Sir Laurie Bristow, until 2021 a member of the Diplomatic Service, and ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2020, set out his perception of what motivated President Putin to order the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, of how the invasion had not gone to plan, of the domestic consequences of that failure, and of certain aspects of the current outlook.
Putin’s underlying goals in launching the invasion were to destroy Ukraine as a sovereign, democratic country; to redraw the security architecture of the Euro-Atlantic region; to avert Ukraine joining NATO; and to rewrite the ground rules of Great Power competition with the U.S.A.
Behind those goals stood a belief that Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence (a lack of Western recognition of that entitlement being a source of resentment); a misperception that the weakness of a divided West had created an opportunity for Russia to invade with impunity; concern that Ukraine was slipping into the West’s orbit; and a desire to consolidate Russia’ Great Power return as a central feature of the Putin legacy.
The last of these was particularly important. Because the Kremlin sees an independent, democratic, pluralist Ukraine as a threat to Russia’s security, a central aim of Putin’s 22 years in charge of Russia has been to establish a secure authoritarian regime in Russia itself, to assert suzerainty over Russia’s former imperial subjects, and to prevent the emergence of systems of government that contradict this model.
The invasion had not gone to plan. The Ukrainian state had not folded. The Russian army had not taken Kyiv. The West had not been deterred from providing decisive support, although deterrence had forestalled a direct NATO-Russia conflict. Russia had taken far heavier losses of men and materiel than the combined total of Soviet losses in Afghanistan and Russian losses in other conflicts since 1991. G7 and other sanctions were degrading Russia’s medium to long term military potential. Russian trade measures had not broken a European consensus that this was a war of necessity, not of choice.
This amounted to a strategic disaster for Putin. And, faced with these realities, the Kremlin had struggled to articulate coherent war aims, or to offer a consistent account of what outcome would allow it to declare victory.
These failures of strategy and execution reflected the corrosion of a political apparatus that had botched the transition from Soviet communism. Recriminations were breaking out. The Kremlin was coming under pressure from ultra-nationalists, demanding escalation. Domestic repression was growing.
Mobilisation had proved unpopular. The fighting and dying had so far fallen disproportionately on non-ethnic Russians, but it was becoming harder for the Kremlin to shield ethnic Russians in the big western cities from the consequences of failure. State propaganda outlets were struggling to explain what was happening and why.
Western sanctions were starting to bite, impacting on Russia’s long term military industrial capacity and on the terms of Russia’s strategic partnerships. Russia’s oil and gas revenues were sharply down from their peak in April 2022. Sanctions would not change Putin’s goals, but they could limit his options.
As for the current outlook: It was hard to see a path to outright victory for either Russia or Ukraine. Grounds for a negotiated settlement were equally hard to see. It was inconceivable that Putin would accept Ukraine exercising sovereign choice and becoming part of the West. The last three decades had shown that the Kremlin’s preference would be to freeze the conflict on the most advantageous terms possible and regroup for a more propitious moment.
In Russia itself it was possible that a turning point had been passed and change had become inevitable, albeit unpredictable in its direction and outcomes. If the war were to continue on its current trajectory, signs of elite fracturing and a lack of consensus on who should succeed Putin could soon become apparent, making an uncontested succession much harder to achieve when the time came.
And an angry Russia, facing serious economic degradation and humiliation at the hands of what it considers not a real country, supported by a hostile and powerful NATO, would not default to the political centre ground.
ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Sir Laurie is President of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. He joined the British diplomatic service in 1990. He served as Ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2020. Other overseas postings included Romania in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan as Ambassador from 2004 to 2007, and Afghanistan as Ambassador in 2021, during the fall of the Republic to the Taliban. Senior roles in London included Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Director for National Security, and COP26 Regional Ambassador for China, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.