Putin's Anaconda Plan: One Year On
Image: Aljazeera News/Institute for the Study of War
Just under a year ago (24 March 2022 to be precise), I wrote that Putin’s strategy had formed an ‘Anaconda Plan’. This was not an endorsement of the Russian way of war, but an objective assessment based upon known facts. I will reiterate once again: I do not support Russia and vehemently reject Putin’s genocidal ambitions. However, I do advocate for more informed strategic assessment and better analyses.
In March 2022, there were several reasons for coming to this assessment of Putin’s strategy:
An initial reason was in response to the increasing number of unrealistic speculations about the Russian way of war. Soviet Russia had once been the subject of searching strategic analysis during the Cold War, but by 2021 Putin’s Russia was treated as anachronism. In 2008, Putin’s Russia was dubbed a ‘busted flush’ of world affairs by the doyen of American foreign affairs and diplomacy. Then it was intended to labour the point that Russia was no longer a global player, but the grand old man like so many had misjudged Putin’s long-term ambitions.
The second reason was the sudden change in global news reporting. For almost two decades, news agencies were unperturbed by Putin’s sabre rattling over Ukraine. The mainstream news had glibly expected the rising tensions would be resolved through diplomacy and back-channels. This faith in the power of the western order was broken by Putin’s invasion.
A third observation came from the flow of battlefield/war information, which heavily relied on Ukrainian sources. OSINT (open-source intelligence) had yet to kick in and thus a one-sided war was reported. This left a vacuum for opinion-makers, often without direct knowledge of the region/history/culture to stir-up unrealistic expectations. They generated false assumptions about the conduct of the war. Assumptions are like myths, once accepted they’re almost impossible to eradicate.
A final reason was how the academics or professionals had assessed Putin’s invasion. Remarkably, there was a cacophony of predictions on social media of the war’s progress – the Second World War being the most common blueprint. Two days into the war and it was obvious the Russians were not following any western script. However, the flow of irrelevant opinions continued, while Russian methods continually defied western ‘hopes’, logic, and speculations. Hope of course should never feature in strategic analysis, since it conveys subjectivity and leads to despondency.
My initial responses on Russian strategy focused on certain patterns:
1. On 27 February, I posted on Twitter: there was an absence of a Schwerpunkt – a centre of gravity, few mobile anti-aircraft units close to the front, Ukrainian communications were operative, the Russians had ‘sprinkled’ forces across the frontier, they were stretching and reducing Ukrainian strategic responses, there was a growing confusion in western reports between street-fighting or irregular warfare, there was an increase in heavy bombardments and rising civilian casualties/refugees.
2. Among these points were those classical tell-tale signs from Russian history of the maskirovka (deception), with some post-1945 intervention style activity, and a replay of the destruction imposed on Grozny/Aleppo. In podcasts in February-March 2022, I suggested Russia had adopted an Anaconda plan to devour the Ukraine. The indications to base that opinion were: grinding/flattening terrain, heavy shelling regardless of war crimes accusations, the absence of the expected western style insurgency, growing fear in the west of nuclear weapons, and all the signs of long-war. Putin had stolen the strategic initiative from the west and Ukraine.
Putin’s Anaconda Plan - 2022
The concept of an Anaconda Plan was not mine. US Army General Winfield Scott devised the strategy to destroy the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Scott’s plan envisaged a long war with the slow strangulation of the Confederate states. The aim was to isolate the economy from Britain, by preventing the supply of weapons and raw materials. As the naval blockade tightened, the Union army conducted land invasions, in particular by Generals Grant and Sherman to destroy all armed resistance. The Confederacy’s early battlefield victories were lost as the rebellion stuttered, and defeat became inevitable. The power of strategy over operations is a lesson in military history, but the early victories and myths of battlefield elitism endure from all wars. In this sense, history is being repeated in Ukraine.
Putin’s Anaconda Plan was the same as Scott’s but also different. Only now, one year into the war, can we observe the glaring differences. The first phase in the Russian plan saw multiple assaults aimed at establishing lodgements. A maskirovka followed by assaults that formed a rough horseshoe shape, across an extremely long frontline, and set in a westerly direction. The Russian’s used territory to over-stretch the Ukrainian defenders across a long frontline.
