Russia’s war has been brutal, but Putin has shown some restraint. Why?
By Anton Troianovski and Julian E. Barnes
Russia’s war against Ukraine has leveled cities, killed tens of thousands of people and forced millions of others from their homes.
But quietly, some military analysts and Western officials are asking why the onslaught has not been even worse.
Russia could be going after Ukrainian railways, roads and bridges more aggressively to try to stanch the flow of Western weapons to the front line. It could have bombed more of the infrastructure around the capital, Kyiv, to make it harder for Western leaders to visit President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in shows of unity and resolve. And it could be doing far more to inflict pain on the West, whether by cyberattack, sabotage or more cutoffs of energy exports to Europe.
Part of the reason appears to be sheer incompetence: The opening weeks of the war demonstrated vividly that Russia’s military was far less capable than believed before the invasion. But American and European officials also say that President Vladimir Putin’s tactics in recent weeks have appeared to be remarkably cautious, marked by a slow-moving offensive in eastern Ukraine, a restrained approach to taking out Ukrainian infrastructure and an avoidance of actions that could escalate the conflict with NATO.
The apparent restraint on the ground stands in contrast to the bombast on Russian state television, where Moscow is described as being locked in an existential fight against the West and where the use of nuclear weapons is openly discussed. The issue is whether, as the war grinds on, Putin will change tack and intensify the war.
That is a particularly urgent question ahead of the Victory Day holiday in Russia on May 9, when Putin traditionally presides over a grandiose parade marking the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany and gives a militaristic speech. Ben Wallace, the British defense secretary, predicted last week that Putin would use the speech for an official declaration of war and a mass mobilization of the Russian people.
American and European officials say that they have not seen any on-the-ground movements that would show any much larger push with additional troops beginning on May 9 or soon after. Those officials now expect a slower, grinding campaign inside Ukraine. But they do not disagree that Putin could use the speech to declare a wider war and a deeper national effort to fight it.
For the moment, Putin appears to be in a military holding pattern, one that is allowing Ukraine to regroup and stock up on Western weaponry. On Monday, a senior Pentagon official called Russia’s latest offensive in eastern Ukraine “very cautious, very tepid.” In Russia, there is grumbling that the military is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, with the strategy and aims not understood by the public.
“This is a strange, special kind of war,” Dmitry Trenin, until recently the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said in a phone interview from outside Moscow. “Russia has set some rather strict limits for itself, and this is not being explained in any way — which raises a lot of questions, first of all, among Russian citizens.”
Trenin is one of the few analysts from his think tank, shuttered last month by the Russian government, who chose to stay in Russia after the war began. He said that he was struggling to explain why the Kremlin was fighting at “less than half strength.”
To be sure, Russian missile strikes have targeted infrastructure across Ukraine, including an important bridge in the country’s southwest on Monday and the runway of the Odesa airport on Saturday. But across the Atlantic, officials and analysts are asking themselves similar questions as Trenin.
For weeks, officials in Washington have discussed why the Russian military has not been more aggressive in trying to destroy the supply lines that send Western arms shipments into Ukraine. Part of the answer, officials say, is that Ukrainian air defense continues to threaten Russian aircraft, and the deeper Russian planes go into Ukraine the greater the chance they are going to be shot down.
Russia has also struggled with its precision munitions — missiles or rockets with guidance systems. Many of those weapons have failed to work properly, and Russian supplies of the weapons are limited. Strikes on rail lines or moving convoys must be very precise to be effective.
Other officials have argued that Moscow is eager to avoid destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure too severely, in the possibly misguided hope that it can still take control of the country. Russia would be stuck with a huge rebuilding job if it took over cities devastated by its own bombing.
A senior American defense official said that Putin may have avoided destroying Ukraine’s rail network because he did not want to hurt his own ability to move equipment and troops around the country. The Russians have been more focused on destroying weapon storage areas than the rail network.
American officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private military and intelligence assessments.
Then there is the question of why Russia hasn’t hit back harder against the West. The Kremlin narrative is of an existential war with NATO being fought on Ukrainian soil, but Russia is the one taking military losses while the West keeps a safe distance and supplies weapons that kill Russian soldiers.
“A lot of people in this town are asking why they haven’t retaliated yet,” said Samuel Charap, a former U.S. State Department official in Washington and a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp. “It seems low probability that the U.S. and its allies will experience no blowback from having put this many Russian soldiers in their graves.”
Russia has the tools to do widespread damage to the West. The gas shortages caused by the cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline last year showed the disruption that Russian hacking can inflict on American infrastructure. Berlin has warned that a cutoff of Russian gas could throw the German economy into a recession.
American and allied officials have debated why Putin hasn’t tried widespread or more damaging cyberstrikes. Some say that Putin has been effectively deterred. The Russian military, struggling to make gains in Ukraine, cannot handle a wider war with NATO and does not want to give the alliance any excuse to enter the war more directly.
Others argue that a cyberstrike on a NATO country is one of the few cards Putin can play and that he may be waiting for a later stage in his campaign to do that.
While Putin has been unafraid of escalating the rhetoric, his actions have suggested he does not want to do anything that could prompt a wider war.
“The general sense is that he wants to snatch some sort of victory out of this debacle of his,” said the American defense official, suggesting that Putin was not interested in “borrowing more trouble.”
Before the invasion on Feb. 24, Trenin, of the Carnegie center, predicted that the Ukrainian military would put up a fierce resistance and that Putin would discover a lack of political support for Russia in Ukraine. On that, Trenin turned out to be right.
What he was wrong about, Trenin said, was the information that aides and commanders would provide to Putin about Russia’s capabilities, which turned out to be flawed.
Trenin says he still sees Putin as fundamentally rational, rather than someone willing to engage in a nuclear war, with a “maniacal determination to destroy mankind.”
“That would not be a mistake — that would be a total departure from rationality,” Trenin said. “I hope that now I am not wrong.”