Why Putin Is Escalating Aerial Bombings in Ukraine

Former CIA analyst Andrea Kendall-Taylor on the hard-liners who have increasing sway over Moscow’s choices.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
No audio? Hover over the video player, and tap the Click to Unmute button.

On-demand recordings of FP Live conversations are available to FP subscribers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin reacts during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow.

Russia’s war in Ukraine seems to be entering a new phase. Moscow has had several recent setbacks, including the loss of territories it had occupied in Ukraine’s east and, perhaps most symbolically, a bombing on the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded by ordering a bombing campaign of Ukrainian cities, targeting residential areas and energy infrastructure. On Monday, several people in Kyiv were killed after Iranian-made drones struck the capital during morning rush hour.

What does Putin hope to accomplish by escalating attacks on civilians? Which way will the war swing next? I put those and other questions to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Kendall-Taylor served in the CIA as a senior analyst focused on Russia and Eurasia and later on the National Intelligence Council as a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. The interview was conducted on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. The full 30-minute discussion can be viewed here. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

Russia’s war in Ukraine seems to be entering a new phase. Moscow has had several recent setbacks, including the loss of territories it had occupied in Ukraine’s east and, perhaps most symbolically, a bombing on the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded by ordering a bombing campaign of Ukrainian cities, targeting residential areas and energy infrastructure. On Monday, several people in Kyiv were killed after Iranian-made drones struck the capital during morning rush hour.

What does Putin hope to accomplish by escalating attacks on civilians? Which way will the war swing next? I put those and other questions to Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Kendall-Taylor served in the CIA as a senior analyst focused on Russia and Eurasia and later on the National Intelligence Council as a deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. The interview was conducted on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. The full 30-minute discussion can be viewed here. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

Foreign Policy: So, let’s start with the latest: Russia’s new bombing campaigns on Ukrainian cities. What exactly is Putin’s rationale here?

Andrea Kendall-Taylor: The bombings that started last Monday were in direct response to Ukraine’s successful strike on the Kerch Strait Bridge. The Russians—and Putin in particular—have decided to respond in this manner, first and foremost, because they aren’t performing well on the battlefield. These attacks on the civilian centers represent the growing influence of some hard-line voices inside Russia, whose theory of victory is that if you can terrorize these civilian centers, you can compel Ukraine to back down over time.

And although the intensity of the strikes that we saw last week are unlikely to continue, and Putin himself came out and said that the bombing campaign would end, he’s now replaced that with a lower-cost alternative: the kamikaze drone strikes that we’ve seen raining down on downtown Kyiv. These attacks are going after civilian infrastructure—in particular heating and electricity. Putin understands that going into the winter, he needs to try to inflict that pain on Ukrainians to try to get them to back down.

FP: How much do average Russians know about this latest spate of attacks?

AKT: I think it’s fairly well known. And when you look at some of the state-run media coming out over the last couple, several days, these types of attacks have been featured.

Putin is trying to flip the script in the way that the Russians view the war. By illegally annexing territories [in eastern Ukraine], he’s basically told Russians that this is a defensive war. He is trying to rally Russians in support of the war. He is trying to demonstrate to Russians that it is Russia that is the victim. Domestically, he is portraying this conflict as a fight not only with Ukraine but also the United States and the West. He’s trying to frame this in very existential terms.

We should note that there is a constituency inside Russia of more hard-line voices who have been calling for these types of attacks. So there is a segment within the Russian population that doesn’t look at these strikes with the same kind of horror and terror that we all do.

FP: So, internally in Russia, there’s a battle between the voices that have been protesting Putin’s actions and the hard-liners on the right who want him to do more. But as you’re describing it, it seems the hard-liners have more influence on Putin’s decision-making and actions right now. Why is he having to listen to them?

AKT: Well, you’re right in the sense that Putin has to thread the needle: He is facing opposition and discontent from those two segments of society. As you said, there’s many people who oppose the war, and certainly in the wake of mobilization, Putin has now brought the war into the homes of many more Russian families. Up until this point, he’s tried to portray the war and things inside Russia as normal. He’s tried to protect the politically important Russians, but mobilization has blown that apart.

I’ve been surprised to see the extent to which they have allowed these more hard-line voices to continue to get airtime inside Russia. These are voices that you see on the state-run media channels, but most prominently, it has been Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic. It has been [the oligarch and Wagner Group founder] Yevgeny Prigozhin. It’s been former President Dmitry Medvedev. A lot of these voices are calling on Putin to stick with the maximalist objectives.

FP: If you’re surprised, that strikes me as significant. Tell me why this surprises you?

