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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Russia faces defeat in Ukraine

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about the stunning change in the war in Ukraine. The rapid advances by Ukrainian forces in the east of the country have changed the momentum of the conflict. Suddenly, Russian defeat looks like a real possibility. My guest this week is Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London and author of a new book, Command: The Politics of Military Operations From Korea to Ukraine. So, is this the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine?

For some weeks, there’s been speculation that Ukraine was poised to launch a counter-offensive near Kherson in the south of the country. The main attack when it came was further north and east. Ukrainian forces made rapid progress reclaiming strategic towns such as Izyum.

News clip
[Ukrainian soldier speaking in foreign language] Izyum was, is and always will be Ukraine, says this soldier. [Ukrainian soldier shouting in foreign language] This is territory which Russia fought hard to take — lost in the space of days.

Gideon Rachman
These changes on the battlefield have prompted a change of tone in Russian media coverage of the war. Some dissenting voices are now being heard on television. Here’s a former member of the Russian parliament, Boris Nadezhdin, saying that the war as currently being fought by Russia is unwinnable and a colonial venture.

Boris Nadezhdin
[Speaking in foreign language]

Gideon Rachman
In a recent article, Lawrence Freedman argued that the events in Ukraine are of historic importance. So when I got him on the line from Washington, where he was doing the rounds, I asked Sir Lawrence why he thinks the current developments are indeed historic.

Lawrence Freedman
Well, because it means that Russia is likely to lose a war. And I’ve felt right from day one that Russia wouldn’t win this war because I could never quite see how they could. But that was never the same as losing the prospect of a stalemate or a long war of attrition. And again, I always thought in the end the Ukrainians would come up. But now we’ve reached a position where the Russian options have narrowed enormously, and there’s all sorts of grim possibilities that might still await us. But by and large, I think this is very much the beginning of the end of the war.

Gideon Rachman
You say that they’ve got very limited options. One of the things that’s very striking is they may be, to put it crudely, running out of men — or they seem to be. They’re just unwilling to mobilise the population.

Lawrence Freedman
Yeah, they don’t have enough troops. They’re very thinly spread. They’ve avoided general mobilisation, although some people in Moscow are calling for that. I think it’s just too late. First, you’ve got to persuade people to come along. Secondly, somehow you’ve got to train them. They’re not going to be very inspired by veterans of this war telling them what awaits them. It takes you know weeks, months before you get them into the field. So they have to play now with very limited resources. They don’t seem able to move them around to different parts of the area of operations, nor do they seem to be using them very well. I think they just exhausted themselves in the summer, taking not a very large amount of Luhansk, which left them with a limited capacity to cope now.

Gideon Rachman
And have the Ukrainians surprised you? They’ve certainly surprised the Russians. They’ve turned out to be a pretty effective fighting force and appear to be becoming more effective with the passing of time, unlike the Russians.

Lawrence Freedman
Yeah, I think that’s an important distinction. I mean, the view was that a lot of your best units get used up and suffer in the early stages of the war. And certainly the Ukrainians lost quite a lot in the fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk in the summer. But I mean, they did mobilise, unlike the Russians, they are training people up. The UK’s got a big training centre now which I think there’s some evidence that may have made a difference. And they’re pretty determined people. So I think they have upped their game. They’re strategically quite canny and they’ve got the advantages of fighting on terrain they know and the real motivation. I mean, some of the forces facing them in Kharkiv were pretty cobbled together. It’s not as if they’re taking on the Russia of February. But that just indicates that they’ve played quite a clever strategic game themselves, first to stay in the war and then to turn the tables on the Russians.

Gideon Rachman
One of the things they’ve always emphasised is, you know, war is unpredictable. So obviously, anything we say about what’s likely to happen now has to have all sorts of caveats around it. But how do you expect the war to develop over the next couple of months?

