INTERVIEW

Author Colin Clarke on Russia's disaster in Ukraine — and what happens next

This war's not over, Clarke warns, but Russia's no longer a great power: It's a "gas station with nuclear weapons"

By Chauncey DeVega

Published April 19, 2022 10:53AM (EDT)

A destroyed Russian military vehicle is pictured on the street in the city liberated from Russian invaders, Trostianets, Sumy Region, northeastern Ukraine. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A destroyed Russian military vehicle is pictured on the street in the city liberated from Russian invaders, Trostianets, Sumy Region, northeastern Ukraine. (Anna Voitenko/Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It has been almost two months since Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to begin a war of aggression against Ukraine. A great deal has happened in those 50 or so days, and despite what some observers and commentators would like to believe, the first draft of that history is still being written.

Like every other armed conflict, Ukraine has offered stories about heroes and villains, bravery and cowardice, human tragedy and loss, the best of humankind and the worst, great leaders and failed ones, surprises and disappointment, good fortune and bad luck. As military historians and others have long observed, warfare changes over time, but the human experience of war remains a constant.

What do we know to this point? The Ukrainian armed forces have performed well, beyond most expectations. By comparison, Russia's supposedly fearsome military machine has been shown to be poorly organized, strategically deficient and low on morale. Russia has suffered great losses in men and material — including the spectacular sinking of the Moskva, its flagship naval cruiser — and to this point in the war has failed to achieve its basic tactical and strategic goals. 

The Ukrainian military appears to have a qualitative advantage over their Russian adversaries in terms of training, leadership and morale. But as has been true throughout history, the Russian advantage in sheer numbers and brute forces should not be underestimated. The Ukrainian military will need continued support from the U.S. and NATO if it hopes to drive the Russian invaders out of the country. Continued Western assistance will be essential if Ukraine is to protect its future existence as a genuinely independent nation.

RELATED: Francis Fukuyama on Putin, Trump and why Ukraine is key to saving liberal democracy

The situation remains dynamic: Russia's forces have failed to secure the capital of Kyiv and other major objectives, but as of this week, they are apparently launching a major assault on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This attack appears to be timed to coincide with May 9, the anniversary of Russia's defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. If the Ukrainians can hold off this new Russian assault, that could decide the outcome of the entire war. On the other hand, if the Russians can gain major territory in the east, they will have regained the momentum and shifted the battlespace in their favor.

Russia's military has apparently committed crimes against humanity — including genocidal killings in the city of Mariupol, the town of Bucha and elsewhere. There are lingering or growing concerns that Putin may order the use of chemical or battlefield nuclear weapons, in defiance of international law.

Events in Ukraine are being mediated, amplified and all too often distorted by a 24/7 news machine, social media, digital technology and an information and propaganda war being waged by both the Russia and Ukraine (and other factions allied with both sides). In this context, it's difficult for the global public to separate fact from fiction. In an attempt to understand the Ukraine conflict, I recently spoke with Colin P. Clarke, an expert on international security, geopolitics, and terrorism.

Clarke is currently a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and was previously a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of several books, including "Terrorism, Inc.: The Financing of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Irregular Warfare" and "After the Caliphate: The Islamic State and the Terrorist Diaspora," and the editor of "Terrorism: The Essential Reference Guide." His essays and other writing have been featured in in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic and elsewhere. 

Western observers have been so deeply wrong about Russia that it calls into question how well they understand other potential adversaries, including China.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Clarke argues the war in Ukraine has revealed that Russia's global power and military capabilities have been grossly exaggerated, and that Russia should no longer be viewed as one of the world's great powers. American and other Western military observers were so deeply wrong in their evaluations of Russia's capabilities, he says, that it calls into question how well they understand other potential adversary nations, such as China.

Clarke cautions against prematurely grand conclusions about the war in Ukraine, which he says is still in its early stages, and explains how white supremacists and other members of the global right from the U.S. and Europe are journeying to Ukraine to gain combat experience and training (on both sides of the conflict). As we have seen in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, such people pose a risk to their home countries once they return. Clarke shares his dismay about the Republican attraction to Putin and Russia and the related tendency to disparage the U.S. military as somehow being "woke" or "progressive" and therefore "weak." 

Despite Putin's setbacks in Ukraine and the crippling impact of Western sanctions, Clarke argues that the Russian leader will likely survive this crisis, and that his time as a figure on the world stage is not ending anytime soon. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

How do you evaluate the current situation in Ukraine?

