ISW: Putin avoids risky decisions that could threaten his power


Vladimir Putin’s actions show that he is avoiding risky decisions that could threaten his power in Russia or trigger an international escalation of the conflict with Ukraine, the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed in their latest report.

Meanwhile, the maximalist and unrealistic goals Putin has set for his army, specifically conquering all of Ukraine, likely require further risks to have any chance of success at all, analysts claim.

“Putin’s reluctance to take risks directly related to his conventional war in Ukraine indicates that he remains highly unlikely to pursue nuclear escalation or war with NATO,” ISW stated.

Wrong assumptions

According to analysts, in February 2022 Putin was most likely operating under the mistaken assumption that the Russian army could force Kyiv to capitulate without significant losses and viewed the invasion itself as a limited and acceptable risk.

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The report cites a range of data that shows the Kremlin hoped for a quick and easy victory, including the Russian army’s plans and intelligence expectations for Ukraine’s quick surrender and military defeat, as well as, for example, ignoring warnings from the Central Bank of Russia about the possible costs of Western sanctions.

“The failure of Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv—and with it the Kremlin’s war plan—forced Putin to face complex decisions as the Kremlin fought an increasingly costly and protracted conventional war. Putin, however, has remained reluctant to order the difficult changes to the Russian military and society that are likely necessary to salvage his war,” ISW writes, pointing out that a number of “pragmatic decisions” that are necessary from this point of view were “ignored, delayed or only partially implemented” by the Russian dictator.

These include delaying mobilization, declaring “partial” mobilization to separate the majority of the population from the war, as well as maintaining a “special military operation” to avoid declaring war and martial law.

Choosing low risk

ISW estimates that in the face of military defeats in the fall of 2022, Putin “continued to select comparatively less risky options.” According to analysts, this was dictated by concern for his own image, which could suffer amid the rising cost of war to the public.

The think tank assesses that a number of reforms in the army and arms complex have been undertaken of late and that Putin is now “evidently reticent to announce a second wave of mobilization” and, according to US and Western officials, is leaning toward “silent mobilization” so as not to exacerbate public discontent. At the same time, Putin is avoiding public actions that would tie him directly to responsibility for the war and expose him to criticism, typifying scapegoats such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu and military commanders.