A second aspect of Russian operations began ‘nibbling’ away, a form of attrition. Since there was no identifiable Schwerpunkt, the multiple incursions were yet to form a larger battle space or a controlling lodgement. The massive pre-war emplacement of artillery not only revealed long-term advanced planning, but the importance of the specific incursions to Russian plans. In addition, there was a coup de main, a strike on Kyiv to decapitate the Ukrainian political leadership (like the Soviet security actions in 1956, 1968 and 1979).
A third aspect was the ‘annihilation bombardments’ forcing the Ukrainian Army to fight multiple battles while also protecting civilians/refugees. For the Russians, this was a mix of classical and modern doctrine, administered by the most professional element of the Russian Army. The attrition was directed at civilians, initially assumed to be collateral damage but is now recognised as a deliberate act of genocide. While Putin ignored the increasing number of war crimes on the ground, his media disciples praised genocide against Ukraine on Russia’s public television. This was all part of the maskirovka of the Russian message, sowing confusion between plans and actualities.
A fourth observation was the constant activity - a busy war - conducted across long fronts. Today, this is most visible in the south Ukraine, but there are concerns for Belarus as Putin’s stalking horse. The scale of activity included the wholesale flattening of villages, towns and the cities. Then Mariupol happened – the war had not just drifted into massacres and wholesale destruction but was purposefully organised to impose a genocidal outcome. This should have been an early wake up call in the west - this was ‘absolute war’ without limits.
Finally, there was a rapidly growing list of accurate bombardments against cities and the local concentration of war crimes including pillage, rape, and murder. Against mounting devastation refugee numbers increased exponentially reaching 10 million by March 2022. This was nothing like Russia’s wars of the 20th Century, but it had all the makings of security warfare.
Criticism of the first paper
My speculation, in March 2022, was for long protracted war. Putin’s War was building towards multiple offensives, across the frontlines, with an approximate start date of 22 June 2022. I was mistaken about the date but precise over the war’s ferocity and expected levels of violence. Critics either poked fun or elected to ignore the paper. Meanwhile some opinion-makers grasped at analogies from the Second World War, or the 1940 Soviet-Finnish War and recently have even added Great War as a blueprint. In a subsequent article, I exposed the irrelevance of the Finnish analogy and perhaps, with hindsight I should have gone further in confronting the other inappropriate analogies.
However, we should not ignore Putin’s uses and abuses of history. Given his constant reference to Soviet Russia’s Great Patriotic War had led me to assume 22 June would be a critical date. During research for a book, it was apparent that Putin had exploited Red Army memories to intimidate the west – in particular the crimes committed by the Russian soldiers against German women in 1945 including rape and murder. Unfortunately, western scholars had indirectly embellished this spectre of the Russian horde through popular writing. For example, implying that only the Red Army committed sex crimes in the Second World War which is false. The problem with that narrative is how it leads to generalisation, in this case, that all Russian soldiers are pre-conditioned to conduct sex crimes. This was a spectre Putin could exploit, without mentioning the subject directly. To amplify the image of Russian soldiers as the horde, he stirred generalisations about 1945. That was old school Stalinism, using a powerful historical memory as an implication of the horror he was unleashing.
Examining Putin’s use of intelligence, security and genocide came the extensive body of academic literature. In addition there was my research into the application of genocide and security by conventional armies from Russia, Europe and USA. My PhD research in the 1990s, identified a form of German warfare that was primarily based on security. Initially, it was employed to pacify colonial uprisings, then later adapted for counter-revolution, and later still as a form of extreme politics of violence in Nazi occupied territories. This was war, but framed security measures and bound by the strong thread of politics of violence.
I eventually referred to this civil-military phenomenon as security warfare (refer to chapter one in Hitler’s Bandit Hunters, 2006) a form low-level war with high intensity violence and genocide. Research of sources from post 1945, revealed it was a ubiquitous form of warfare that all nations have practised in one form or another. Both America and Britain tried to use these methods in wars of decolonisation and in other Cold War conflicts, but they failed. There were massacres, as in the case of My Lai, but the west found it politically and culturally unacceptable to resort to outright genocide. Putin has no qualms and has resorted to genocidal massacres from the outset of this war.