AKT: These are forces that are hard to control, and once you unleash them and allow them to flourish, they kind of take on a life of their own. It wasn’t surprising that they were present from the beginning because I think Putin did want to sit back and try to portray himself as a reasonable leader [by comparison]. But the thing that is surprising is that they’ve been allowed to continue and to, I think, accelerate. And to me, the recent attacks on the civilian centers [mean] those voices are ascendant and that Putin is actually having to make adjustments to placate that segment of society and of the political spectrum.

FP: Do you buy the theory that this war has been costly enough for Putin that his ability to stay in power could be threatened?

AKT: My sense is that Putin still feels quite secure in power. We should note that these personal dictators are always prone to paranoia, and so he has multiple tools at his disposal trying to divide the elite and play competing factions off against one another. He has developed an extremely loyal security service. He has control over domestic media and the information environment. I’m not sure that he’s particularly worried about his hold on power at this point in time, although it’s really difficult to assess that. He just gave a press conference in Astana [in Kazakhstan] on Friday. He looked really relaxed and confident, it seemed. We can’t get inside his head, but my sense is that he still feels firmly in power, in large part because there is not a clear alternative to him.

My own assessment of Putin’s stability, though, would probably differ from that. And I would say that his hold on power is far weaker now than it was before the war. His hold on power further weakened after mobilization. That was a really important change: He really has disrupted this idea that things are normal.

So, Putin may see that there is no alternative to him. But authoritarian regimes look stable until they’re not. And political change in these highly personalized systems tends to happen very quickly. If I were putting on my intelligence community hat, we’re not good at warning about the exact timing of any leader’s departure. It’s also very difficult to assess exactly how it will happen. But our job in the intelligence community is to warn that the likelihood is growing. And my best sense is that’s what the intelligence community would be doing. The fodder is ripe. The conditions for his ouster have improved. We don’t know when it will be, but I think the risk has risen.

FP: We can’t get inside Putin’s head, as you say. But what kinds of options are his advisors presenting to him right now? We know he’s trying to inflict pain on Ukraine. What else can he do?

AKT: Putin’s No. 1 priority is to get through the winter without ceding more territory to the Ukrainians.

FP: We’ve been talking so much about Russia. I want to flip this now and talk a little bit about Ukraine and its options. You recently visited Ukraine. You met with President Volodymyr Zelensky. You visited Bucha and other cities that suffered serious atrocities committed by Russian forces. What, if anything, surprised you on this visit?

AKT: Well, first of all, it was about three weeks ago, and I feel like that was an eternity ago. But a couple of things did stand out to me. One, we had the opportunity to visit the hub in Poland where a majority of military aid is transported into Ukraine. I learned that that hub is only operating at about 60 percent of capacity, which drove home for me that Kyiv’s allies could be doing quite a bit more to get military aid into Ukraine.

The second thing was about the resilience of Ukrainian society. Maybe it sounds a little bit hokey or cliched: We all read public polls, and we can understand that most Ukrainians believe that they will win the war and very few Ukrainians favor any territorial concessions. But being there was a different picture. In Bucha, they’re putting communities back together. They are rebuilding. It is cleaned up. There were kids walking around the streets. The same could be said of Kyiv, at least before the airstrikes resumed. Life was back to normal. There were cafes open.

What one heard from Ukrainians is that they were totally undeterred by the risk of Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon. And they would say that it won’t change how they fight the war. It will not change the outcome of the war. It will only change the costs that they have to endure and incur in order to get there. Being there really drove home the resilience of Ukrainian society and their willingness to stay in this as long as necessary.

FP: The West is supplying Ukraine with weapons and helping it in a variety of ways, but it doesn’t quite control Kyiv. And we’ve seen that from the bombing on the Kerch Straight Bridge and the assassination in Moscow [of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist]. Does that hurt the West’s support of Ukraine?

AKT: So, I still think that there is a very close partnership between the Biden administration and the Zelensky government. We know that they are in constant communication. It’s my understanding that when Zelensky was planning the counteroffensive, for example, the United States was intimately involved in gaming out what that might look like, helping shape Kyiv’s decision-making.

But as you noted, we don’t control Kyiv, and they are the ones who are on the front lines fighting this war. So there is a little bit of tension in the relationship. And that’s why you see, for example, Zelensky occasionally looking for opportunities to try to manage those tensions. For example, the Ukrainians are asking for longer-range capabilities—attack arms and other systems that would allow them to strike into Russia. The United States, because we can’t control them fully, worries very much that that would unnecessarily escalate the war. So you see Zelensky then saying, “Well, we’ll give the White House a veto over our targeting.” That’s a good example that highlights it’s a close partnership, but there are areas where interests might diverge. Both sides are looking for ways to try to manage those instances where interests might diverge.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.