Lawrence Freedman
I mean, it could be over within a couple of months or it might not be over in a couple of months. I mean, there’s just a sort of issue of commentary here, which is just worth noting that nobody wants to sound ridiculously optimistic or complacent about the conflict because wars are full of pitfalls and unexpected developments. And, you know, a lot of people worry about forms of escalation that might yet happen. But you’ve got to make a judgment at some point about how this is going, and I can’t see how the Russians now turn this around. Their last offensive option was in Donetsk and they’re having to give up on that, effectively. The war was started ostensibly putting out even wider objectives, but the war was started to protect the enclaves and a bit more in the Donbas, the Donetsk and Luhansk. And if you can’t do that, if the Ukrainians start to make inroads into the Russian positions there — which it looks like they’re maybe starting to do — the whole rationales for the war starts to crumble. And I think the sort of denials coming out of official Moscow don’t work anymore. So, once an army starts to lose, it’s very hard to stop it losing quite badly quite quickly. What we’re watching for now is whether or not the Russians can set up a new defensive line that they can really hold. I think that’s their challenge. Secondly, whether or not they expressed an interest in some sort of negotiated outcome, which the Ukrainians are gonna be wary, I think, about accepting, but it would be perfectly reasonable for the Ukrainians to say we’re very happy to have a ceasefire while you withdraw. So, and for the Russians, still a dignified exit may be better than an undignified exit. So as always in this war, waiting for decisions in Moscow and whether they think they have to fight on doggedly for the sake of reputation or they try and cut their losses.

Gideon Rachman
Of course, the other thing is the possibility of some kind of radical escalation by the Russians. And those people I’ve spoken to who are warier about writing Russia off think that Putin can’t accept defeat and that therefore he’ll do something like either mobilise or use tactical nuclear weapons or start heavily bombing civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, that things could get really quite ugly.

Lawrence Freedman
Well, he’s already I mean, on the last he’s already bombed civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, but he’s running out of systems to do that. The Ukrainians are improving their defences and it won’t stop the Ukrainians. Mobilisation, as I explained, won’t work in time. I mean, to be a statement of intent for 2023, but it won’t help them in 2022, and it could add to the tensions within Russian society. So we’re left with nukes and you know, it is not a zero possibility. They’ve got the weapons and clearly Putin’s in serious trouble. But I think it’s reasonable to ask what exactly they could achieve by this means, because it sounds so terrible. As soon as you mentioned nuclear weapons, it could well be terrible. You still have to keep some context. First, if you’re gonna use weapons to turn around a military situation, you need high concentrations of Ukrainian forces and the Ukrainians haven’t concentrated their forces in that sort of way. So it’s not clear where the lucrative military targets come to use such a big weapon. Secondly, you want the targets to be pretty far away from your own people, to the extent you care about your own people. And that’s gonna be quite difficult. Third, nobody’s used these things in war. The Russians haven’t tested nuclear weapons atmospherically, just underground since the early Sixties. So, you’ve got this horrible possibility that the whole thing might turn out to be a dud. You can have a demonstration effect on Snake Island or something, but that would just raise alarms all around the place and frankly, I think, cause panic in Moscow. The prospect of nuclear war is not just one to worry us. It’s one to worry the Russians as well. And it don’t, in the end, change the basic problem that the Russians are trying to occupy territory that they’re not welcome in, and know that they’re not welcome in now. So, you can’t appear to be complacent and preclude altogether certain possibilities. They may try something very radical. You’ve got a nuclear power plant. That’s a dangerous enough situation as it is. So you can’t preclude any of this. But I don’t think there’s much at the moment that will allow him to seriously change the course of the war. And by escalating with nuclear weapons, I mean, he creates a whole new international situation in which he’s not gonna get a lot of applause. And a lot of the sort of vague support in the global south will disappear quite quickly. I think the Chinese would be very alarmed if he went down that route, for example.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I mean, you mentioned there the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Is that really possibly the most dangerous potential flashpoint right now?