The Russians thought that this would be over in two weeks. They've now retreated from Kyiv. The Ukrainians have fought fiercely, courageously and effectively. The Russians have resorted to war crimes and crimes against humanity, which is the way the Russians fight. We saw this in Syria, Chechnya and Georgia in 2008. This is their style. It is scorched earth, collateral damage, and deliberately killing civilians.

One of the big stories I see, in terms of international relations and diplomacy and statecraft, is the concept of great power competition. With that language we are thinking about the United States, China and Russia. The war in Ukraine shows us that Russia does not belong in that conversation anymore. Russia is not a great power, it's essentially a gas station with nuclear weapons. The Russian military has performed so poorly, dar worse than anyone could have expected, including many defense planners in the United States, who built the Russians up to be 10 feet tall.


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The other aspect that is striking about this situation is the sense of unity among NATO countries, the West, the comprehensive nature of the sanctions and how quickly that all came together. Even Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov came out and admitted that they did not expect the swiftness of the sanctions or how comprehensive and crushing that would be. This is not something that Moscow will recover from easily.

There is so much noise and distraction around the actual information. Much of the dominant narrative, in terms of Ukraine's dramatic success, seems too good to be true.

There is definitely a lot of cheerleading that is happening in the West, because so many people feel sympathy for Ukraine. One of the behind-the-scenes stories is all the support that NATO was given Ukraine. This is not minor support; it comes from some of the wealthiest countries in the world, supplying very lethal weaponry. Russian armor hasn't been up to the task. Their logistics have been terrible. Turkish drones have also made a big difference.

There is definitely a lot of cheerleading happening in the West. ... Some things we're hearing may well be the stuff of Ukrainian information operations.

In all, there is a tendency to root for the little guy, especially given how the Russians have been acting in Ukraine. Russia is a nation that sends operatives onto European soil to assassinate people with poison. When doctors in Russia started questioning the country's COVID response, they were mysteriously falling out of windows. It is easy to root against the Russians. We should not overlook that Russia is a longtime Cold War adversary. Our reaction to the war in Ukraine is kind of baked into the American DNA, for all the old Cold Warriors who now feel like Russia is getting its comeuppance.

Yes, people hear about the "Ghost of Kyiv" and where the Ukrainians told the Russian navy, "Go fuck yourself" before they were attacked by that ship. Such things may well be the stuff of Ukrainian information operations.

Much of the analysis and commentary we see in the mainstream media and from talking-head commentators is often subpar.  

We live in a 24/7 news media cycle environment. The constant need for talking heads tends to bring in folks of varying quality. You have to be prudent where you get your information from, who you're listening to and how these events are being analyzed. It's very early in what could be a long conflict, so it's like judging a football game by the first five minutes. We've got two halves here. We're nowhere near the end of what we're likely to see.

There are clearly a lot of conscripts that are fighting in Ukraine. These kids are young. The fact that they're getting captured and they look frightened, as we are seeing on these videos, indicates that they probably weren't prepared for what they got into. There's also reporting that some of these soldiers thought they were on a training exercise and didn't even realize what the mission was. That would account for some of the low morale.

The Russian Spetsnaz are structured as elite special forces. To the extent that they're involved, it's probably not as much as some would have expected. We're hearing reporting about the Wagner Group pulling back forces from Bolivia, the Central African Republic, Mali and elsewhere to the Ukrainian battlefield. That could suggest that Moscow has a manpower issue, but there's a whole host of reasons why the Russians could be doing what they're doing.

One thing that analysts have pointed out is how weak Russian command and control is. The Russians don't use what the U.S. military has, which is "mission command," where autonomy is delegated down to tactical levels. The Russian military is far more vertically structured and hierarchal, and that accounts for some of the issues that we're seeing on the battlefield, particularly when the Ukrainians can sever lines of communication.

The American media seems to be obsessed with these "wonder weapons" stories. The Javelin ATGM is the most obvious example. In this narrative these super-weapons are a game changer and will win the war. What insights or context do you have to offer?

The individuals deploying these weapons so effectively are not just guys off the street. Watching what is happening in a superficial way may embolden other countries to say, "Oh, it's that easy to put up resistance or to wage an insurgency." But the Ukrainians have been training for a really long time. The battle-hardened folks have been over in the Donbas and eastern Ukraine. They have been getting world-class training from Western militaries — the same militaries that supplied these weapons and trained them on these weapons. They have been envisioning this exact scenario.

Ukrainians have been envisioning this exact scenario for a long time. They are getting exquisite intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well. All of that serves as a force multiplier.

The Ukrainians are getting exquisite intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well. There's a lot of support that's going on in the background of this war that is serving as a force multiplier for their defense against Russia.

