As the Russian attack on Ukraine nears the one-year mark, it is increasingly clear that Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade was one of the greatest geopolitical blunders of the modern era. The Russian dictator initially expected a short and successful war. Instead, Putin’s faltering invasion turned him into an international pariah and shattered Russia’s reputation as a military superpower. How could he be so wrong?
The extent of the miscalculations that led to the invasion has been laid bare in a recent article in the ‘New York Times‘ titled: ‘How Putin’s war in Ukraine became a catastrophe for Russia‘. This lengthy report detailed the often wildly unrealistic goals set for the invading Russian army, with specific units expected to advance hundreds of kilometers through the hostile country and occupy cities deep inside Ukraine within days.
Orders issued on the eve of the invasion confirm that Russian military planners dangerously underestimated Ukraine’s ability to fight back. At first sight, this makes little sense. As of early 2022, Ukraine had already been at war with Russia for eight years and boasted a battle-hardened army of over 200,000 men along with hundreds of thousands of highly motivated reservists with combat experience. This force was also relatively well armed and led by an emerging generation of generals who had absorbed the lessons of the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Yet we now know from leaked documents that Russia’s military and political elite expected only minimal organized resistance in Ukraine. Rather than prepare for a major war, they sincerely believed that a large part of the Ukrainian population would hail them as liberators. Surprisingly, they also doubted whether the country’s military had the stomach for serious combat.
These preposterous expectations have been shaped by decades of misguided Kremlin propaganda. for generations, the Russian state denied Ukraine’s right to exist and questioned the existence of a separate Ukrainian national identity. Putin has been a particularly prominent proponent of such arguments and has frequently claimed that Ukrainians are actually Russians (‘a people’). In the years between the 2014 occupation of Crimea and the full-scale invasion of February 2022, he repeatedly branded Ukraine as an “artificial” country that had been unfairly separated from its rightful place as part of historic Russia.
Russian state propagandists have also long sought to discredit Ukraine’s post-Soviet transition to Euro-Atlantic integration by dismissing it as a foreign conspiracy. Rather than recognizing the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, the Kremlin has consistently insisted that the vast majority of Ukrainians consider themselves Russian but are victims of an extremist fringe acting in the interests of outsiders.
Such delusions appear to have seeped into the upper echelons of the Russian leadership. At no point in the war does anyone in the Kremlin appear to have taken seriously the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty. Instead, they assumed the 2022 invasion would be a repeat of the takeover of Crimea in the spring of 2014, which saw Russian troops quickly seize the Ukrainian peninsula amid the post-revolution political paralysis in Kiev. This was to prove an extremely costly mistake.
From the first hours of the invasion, Russian troops met fierce Ukrainian resistance and began to suffer heavy losses. Just over a month after the first columns of Russian tanks crossed the border, Putin was forced to admit defeat in the Battle of Kiev and withdraw completely from northern Ukraine. His army has yet to regain the initiative and has since withdrawn from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine and right-bank Kherson in the south.
In addition to fatally underestimating Ukraine’s military capabilities, Putin has also grossly overestimated the strength of his own military. Like many prominent figures in Moscow, took Russia’s military superpower status for granted and did not seriously consider the possibility of defeat at the hands of a minor state like Ukraine. This confidence was shared by most Russianswho have traditionally embraced notions of their country’s military might with the zeal of religious dogma.
Despite a series of embarrassing setbacks in Ukraine, a large number of Russians continue to deny and cling to the hope that Russia has not yet deployed its full military potential. Putin himself fueled this wishful thinking by declaring that he “hasn’t started yet” waging a real war in Ukraine. However, this bravado cannot disguise the significantly less impressive reality of a depleted and demoralized Russian military increasingly reliant on mobilized troops, outdated armor and Iranian drones.
Putin has recently adopted a somewhat strange war strategy that seems designed primarily to appease the domestic public. Since early October, Russia has focused on mass air raids on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. This aerial warfare is extremely expensive and offers minimal military benefits. However, it is psychologically effective in convincing the Russian public that their cause is not lost yet.
The Kremlin’s carefully curated propaganda machine works hard to amplify the impact of these air strikes, exaggerating the hardships experienced by the Ukrainian civilian population. Similarly, the state media also trumpet every small gain Russian troops make on the ground in eastern Ukraine, even when those gains are measured in meters. This creates the impression that Russia has stopped trying to win the war and is simply attempting to prove that it is not losing.
The war is far from over, of course. In September 2022, Putin demonstrated his resolve by ordering Russia’s first mobilization since World War II. Many international observers they expect it to mobilize another 500,000 troops in the coming weeks. This massive increase in Russia’s military manpower is already reducing Ukraine’s ability to advance and could allow Moscow to regain the initiative in the coming months.
At the same time, the damage to Russia’s reputation has already been done. Russia’s global position has always relied heavily on the country’s international perception as a major military power. This myth has now been ruthlessly debunked on the battlefields of Ukraine. Countries that had previously felt compelled to maintain good relations with Russia now understandably feel they have little to fear, while those who previously saw Moscow as a powerful partner have been forced to rethink that relationship.
Internally, the consequences could be even more critical for Putin. Belief in Russia’s military strength has been the cornerstone of the country’s modern national identity. It was a source of patriotic pride that helped justify the often harsh living conditions and limited individual rights that all Russian citizens were forced to accept. The entire facade is now in danger of collapsing.
The failed invasion of Ukraine is not only exposing the relative weakness of the Russian military; it is revealing the rot in the heart of the Russian state and the emptiness of the Kremlin’s imperial attitude. This raises a number of serious questions about the future of the Russian Federation that Putin is unable to answer. Over the past 22 years, he has managed to create a parallel propaganda universe, but now reality is fast approaching.
The original version of this posting is here.
Ukraine: Invasion Shows Limits of Russian Propaganda — L’Indro