In April 2022, I was asked by a publisher to write a book about the war as it was unravelling. My methodological approach was simple – don’t chase the war - identify and reflect on the trends. I avoided all social media on the war, partly to concentrate on the manuscript and partly to avoid the increasingly surreal predictions circulating in the media. These predictions revealed a growing tendency for analysts to focus upon the tactical and operational rather than the strategic. The operational concept has percolated deep into strategic thinking. Consequently, ‘experts’ extoll the fighting power of Ukrainian fighters - the brave few forcing disproportionate battlefield casualties on Russia. However, this is not an accurate assessment of Ukraine’s strategic situation.
The peak of this operational precedence over strategy, with all its dubious subjectivity, came with the August-September 2022 battles when a series of Russian offensives were blunted. The fervent ‘hopes’ for battlefield victories rapidly faded but the ‘hope’ endured. Putin then set about escalating the war as we have repeatedly warned in Fallout.substack.com podcasts. Is he close to unleashing unlimited war, with fresh troops called to the colours and growing numbers of formations and material reserves? The answer lies in the strategy.
Yes, the Russians have been blunted on the battlefield, but no, they have not been routed. This is the war’s conundrum – Ukrainian battlefield victories, set against Russia’s hold over the strategic initiative.
Putin’s Plan in 2023 – Unrestricted Violence
Image: @JominiW – aka Jomini of the West – Twitter thread 10.02.23
Strategic analysis doesn’t require tank-spotting level information to identify trends and patterns. The Russians have never once relinquished strategic control since this war began. They have repeatedly lost battles and suffered serious casualties, but they retain the strategic hold over the direction of the war. Discuss this issue outside of the social media cliques, with those who do not seek the limelight or the Twitter blue tick, and a tone of despondency is palpable.
Since August, professionals in the USA and Europe have made repeated claims that have highlighted the Ukrainian predicament. The supply of weapons has enabled the Ukrainian Army to keep fighting, but the army has lost sight of strategy. Holding on, across all fronts and for every grain of sacred earth causes a reverse attrition. Ukraine has adopted a static punch-for-punch fight and consequently this has caused a depletion of troops and military reserves. To compensate for the losses, Ukraine has requested even more advanced weapons. It should be acknowledged that western weaponry has caused casualties to Russian forces but have failed to stem the rain of shells and missiles that are depleting Ukraine’s industrial infrastructure. Has anyone considered when will Ukraine’s military-industrial complex break and what are the implications for the west?
Putin’s Anaconda plan is not strangling Ukraine, while ground forces penetrate the strategic avenues of the country. Rather, Putin is using mass to smother Ukraine. Mass of troops, masses of equipment and long fronts have stretched Ukrainian defenders. This inflicts slower destruction, but also heightens the genocidal impact of the war on Ukraine’s population. As the depletion of infrastructure is intensified, at some point Ukrainian society will break if this onslaught continues. The longer this kind of war continues the deeper the destruction and the scale of human catastrophe.
General Sherman’s march in 1864 cut a trail of destruction that is still recalled in the southern historical memory. Putin’s artillery has flattened villages and towns, and devastated cities – this is now fixed in memory, possibly forever. The scale of destruction is reaching total war levels and the war is far from over. Russia has continued to escalate the destruction and has shown neither mercy nor any intention of settling for anything less than Ukraine’s extermination.
Genocide is a word easily spoken but less well understood in its gravity. The destruction of Ukrainian people, culture, society and memory will not stop with Ukrainians. Russia has become a train of violence without end. Poland is a likely target, as is Sweden. Firing missiles from Belarus, the Russians have used the forests on the frontier to amplify the threat of extreme violence westwards.