How much of what we are seeing in terms of warfare in Ukraine is revolutionary, and how much of it is iterative? For example, there is this narrative from some that the Javelin and other ATGM systems herald the end of the tank and large formations of armor. Folks have been saying that about tanks and other armor for 70 years and it still has not come true.

It's too early to draw such grand, sweeping conclusions. We're going to be studying this conflict for a long time. Very often we end up studying what doesn't work, looking for lessons learned from failures, learning the best practices. To draw these conclusions — "Armor is dead! The tank is dead! Long live the Javelin!" — is premature. Ukraine is a small sample size. We've got to look at a longer period of time, we've got to compare this to other conflicts. Every future conflict is not going to be Ukraine. The natural inclination is to compare this to China and Taiwan, but I believe there are probably more differences than similarities with those two scenarios.

Looking at what has happened so far, how do we balance the narratives? Is it about leadership and morale? Is it training? Is it equipment and material support? Why have the Ukrainians been able to fight so effectively?

It is all of the above. It's combined arms. It's also the will to fight, which is something that is really difficult to measure. I spent 10 years at the RAND Corporation, where I was a political scientist studying insurgency and conflict. Those kinds of intangibles and those hard-to-measure variables can account for quite a bit on the battlefield.

What do we know about Vladimir Putin's relationship to the global right, including neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups?

They fetishize Vladimir Putin. They adore him, and see him as a symbol of masculinity and of white Christendom. Those members of the global right who want to establish a white "ethnostate" look at Russia and the way that Putin comports himself with all the antisemitism and anti-LGBTQ policies and see him as a strong leader.

There are people in the United States, including members of Congress, who have denounced "wokeism" and who fawn over videos of the Russian military. Ted Cruz is one of them. They embarrass themselves on a regular basis. They are always talking about how "masculine" the Russians are, while denigrating our own military, which they see as overly "woke." But the United States has the world's strongest combat forces. For all the videos of Russians wrestling grizzly bears, it hasn't done them a whole lot of good on the battlefield in Ukraine.

What are the facts regarding Putin's claims about Nazis and Ukraine?

Like any good misinformation, there's a kernel of truth there. There are elements of the far right fighting on the Ukrainian side. Experts on Ukraine will tell you that. However, there are many neo-Nazis fighting on the Russian side. In fact, by most estimates, far more than on the Ukrainian side.

There's a kernel of truth to Putin's misinformation: There are elements of the far right fighting on the Ukrainian side. But by most estimates, there are far more fighting on the Russian side.

Over the last eight years, the Ukrainians have actually made earnest efforts to minimize the influence of the far right within their ranks. The Russians have done the opposite: They've courted it. These claims about Ukraine and Nazis are so much typical gaslighting from the Kremlin. They Russians and Putin are accusing the other side of doing exactly what they're doing. This is their MO. It is straight out of the Kremlin playbook.

What is actually happening with neo-Nazis, white supremacists and right-wing extremist groups going to Ukraine to get combat experience and training?

There are Americans and other Westerners who have gone to fight on both sides of the conflict. It's important for governments to keep track of these people, where they're going, when they come back and who they're in touch with, because we could very well have a situation where an individual returns to their country of origin and looks to plot some kind of terrorist attack using the training and motivated by ideology that they've fostered in Ukraine.

RELATED: Right-wing switchback: "National conservatives" dump Putin, want to claim Ukraine

What is the chatter like among these right-wing groups about the Ukraine war and who to support?

There are a range of narratives developing. Some are refusing to take a side and saying that this is a "brother war," that these are white Slavs fighting each other and that they are not the enemy: The enemy should be Jews or Blacks or the LGBTQ+ community, and this war in Ukraine is shedding unnecessary blood. There are others who take a more concerted stand, one that is pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. It's really a mixed bag so far.

If you were to craft a narrative about the events in Ukraine, what would the main points be?

For me, the story is a basic one. It's that this country, which Putin says doesn't exist, was attacked unjustly, and they're fighting for their lives. This is existential for them. It's clearly a country that does exist, because Ukraine is fighting like a united country that doesn't want to remain under Russia's imperial control. The overwhelming story for me is that I didn't hear any experts, across the board, especially military analysts, saying that this is where we would be two months into this conflict.

What went into that analysis that proved to be inaccurate? Where else are we getting it wrong in our assessment of China or Pakistan or North Korea? It really makes me concerned for what else we're getting wrong as we look across the world.

What do we know about the Russian military and the apparent war crimes being committed in Ukraine?

