Video interview: Rob Lee, Russian defense policy specialist
We talk about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
When I want to know more about foreign conflicts — and especially about conflicts involving Russia or the former Soviet Union — I turn to Rob Lee. A former U.S. Marine infantry officer, he is now a PhD student at King’s College London in the War Studies Department, researching Russian defense policy. He has also been a visiting fellow at a Russian defense think tank, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Rob’s Twitter threads covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine are among the most comprehensive, sober, and informative of the entire conflict.
Rob was gracious enough to give me a bit of his time in the middle of this fast-evolving situation. We talk about the origins of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the current military situation, and the prospects for resolution or escalation of the conflict. (Please forgive my rather incoherent intro at the beginning of the interview! This was very last-minute, and I need to get more practice with these.)
Among the key things I learned:
There were lots of signs in advance that this would be a real war instead of another bluff.
After he failed to bully Ukraine into making concessions, Putin probably felt he had to invade or his threats would never be taken seriously again.
Putin bet on Ukraine folding quickly, and didn’t really have a plan B.
Because they kept the invasion secret, Russian leaders didn’t tell their troops what their objectives were. Now many of those troops don’t know what they’re doing. This is one big reason Russia is taking mounting losses without really accomplishing much.
Russian forces aren’t coordinating well, allowing them to be picked off one by one. This is why weapons like Javelins, Stingers, and TB-2s are able to be effective.
So far, the Russians have been reluctant to inflict civilian casualties. This could change; they could decide to level Kyiv or other Ukrainian cities.
If they get the order to level Ukrainian cities, there’s the chance Russian units might disobey.
Putin’s political legitimacy and grip on power are under greater threat now than at any other time.
Putin seems to be acting irrationally and unpredictably, and many Russians are astonished at his moves. No one really knows what he’ll do next.
The U.S. and NATO need to act predictably and deliberately in order not to start World War 3. A no-fly zone over Ukraine would be a huge and catastrophic mistake.
In other words, the current situation is very unstable and scary. We don’t understand the enemy we’re dealing with, and a lot of lives hang in the balance. The Ukrainians are putting up determined and valiant resistance, and the West should support them. But at the same time we should avoid escalating the war out of control, and look for an opportunity to offer Putin a face-saving off-ramp (assuming he manages not to get deposed).