Putin’s New Colonialism
Putin’s audacity is sustaining the Russian war effort. He has transformed Russia and he did this through his former KGB authority. At one time the KGB was the secret police organisation of the Soviet Union. After 1989 the reforms and changes led to the corporate takeover of the state by the security police. Today, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is a corporate secret police state that has a controlling interest over the Russian empire. The old KGB roots are still visible, especially in Putin who was trained as a guardian of the Soviet Union but now behaves as the godfather of Russia. Putin has different faces for different audiences, like a KGB handler, but his plan never waivers.
Since 2014, he has exploited his intelligence and security expertise to colonise the west from within. At the same time, he has exploited his long-term low-level conflicts to sustain his powerbase at home. He has bought and intimidated western leaders and politicians. Putin’s methods have played all sides against the centre, financing both left and right political parties. This has muddied all political debates since Brexit and beyond COVID. Through these methods he has been able to undermine western security. However, Russian colonisation through intelligence and security has been a long-term process that began decades ago, and the consequences are only emerging from this war.
Putin has sent paid assassins to murder and rampage overseas. He leveraged political-economic control over western strategic energy supply rendering nations like Germany compliant. He drowned the City of London (Londongrad) in filthy money and regardless of sanctions the funds have continued to flow. He also arranged friendships with dubious national leaders to bend European Union regulations to breaking point. In other partnerships, his ‘friends’ have served the plan to block NATO expansion (Ukraine). His ‘associates’ have tried to cut the sinews of Ukraine’s war. The Russian sphere of influence remains extensive regardless of western economic sanctions and political pressure. By February 2022, Putin held the pulse of western security and decided the patient was suitably anesthetised to go to war.
Early in the war the western opinion-makers were pushing all kinds of unrealistic assessments – Russia would collapse through logistics, the tyres were wrong, and the never-ending expectations that ‘tomorrow’ was Russia’s demise. The Russian silence at the start enabled Ukraine to appear to gain the upper hand in the propaganda war. It has proven hollow – positive propaganda has backfired. All the claims of Russian failures have persuaded the Europeans that long-term war is not their problem.
Let’s not have any illusions about the West’s penchant for Realkrieg – which is a reluctance for war while making warlike noises. Putin has exploited this western credo. His threats have intimidated western decision-makers into limiting the supply of conventional weapons to Ukraine. This intimidation has benefits. Past arguments over contributions to NATO, has shifted to who has supplied Ukraine ‘with the mostest’. Scrutiny reveals they are derisory amounts of arms and technologically advanced weapons systems. Profits are high but so are Ukrainian losses – USA and NATO should re-examine that ratio because it looks to all the world that the west fiddles the books while Ukraine burns.
The supplies have forced Ukraine from a sound strategic response to the war and into stop-gap battlefield management. Holding the front at all costs, retaining lost ground at all costs, are honourable operational decisions but are limiting Ukraine’s strategic options. Ideas of giving up ground for a better strategic position are heckled as cowardly or defeatist, which takes us back to why positive propaganda has become a curse to Ukraine’s warfighting. Ukraine has acquired the defender’s dilemma, even after fighting serious defensive battles, the lines have barely changed. But Ukrainian exhaustion is beginning to show, and the Russians have not retreated but on the contrary are getting stronger.
Neutralising the west has been Putin’s most significant strategic success that hangs over the war zone. NATO should have immediately imposed an air-exclusion zone when Putin’s troops crossed the frontier – on the grounds of sphere of influence. Western Realkrieg failed against Putin’s KGB style of command-and-control culture in modern war. This is a serious failure, confirmed within days when a former British general claimed NATO had been defeated. Putin had learned from the experience of NATO’s intervention during the Civil War in former Yugoslavia. By forcing a restriction on NATO air power, he has been able to rain mechanised genocide on Ukraine without any interference.
Unable to counter the Russian artillery, Ukraine is in an unsustainable strategic position. Helpless to counter this level of destruction, it has had a withering effect on morale. It’s also noticeable that Ukrainian’s soldiery is ageing, in their 40s and 50s. Major Vadim Khodak, of the 4th Tank Brigade, assigned to learn about British tanks, is 57 years old. To apply an appropriate Second World War comparison, Michael Wittmann, an SS tank officer, was 30 when he was killed in combat. Even the bravest fighters wilt under endless bombardment and civilians suffer serious psychological problems. These are the lessons of modern war; a lesson Russia has factored into its way of war.