Lawrence Freedman
Yes. I mean, in the sense that you could have a meltdown, radiation released. It’s not the same as a tactical nuclear weapon. It would create an emergency and again, you know, the Russians are in charge of this place. It’s their responsibility. And the vulnerability is not because of shelling. The vulnerability is because they’ve detached it from the grid and relying on diesel fuel to keep it going. If that runs out, there’s a problem. That’s where the issues are. So the remedies to make the thing safe, which so far they haven’t availed themselves of. So it’s a worrying situation. But again, it’s not one that I think would change the course of the war.

Gideon Rachman
And I mean, obviously, this has been a fantastic week for the Ukrainians, but something like a fifth of their country is still occupied by Russia. How rapidly do you think they could make progress? And they talk about retaking Crimea. Do you think that is now on the agenda?

Lawrence Freedman
So I think that first, I think they’re quite surprised by how well they’ve done. You know, I think it, all this moved rather quickly. They’ve got themselves in some pretty good positions where they can move against Russian positions, where the defences are still thin. And the Russians have got a real problem in terms of whether they move all those troops back from Kherson, where they went to meet the offensive that’s still going on there and still important I think to Ukrainians. So do the Russians abandon Kherson, which some think would be the most sensible thing for them to do to reinforce all their positions in Donetsk and Luhansk? But the movement of large numbers of forces isn’t straightforward. So I think if the Ukrainians can, they would be advised to keep the momentum up and make sure that they keep on disorienting the Russian forces, heaping more embarrassment on Moscow, forcing them to rethink. Crimea — I mean, I think Crimea will become the big issue if this carries on. If you had any sort of rational decision-making in Moscow, you would assume that somebody’s worked out that Crimea starts to become quite vulnerable. And this in the end matters, I’m sure, far more to Putin and so on than the Donbas, which is completely messed up now anyway. So the issue of Crimea I think will come into sharp relief. And it’s an area where in principle you need to look to some imaginative diplomatic solutions, because I don’t think the Ukrainians will relinquish their claim, but it would be, you know, still quite a big deal to try to retake it. And of course, they can make life difficult for the Russians in Crimea just by controlling supplies there, and so on. But if the Russians just keep on trying to hold the Ukrainians back with whatever armed forces they’ve still got, then Crimea could come into play. And a lot’s . . . obviously, you know, will soon become an artillery range. It’s gonna be the top issue, I think, either militarily or diplomatically quite soon.

Gideon Rachman
How big are the constraints on what Ukraine itself can do? Because you still hear complaints from the Ukrainian side that the west is not supplying them with all the weaponry that they need. A particular kind of resentment towards, towards the Germans, but even sometimes towards the Americans.

Lawrence Freedman
Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a bit less of that now. I mean, clearly, the American weaponry has been a game changer. I think it’s legitimate to complain that it would have been rather good to have had this earlier because there wouldn’t have been so many Ukrainian losses. I mean, they suffered badly. I mean, the infrastructure of the country is battered. They’ve lost tens of thousands of military and civilian lives. It’s been pretty painful, but they have been forged as a nation in a way. It’s always been a nation. But this is a source of remarkable unity in Ukraine, and they’re pretty pleased with themselves. They’ve shown enormous resilience and now some serious military acumen. They’re not certainly not gonna stop now. They’re not gonna listen to anybody telling them that they should try and cut their losses and do some deal. The danger, I think, for them is that they get overextended, that they just push a little bit too far and leave some forward units vulnerable. And again, if you were thinking about an army that showed more aptitude than the Russian army had, you would sort of try to imagine how they would be trying to lure forward Ukrainians in and ambushing them, and so on. But I’m not sure they can cope with that. But that’s the danger for the Ukrainians, is hubris sets in with them like it started with the Russians and they suddenly find themselves with a more difficult military situation than they anticipated.

Gideon Rachman
Which I guess brings us to the topic of the book you’ve just brought out, which is command and the importance of military command. How much do you think what’s happened in Russia, both at the sort of top political level and on the battlefield, is a failure of command?

