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An expert explains why Putin seems to be using an outdated military manual

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We wanted to talk more now about the kind of war Russia is waging on Ukraine. It's certainly horrifying. That's clear. But one thing stands out to some analysts. Putin seems to be following a manual out of the last century, not this one. The Russian military has at times relied on so-called dumb bombs for some of its airstrikes. They've moved troops around the country in slow, lumbering convoys that have seemed to get stuck at times, and they've had trouble keeping up their supply lines. Meanwhile, it is the Ukrainians who've seen more updated in their defenses, adopting fast-moving guerrilla tactics and using social media to relentlessly put out their message.

We called Sean McFate to try to understand what this might mean. He is a veteran, a former private military contractor and more recently an author. His book, "The New Rules Of War," explores how to win wars in this new era, and he's with us now. Sean McFate, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

SEAN MCFATE: Of course.

MARTIN: So one reason I think that Russian tactics stand out is that, in recent years, we have really associated the Russians with so-called hybrid war - right? - hybrid warfare involving sort of other kinds of tactics. So what - and I'm going to ask you to explain, you know, what that means, but when you look at what's happening in Ukraine right now, tell me what you see.

MCFATE: I see last century's war happening in this century. And it's puzzling because Putin is a - he's been a leader in modern warfare not in terms of it being morally good, but in, as you said earlier, hybrid war. So it's really curious. He's going back to the 1940s.

MARTIN: And by hybrid warfare, what do we mean? I mean, I'm thinking of disinformation tactics. I'm thinking about, like, the election interference that we saw here in the United States. I'm talking about sort of turning different parties against each other. What are you thinking of?

MCFATE: Basically, it's anything that doesn't look like World War II is sort of, like, what that means, or sneaky warfare. And that is what Russia did in 2014 to sort of take Crimea. They created this fog of war and used it all these sneaky ways. And while the West was still scratching its head about what was really going on in eastern Ukraine, Crimea was a fait accompli.

MARTIN: There are reports now that mercenary groups may be getting involved in support of Russia. You've written extensively about these groups. Can you explain, you know, what they are and how they would operate in this campaign?

MCFATE: Sure. So mercenaries, in the last six or eight years, have become Russia's weapon of choice. And they do the Kremlin's dirty work. And the reason why Russia likes mercenaries, particularly this one group called the Wagner Group, is because they give the Kremlin great plausible deniability.

MARTIN: Who are these people? I mean, are they Russian nationals? Are they third-country nationals? Who pays them? And what's their - and why do they do it?

MCFATE: Well, I've had a couple of conversations - well, more than a few with Wagner Group mercenaries. They are mercenaries. They're not a militia of the GRU, which is the military intelligence. They work - they're owned by a Russian oligarch called Prigozhin, who's close to Putin. And Prigozhin also owns the Internet Research Agency - you know, the troll factory. And the Russians, mercenaries and the troll factory work hand in hand. Like, the troll factory creates disinformation, creates the fog of war. And these mercenaries, which are not supposed to be there, move through it for victory.

Now, most of those mercenaries with the Wagner Group, they are ex - we'll say, like, USSR orbit. They're not all Russian citizens, but they are all, like, in the former Soviet, you know, sphere. Many of them are from Spetsnaz, which is Russian special forces, and they're very tough. In 2018, about 400 Wagner Group mercenaries went up against some of our best troops - Delta Force, Green Berets, Marines - in eastern Syria. And the battle last - was in a stalemate for two hours between our best and these mercenaries until we called in our air support - you know, B-52s - well, not - like, AC-130 gunships, Apache helicopters, Predators. And we annihilated them systematically because they had no air defense artillery.

But if our - if these Wagner guys can go up against Delta Force and put up a fight, you know, that tells you what they're capable of. And right now, they're going through the streets of Kyiv in plainclothes.

MARTIN: In plainclothes.

MCFATE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And may I ask how you know this?

MCFATE: I talked to people on the inside. I'm not talking to anybody on the streets. This is just a strong supposition. That's what they're...

MARTIN: That's what their modus operandi - that is how they operate.

MCFATE: That's what they do. Yeah.

MARTIN: And do you - there has been as - we've had a number of discussions about war crimes being committed in Ukraine. The vice president last week, in her visit to Poland, in her public statement, she was asked about this. She said there should be an investigation. This whole question of what constitutes a war crime in the modern era was established in the Geneva Convention in 1949. They have been updated through the decades. But I wonder if you feel that this is a relevant concept here in this - in modern warfare. I mean, what mechanism of accountability is there? Is there any - just what's your take on that?

MCFATE: Look; the laws of armed conflict, the laws of war, they all were created over 100 years ago, mostly, and they only seek to address conventional war, sort of state-on-state, military-on-military formal war like World War II. They don't address non-state actors. They don't address terrorism, insurgent groups or groups like mercenaries. So I think we need to update laws of armed conflict, and we have to figure out - you know, international law without teeth is just ink on paper. So how do we enforce it? If it's not going to be the United Nations, which has - many think has been AWOL for the last 30 years, then who is - you know, who's going to be enforcing that? You know, the U.S. Marine Corps? NATO? It's unlikely.

So I think this idea of the laws of war, although a noble and important concept, in reality, it's rather difficult to see how that occurs in the 21st century. And certainly, you know, when conventional war in Ukraine fails, which I think it will, Putin will move to an unconventional war phase where he's going to flatten cities like he did in Grozny, too, and Aleppo in Syria. And there will be lots of casualties. It'll be horrific. It hasn't - the horror hasn't started yet. So I think we - you know, and the laws of war will once again prove rather feckless in changing his decision to do that.

MARTIN: That was Sean McFate. He is a veteran, a former private military contractor and author of "The New Rules Of War." Sean McFate, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your insights with us.

MCFATE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.