It's clear that war crimes are being committed by the Russian military. That seems quite obvious. Now it's a question of documenting them. If you look at the history of who actually gets charged with war crimes, it very rarely happens. But even those like Slobodan Milošević who are ultimately brought to the Hague don't face justice in the end. He died before he could really face justice.

It's hard, especially in an age where digital images and videos can be manipulated in the way that they can, to collect this evidence with a degree of fidelity that would pass muster in court. It's not going to be easy. But we have more open-source intelligence tools and places like Bellingcat that do an amazing job of documenting all the things we're seeing and working to separate fact from fiction.

Ultimately, I think we'll be able to move closer to the truth [about war crimes] in this conflict than in previous conflicts, because so many people are involved in documenting what is taking place.

It will take a while, but I think ultimately we'll be able to move closer to the truth in this conflict than we have in previous conflicts because we have so many people involved in documenting what is taking place and trying to keep accurate records. The question becomes, are they doing it for the right reason? How do we weed out those with more nefarious intentions and others who are attempting to deliberately sow disinformation?

What are the implications for military budgets across the West in response to the Ukraine war?

The U.S. budget is so vast that talking about a "budget" per se does not really mean anything. The United States can buy anything and make anything. That's not an issue. What we've had issues with is trying to convince our allies in Europe to spend more for their own defense. With the war in Ukraine, that has finally happened. One of the biggest stories of this entire conflict so far is German foreign policy, which has done a total 180 under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Germans have pledged to spend an extra 100 billion euros just this year alone on security and defense. It's a real revolution in German foreign policy. In many ways, the United States is relieved by that change, but we do have to think of the second- and third-order consequences.

As countries spend more on their own self-defense, they're also going to have a greater say in shaping their own foreign policy. They're no longer as reliant on the United States to do things. They may make big decisions that the U.S. does not agree with. The U.S. may not be able to influence these countries in the way that we were in the past.

The U.S. military may also need to transition, in strategic and tactical terms, from counterinsurgency operations back to potentially fighting conventional land wars in Europe and elsewhere. Where are we with that?

The focus for the past 20 years has been on Central Command and, exactly as you said, on counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a totally different type of fight than a conventional land war in Europe. European Command (EUCOM) felt that they were being neglected and that they weren't getting the attention and the resources they needed.

EUCOM started to get more attention and resources in the non-kinetic space to respond to Russian disinformation. I think we're going to see a lot of change for EUCOM, and potentially a greater role for Special Operations Command Europe. I believe we are also going to see closer training and integration with our partners in Europe, including Poland, Romania and other countries. The United States is likely to continue to do more actually high-profile, big-ticket type training with them on various weapons systems.

As the U.S. extricates itself from these counterinsurgencies and withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq, it is somewhat similar to what happened after Vietnam. We kind of washed our hands of it and said, "We don't want to do that anymore" — until we were back in that fight. And I think we're going to do that again. The United States is like, "I don't really want to fight insurgencies. They're really messy. Let me go back to what I'm comfortable with which is conventional military operations." But the enemy gets a vote too. So I hope we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. I hope we learn from 20 years of counterinsurgency: What we did right, what we did wrong and how to avoid that.

What are some of the lessons the Chinese are learning from Russia's war in Ukraine?

One lesson is the reaction of the West. Could or would the West mount a similar reaction as we have seen with Russia in terms of sanctions? As a starting point, the answer is likely no, because China is so much more economically integrated with the rest of the world. Frankly, China has leverage there, so it's just not possible. The Chinese are probably feeling pretty good about that.

Does Putin survive this?

I think he does, because he is a survivor. I hope he doesn't, although I'm worried about the devil you know versus the devil you don't. Who comes after him? Is it someone even more extreme? But it's hard for me to see a way where Putin is forced out. Nobody thought Assad would survive in Syria, and he did. And Russia is far more integral to the international system than Syria is. Russia still has a seat on the UN Security Council.

As much as we'd like to say that we're going to  toss Russia aside and make it the equivalent of North Korea, it's not that easy. This is a country with vast energy reserves and nuclear weapons. It spans 11 time zones. I think Putin does survive this, unfortunately. But again, Russia is greatly hobbled. It's going to go backward, and that's going to really constrain Russian foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Is Putin a great man of history?

He is a great man of history in the same way that the Time Magazine Person of the Year could be a really terrible person. Putin's impact on history is significant. It's not for the better, obviously. He's going to go down as the Butcher of Bucha, amongst any other monikers. Clearly, his role has been outsized in world affairs. Putin has played an important role in history, but unfortunately, it's one that will primarily be remembered for suffering.

Read more on Putin, Russia and the war in Ukraine:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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