War rarely goes to plan

How will the Russia - Ukraine conflict develop?

As the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, our panel of IAI contributors offer their analysis of the situation. Lawrence Freedman, Hew Strachan, Domitilla Sagramoso and Joseph Nye on what to expect in the short and long run, the role of nuclear weapons, and how to make sense of Putin.


Lawrence Freedman

Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London. He was a member of the Iraq Inquiry and was the official historian of the Falklands War.

For those of us who have long wondered why Putin would embark on an aggressive war, the core puzzle has been what he could hope to achieve politically. A limited campaign in Eastern Ukraine made some sense as it would carve out an area that could be sustained and defended over time. The current scale of operations makes less sense because it essentially requires regime change in Kyiv. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US and the UK learned through bitter experience how difficult this can be.

The point about wars (and I have studied many) is that they rarely go according to plan. Chance events or poorly executed operations can require sudden shifts in strategy. The unintended consequences can be as important as the intended. These are the pitfalls surrounding all wars and why they should only be embarked upon with good reason (of which the most compelling is an act of self-defence).  

The decision to embark on this war rests on the shoulders of one man. As we saw last week, Putin has become obsessed with Ukraine, and prone to outrageous theories which appear as pretexts for war but which may also reflect his views. So many lives have already been lost because of the peculiar circumstances and character of this solitary individual, fearful of Covid and a Ukraine of his imagination. At times in democracies we lament the flabbiness, incoherence, short-sightedness and inertia of our decision-making, compared with autocrats who can outsmart us by thinking long-term and then taking bold steps without any need to convince a sceptical public, listen to critics, or be held back by such awkward constraints as the rule of law. Putin reminds us that that autocracy can lead to great errors, and while democracy by no means precludes us making our own mistakes, it at least allows us opportunities to move swiftly to new leaders and new policies when that happens. Would that this now happens to Russia. 

This is an edited excerpt from Lawrence Freedman’s Substack, published here with the author’s permission.


Hew Strachan

Professor of International Relations at St. Andrews, and world-renowned expert on war, military strategy and the British Army.

The campaign plan which the Russians are putting into effect points to a rapid encirclement of Kyiv and the installation of a puppet Ukrainian government.  A short war ending in a clear-cut victory may produce a decisive political outcome. Putin has the initiative for now, but this, like so many other wars that have promised quick results, looks destined to be long. The longer it is the less certain its possible outcomes. 

As the war lengthens, both sides will have to accommodate the major economic consequences of sanctions.  For Russia, they could inflame the domestic dissent that is already evident. Putin’s Russia is more open than the Soviet Union and his decision to go to war seems to have left him isolated, even among senior elites. His political future now depends on the war’s outcome. The presidents of both the United States and Ukraine have spoken over his head to the people of Russia. But dead Russian soldiers could also rally the Russian people to support the war and so to Putin.

The challenge for the international community is how to contain the war and strengthen the multilateral order, not just in Europe but also globally, while supporting Ukraine short of a direct military commitment. These aims may have been clarified by Russia’s invasion but they are no easier to put into effect than they were before the fighting began.

Putin has threatened those who rush to support Ukraine with nuclear attack.  Moreover, intervention could also foment civil war within Ukraine.  Playing it long is sensible but will be difficult, as domestic public opinion demands quick responses to Russian outrages but then turns inward to focus on shortages of key commodities and soaring energy prices. The need for clear statesmanship is paramount: Putin has gambled on it being in short supply. 


Domitilla Sagramoso

Senior lecturer in Security and Development at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and a noted expert on Russian foreign and security policy.

The fact that Russia has nuclear weapons lies at the heart as to why the West cannot fully intervene militarily. There is danger and risk involved in escalating the conflict to a nuclear level. Putin has already sent an unveiled threat that he would escalate to a nuclear level if NATO intervened.

This invasion should finally lay to rest the argument that Putin is a rational actor who measures his actions carefully. If we look at Russia’s actions in the North Caucasus in the early 2000s, it was clear that he had a complete disregard for civilian casualties. Russia’s military operation was very brutal; it included mass abuses of human rights, attacks of civilians fleeing from conflict zones, disappearances of people, and indiscriminate bombing. The same applies to Russia’s intervention in Syria, with the carpet bombing of Aleppo. Putin is acting emotionally in Ukraine; he has a strong attachment to the USSR and to the former Russian Empire, of which Ukraine were important parts.

As to the theory that NATO is to blame for making Russia feel threatened by expanding into regions formerly controlled by the USSR, it might have made sense in the past (in the 1990s or in 2008 when talks of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO were ongoing) but no longer. Furthermore, the presence of NATO forces in the eastern flank, near Russia, was extremely slim, almost symbolic, compared to the forces Russia had amassed on the border, although NATO is significantly reinforcing its presence on the eastern flank now. This war, in fact, shows how wrong Russia was to feel threatened by NATO’s supposed interest to expand into Ukraine, because NATO had no presence in Ukraine and European countries are only now starting to provide military equipment to Kyiv. So, this argument that Russia was being encircled by NATO and had to react is no longer valid.

Putin, it seems to me, has lost touch with reality. Before this operation started, he was obsessing with the idea that Ukraine was going to attack Russian minorities in the Donbas region, and that the USA was manipulating the Ukrainian leadership into such an operation. His whole worldview is so removed from the West’s understanding of the events in Eastern Europe that we can’t exclude the risk of escalation.


Joseph Nye

Chairman of the National Intelligence Council under Clinton, and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Nye coined the term 'neoliberalism'.

What’s ahead?  Distinguish between the short and medium term. In the short term, it seems that the Russian army will overpower the Ukrainian army. But long term is likely to be more difficult for the Russian invaders. The US military was able to overcome Saddam Hussein’s military quite quickly, but “mission accomplished” proved to be misleading regarding Iraq over the long term. Ruling a mobilized nationalistic population is much more difficult than defeating an army.

Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons has deterred the US and NATO sending troops into Ukraine, but that still leaves the problem described above. Nuclear weapons do not change that at all. And in the meantime, Russia’s actions seem to have strengthened NATO.

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