Lawrence Freedman
Oh, it’s a monumental failure of command. I mean, command is about decision-making and then getting your decisions implemented. These are Putin’s decisions, you know. Taken maybe we’ll show you in a couple of FSB types and so on. He’s taken the big strategic decision first to launch the war. Secondly, I think to keep on banging on, to take bits of the Donbas even while it was costing them enormously and leaving them exposed. So at the high level of command, it’s been catastrophic. But there’s lots of questions to be asked about the more intermediate levels. Why did they attack on so many axes to start with? What happened to air power? Why have they been so unable to co-ordinate artillery and infantry and armour? And of course, now they’ve got the problem that they’ve lost a lot of junior officers and the Ukrainians have been targeting command nodes. So a lot of the failures that are now evident to failures in their command systems. So in the end, like you know, with any organisation, when things go badly wrong, especially when you started off holding all the cards, the only explanation is some pretty poor decision-making and leadership, which is what command is all about.

Gideon Rachman
And on the flip side, the Ukrainian command looks pretty triumphant right now. I remember at the beginning of the war a lot of people in the west saying, “Well, you know Zelenskyy, he came up through reality television, the kind of worst possible person you could have in charge in a war”. And yet he’s been a pretty inspirational and effective leader.

Lawrence Freedman
Yes. I mean, it’s fascinating to see how that he wasn’t considered to be doing great as president before the war started and made some, you know, uncertain decisions in the build-up to the war. You could argue that what’s happened is the qualities that made him do pretty well in the entertainment business make him a pretty effective war leader. He knows the party. He’s great on finding the lines, you know, the performative aspects of the role. He’s been superb. He’s also been very focused. I mean, he’s understood that what he needed to do is to get more support from the west, and that was absolutely vital, even beyond sort of, you know, Churchill in 1940, understanding he had to get the Americans on side. Zelenskyy has been absolutely remorseless in public and in private in pressing the need for more support. It’s been a very clear and consistent message. And now he can say, “Now you can see why I wanted all this support”. And he’s gonna carry on needing support. That’s not going to stop. So by making himself a credible international figure, he’s done a lot. And also, I don’t think he’s got too involved in the detailed military decision-making. Clearly, he has been involved, but the Ukrainian high command has been very canny. I was in Ukraine in 2019 and discussion to have then suggested, you know, some concerns about whether the Ukrainian command structure was still a bit too Soviet. But, you know, frankly, they’ve shown great agility, imagination, and I think probably just by force of circumstances, have had to delegate a lot of decision-making to local groups and small units who have the commitment to perform with great bravery and effectiveness. So it is almost the opposite picture to that on the Russian side.

Gideon Rachman
And finally, I mean, most of your career, or the beginning of it anyway, was during the cold war when the whole west was preoccupied by the Russian military threat, the idea that they might conventionally have the force to sweep through western Europe and so on. Are you surprised that this great, you know, “superpower”, as we used to refer to it, turns out not only to not be able to sweep towards western Europe, but not really to get out of eastern Ukraine?

Lawrence Freedman
If you, you know, look at Chechnya, say, which is one of the chapters in my book, similar things were happening there. I think people thought that the Russians must have sorted out some of their problems because since Chechnya, their military operations have been at least successful. I mean, Georgia in 2008 showed quite a lot of problems. But their operation in Crimea, which didn’t involve a lot of fighting with the way they beat up the Ukrainians in 2014, suggested that they were in pretty good state, and Syria, of course. So the assumption was that they’d made great strides in modernisation, but it turns out they haven’t. And, you know, the postmortems in Moscow, I think, will show a lot of corruption, the problems of very hierarchical organisations. All of those things will now be gone over and we’ll get a better understanding of why they weren’t the great force that they thought they were. They clearly thought they were, and they turned out not to be. Also, they just don’t treat their troops well. And, you know, there’s a sort of stoicism on the Russian side, which is still evident. They haven’t all collapsed in a heap in the fighting. But there’s not a lot of loyalty shown by officers to men and men to officers. And that, again, affects your ability to fight. So, no, I wasn’t wholly surprised. And I think it was pretty evident, even on day one, that there were big inefficiencies in the way that the Russians were using their armed forces.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Lawrence Freedman speaking from Washington and ending this edition of The Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me and please listen again next week.

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