Botched Ukraine Invasion Damages Putin’s Power Myth
Western apologists for Vladimir Putin are not the only ones forced to rethink by the war in Ukraine. Even those who understood Putin’s malign intentions and warned that his imperial restoration plan would one day threaten Ukraine’s existence as an independent state must now ask themselves an unexpected question: have we overestimated Putin’s power? ?
Few leaders seem more convinced than Putin that projecting political power is even more important than possessing it. From the start of his career in public life, aided by the fact that his KGB career left him a blank slate, he worked carefully to build the public persona of a cunning, inscrutable and, above all, tough politician. These official photographs of a shirtless Putin riding on horseback through the Siberian taiga may have been ridiculed, but their argument has been widely accepted at home and abroad. Putin’s strength has appealed to populist nationalists elsewhere, attracted by his reactionary machismo and authoritarian methods. He seduced many Russians. And that has alarmed Russia’s neighbors and its critics at home.
Putin’s control over Russia is of course not an illusion. For two decades he has routinely shut down nearly every forum of genuine public debate and waged a relentless campaign of persecution against those who challenged him. But the stronger Putin seemed to be, the more the outside world assumed he was. This impression has hardened in recent years when, through a mixture of opportunism and cunning, Putin has succeeded in establishing himself on the international scene.
His intervention alongside the Assad regime in Syria in 2017 provided a boost in favor of Damascus, ensuring that Russia could retain its important naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast while strengthening Putin’s position as a broker. regional power. At the same time, he cultivated allies in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Most significant was his budding partnership with China’s Xi Jinping, which culminated in the announcement of their “boundless friendship” on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. This positioned Russia and China in a united front against US hegemony.
The fact that Russia carried out an interference operation aimed at helping Trump get elected in 2016 gave the impression that Putin’s influence extended across the Atlantic
Closer to home, everything seemed to be going Putin’s way. Brexit, which he supported, weakened Britain and the European Union. Disputes over migration, the financial crisis and the rule of law have exposed fissures within the EU, while pro-Kremlin nationalist parties have made inroads across Europe, including in France and Italy. Putin annexed Crimea without firing a shot and sparked conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow was able to absorb the ensuing sanctions with relative ease. And in Donald Trump, Putin had a deferential American president who could hardly have been more receptive to his concerns. The fact that Russia carried out an interference operation aimed at helping Trump get elected in 2016 gave the impression that Putin’s influence extended across the Atlantic.
This growing sense of Russian omnipotence helps explain why the West assumed that Putin’s forces would quickly invade Ukraine. They expected the Ukrainian military to be no match for a well-armed and modernized Russian force of 200,000 soldiers, seasoned after years of war in Syria.
Instead, the invasion of Ukraine was a humiliation for Putin. The Russians misjudged their tactics and suffered heavy casualties on all fronts. Morale was low, logistics poor and propaganda lame. Russia has lost almost as many generals in a month of fighting in Ukraine as the United States in 20 years in Vietnam. It will likely learn from these mistakes and change course, but for now Russia is losing its war – and losing it badly.
The war in Ukraine forces us to look at Putin’s power with fresh eyes
A botched strategy has been accompanied by remarkable intelligence failures. Moscow underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian resistance and overestimated the capabilities of its own forces. He misjudged the willingness of Western governments to impose sanctions that would cost their own economies dearly. He did not anticipate the galvanizing effect of an invasion on the EU and on NATO.
The war in Ukraine forces us to take a fresh look at Putin’s power. It turns out that it is easier to bomb a country from uncontested airspace, as Russia did in Syria, than to attempt a full-scale invasion of a European country the size of France. What if Russia’s security agencies, which some thought controlled Western politics like puppeteers, had perhaps been lucky with a populist revolt led by much larger forces?
If the West has overestimated Putin’s ability to shape events outside of Russia, the next question is whether his grip on power at home is as strong as it appears. So far, signs of dissent within the regime have been limited and public demonstrations of opposition have been quickly suppressed. On Friday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace remarked that Putin “is no longer the force he used to be”. At a minimum, the botched invasion is finally showing Putin — and the world — the limits of his power.