NATO cannot regain the initiative without causing an escalation of the war and thus Realkriegbungles along. There is no value in NATO promises of air power to protect member states, especially when territories are in danger of falling or being outflanked. Russia’s strategic options increase daily as does China and Russia’s other allies. NATO isn’t even consoling the western public that has remained resolutely reluctant to go to war. Since the end of the Cold War, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan have taught Europeans that being allied to America is not entirely a secure option.
America predictably thought of America first and decided NATO was not going to be involved. This suited NATO which had long given up strategic thinking and is home to petty careerism – another faceless and unaccountable institution. Europeans, as in 1968 and 1956, are forced to watch as Ukraine is bombarded into rubble and millions of refugees’ flood across Europe’s borders.
Nations that were already burdened with caring for the victims of the failed war on terror once again faced another human catastrophe. The torrid collapse of Afghanistan, abandoned by America, was another tiresome replay of America’s failed imperialism like Vietnam in 1975. Always half in-half out, Biden didn’t want Putin’s war but has played the hawk to out-trump Trump. Meanwhile a small nation is struggling with a trickle of weapons, which suits Biden’s America but is a long-term disaster for Europeans.
Slowly, very slowly, the truth will out over the reasons for western sluggishness toward the war. On 15 February 2023, Ben Wallace the UK’s Defence Minister, tried to defend the appalling condition of Britain’s armed forces. This has come after a year of thuggish jingoism from the wholly populist Johnson government that abandoned a barely coherent defence policy for a failed doctrine of counterinsurgency (COIN dogma). Since then, several governments have tried to formulate a coherent policy while offering a few old and unreliable tanks. We now know that 12 tanks reflects the wholesale failure of UK defence policy under long-term Conservative governance.
Back in 2012, in a BBC documentary, Lord Guthrie, the former chief of staff, warned Britain was running dangerously close to a ‘critical mass’ in defence and that one day ‘the risks might catch us out.’ The Strategic Defence Review was a disaster, said Max Hastings, and Britain is losing all notion of ‘grown up armed forces’. Hastings added that future governments required better judgement over selecting wars. Guthrie and Hasting predictions can now be seen as a withering indictment of British defence today.
The British are betwixt n’ between nostalgia or past wars and the realities of modern defence policy. In 2016 Britain abandoned Europe but has yet to formulate a serious defence policy. The Conservative government has rendered post-Brexit Britain defenceless, relying on NATO and the USA to pick up the slack. Alarmingly, no one seems surprised or appears to care for the political ramifications, such are the scale of socio-economic problems in UK. This is a 1940 moment – who are the Guilty Men? Thus, one year into this war and the UK public can see the utter foolhardiness of a popular government that has spouted torrid jingoism, but without the firepower to back it up.
Europeans have fared little better, although civil-military relations and the military-industrial complexes in Europe have been more coherent in expenditure and effectiveness. Europeans have avoided defence committees on weapons requirements that in Britain have led to catastrophic failure. German Leopards are wanted, whereas the British Ajax is a financial disaster and wanted by nobody. European naval fleets have avoided the absurdity of aircraft carriers without aircraft or weak air defences. Often forgotten in the calculations of European defence is France, which remains Europe’s nuclear power. Altogether this sets the added dimension of a framework for a European Army. Indeed, given the disasters of western security, a European Army represents the best solution for united Europe’s long-term defence against Russia.
Putin’s Genocidal War
Being first to suggest Putin had gone to war with a genocidal intent was the outcome of decades of research into extreme war. There was also that moment of horrible realisation that Putin was replicating atomised wastelands with conventional artillery. The tubes were pointing at civilian communities. Having researched security warfare, where there are few rules or laws, fewer logistics or big war, and less care for civilians, genocidal war was not difficult to identify as logical for the corporate Russian way of war. In this context, Putin’s methods are not unpredictable.
