parties and individuals.
To ignore this is to be akin to the first victim in a Halloween horror movie – to refuse to take the situation seriously, despite all the advice and evidence; to walk willingly into the dark. Only here, you cannot rewind the film.
Taking Ukraine by force or negotiated surrender would of course have been a Перо (feather) in Putin’s ушанка (cap) given his long standing antipathy towards Ukraine as a sovereign nation and conviction that, as a superpower, Russia has the right to pursue its goals.
The seeds for this were laid with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and, certainly, the limited international response to this would have given Putin (newly returned as President) renewed confidence that he could pull the same trick twice.
However, the Crimean annexation was necessary (at least from Russia’s perspective) in a way that the current war is not.
Firstly, it was a major coup for Putin personally, back in the Presidential spotlight and able to pull off a victory in a manner that his lapdog, and deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev would, or could, not.
And secondly, the Crimean campaign set the tone for international relations with Russia: this was a country that had invaded another, seized its territory, and managed to get away with it. All parties would surely have to adjust their diplomatic strategies in light of an apparently unpredictable actor, to Russia’s benefit.
None of these factors apply to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia did not need to further prove its willingness to tear up diplomatic norms, Putin faced no challenge to his position or authority (at least not before the military debacles) and even he would concede that waging indefinite war against an entire country, with the tacit support of the EU and USA, is a different prospect from seizing one largely uncontested peninsula.
But the argument of the Kremlin thinking it would ‘have a go’ and risk at best international condemnation and at worst nuclear war on the off-chance of success doesn’t hold water.
To our sensible eyes, Putin may seem like a madman, but there is method and calculation in everything he does. And the war in Ukraine is no different.
The invasion can best be described as a loss leader. If there are concrete gains, such as the results of the sham referendums held in the four eastern provinces, then so much the better. But these were never the prime goals.
The UK National Cyber Security Centre has warned that it was known that cyber is part of Russia’s military doctrine. The US CyberSecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency echoes that, “The Russian government engages in malicious cyber activities to enable broad-scope cyber espionage, to suppress certain social and political activity, to steal intellectual property, and to harm regional and international adversaries.”
Putin is working on the principle that governs horror movies: that you are always more scared when you cannot see the monster.
The ground war in Ukraine provides not only a focal point around which the West’s politicians and media can devote their energies.
It reconfirms – to Russian minds, at least – that the anti-Russian sentiment expressed through sanctions and weapons shipments is entirely valid, thus the Kremlin is doing the right thing by standing firm.
It also provides a distraction from three interlinked campaigns.
1: The funding of right-wing political parties throughout Europe to push the political dimension (whether in power or opposition) in Russia’s favour.
2: Using an array of puppets, shell companies and complicit crooks to expand Russia’s economic interests and influence throughout the West.
3: Conducting a persistent, broad campaign of cyber-warfare to distract, disrupt and devastate as much political, economic and social cohesion throughout America and Europe as possible.
None of these ambitions require the war in Ukraine to be won, but the prosecution of all three is assuredly helped by its continuation. With little realistic prospect of either a nuclear strike or an escalation across NATO borders, the ongoing war in Ukraine may be an atrocity, but does not pose an existential threat to the West.
If the measures aimed at cutting Russian energy out entirely succeed, there will be little to be directly scared of. But having a monster which you cannot be quite sure where it is or what it’s doing, in the crawl spaces of Western capitalism and politics, and in the vents of cyberspace, … that is an entirely different picture.
FRIEND OR FOE
Putin is also using the war as a means of finding out who his friends are and as an excuse to clean the house. This works both internationally and domestically. He has, for instance, received positive representations from Turkey, Hungary and India (crucial for both European efforts and international trading partners) while China has been less warm than the Kremlin would have liked – all valuable information for understanding what tack Russia needs to take in its future, and with whom.
Meanwhile, the war is an easy means of stamping out actual, or even presumed, opposition back home. Not only from political and media quarters, but also in the spate of over twenty oligarchs and other business elites mysteriously dying – not least the chairman of Lukoil, Ravil Maganov, who openly spoke out opposing the war.
KCS Group Europe has been tracking these ‘suspicious’ deaths over a number of years. If we hypothesise that these are politically-driven murders, then either the Kremlin is fulfilling a genuine need to stamp out opposition or is merely using the war as a backdrop to further its own aims in getting rid of such high profile figures – the masked killer in a Moscow summer camp with very slippery balconies.
So there is method in Putin’s madness. He publicly enters a high-stakes, high-risk game of finally launching the war in Ukraine, making noise about reconstituting ancient Russian (ie Soviet) territorial rights and refusing to rule out nuclear strikes, knowing that this will be where the eyes, and efforts of the world turn.
Meanwhile, his three-pronged campaign to disrupt and discredit the West via surrogate and secretive means is successively disbelieved, ignored or goes unprioritised.
There is no need for a final victory in Ukraine, so long as the stalemate can proceed long enough for the political, economic and digital disruption to take the West to the point of no return. After all, in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream.
*Sadovnecheskaya Street is close to the Kremlin.