Putin’s war has followed patterns even though he attempts to hide them. Security warfare has featured in smallish wars since 1900, with mixed results but a large part of its strategic value lay in bluff. When genocide was practiced against primitive peoples, it was done so to render them pacified very quickly to save on national resources. The Russians are attempting to teach the west a brutal lesson by the application of security warfare in Europe. Putin’s armies are delivering total destruction with low grade arms, a poorly trained soldiery and less than average field command. It’s also a strange story of a second-hand army defying western military orthodoxy. If the West confronted him, would his bluff collapse – this is the strategic question of the war.
The hard hand of war is devious. Putin, for all his assumed faults as a warlord, has shown no signs of losing control. His command, communication and control have barely faltered. His commanders have been forced to face responsibility for failure before the nation. The generals and the armies have been bound to the body politic through the military order, through political control and through religion. This is an extreme form of civil-security relations, where the national army is subsumed as the corporate arm of war for a security state. Russian media voices all manner of threats against the west and Ukraine, while Putin remains resolute. This constitutes orchestrated dramatic war-making, and the war has given Putin time to perfect his script knowing full well the west remains confused and undecided.
The Anaconda plan is also being indirectly fuelled by western Realkrieg – endless conferences and the drip-drip-drip of weapons to Ukraine, but how long can this last? What is the breaking point? For Ukraine, there is every reason to carry on fighting, which is a lesson from the Nazi Holocaust. However, if the rain of shells continues unabated, at some point Ukraine will lose its viability, as both a self-sustaining state, and as an independent nation. All the faith in the ability to achieve 1:5 or 1:10 kill ratios is fading against common-sense analysis and the realities of war. Both sides are suffering attrition losses, long-term this is unsustainable, but Ukraine has most to lose. The early predictions of Russian collapse or Putin’s demise lacked the credibility of comprehending his legacy or the growing determination of Russians to win. Thus, analysts have continued to believe Russia was a busted flush against Russia’s history of an imperial destiny, not always manifest but unmercifully brutal.
Genocide is the most decisive factor in this war. Russia’s annihilation warfare was formulated in the 1990s when the ‘new’ Red Army generals realised winning at any cost was politically rewarding in Putin’s corporate security state. Destroying cities is Putin’s trademark if ‘pushed’ into prosecuting war. Once committed to war, the scale of destruction is always disproportionate. This war of annihilation is not a departure, as many observers have assumed, but a stage in the process of rebuilding/restoring the old Soviet borders/Soviet greatness. Putin’s negative propaganda has created a new Russian identity of national pride, he’s sealed a partnership with the past, and has not only weaponised nostalgia, but fuelled it with wartime sentiment. Recently a statue of Stalin was unveiled in Stalingrad (3 February 2023). This has longer-term meaning: even if Putin were removed, his legacy is now the higher calling. Putin’s legacy is the national mission that demands Ukraine must be destroyed and Russia to become great again. Russia’s destiny has become Putin’s legacy. Thus the west confronts a serious dilemma: a general reluctance for war, when war is steaming headlong towards the west.
Putin’s war is grim, escalating and already global.
A new model Russian army is emerging from the casualties and losses. The loss of inexperienced generals has been replaced by experienced and trained generals. The same has happened throughout the army. Older equipment and especially the tanks have been junked to soak up Ukrainian weapons. The newer armoured vehicles are in the reserves waiting to be unleashed. The mass casualties of older cannon-fodder have been replaced by younger soldiers trained to the conditions of this war. The Russian army that emerges from this war will be a serious long-term threat to European security.
If Putin dies or is even deposed, his passing will not change the course of Russian history. This war will continue even with regime change – this isn’t 1917 and all that. Genocidal war has set in stone a permanent conflict between both nations - there will be no retreat, no surrender and no reconciliation. This is a war of extermination.
Ukraine is fighting a ferocious war and losing. In a genocidal conflict, losing has grave consequences for national survival and existence. Neither Russia nor Ukraine can contemplate a strategic compromise, the outcome can only be unconditional where extinction to either side is a very real prospect. This has transformed the war into a holy struggle, there can only be an unholy outcome.
If there is a learning curve for the west from this war: it’s to rearm very quickly and that strategy must prevail – before it’s too late.