Luke Harding, a journalist for The Guardian who spent several years as a correspondent in Moscow before being expelled in 2011, was in Kyiv the night before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, having dinner at the home of the famous Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov. While the guests enjoyed borscht and honey vodka, Harding recalls in his book Invasion, Kurkov passed around files from the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, that he had used for his latest novel. The papers, which included interrogation records, covered 1917 to 1921, when the Red Army had invaded the recently independent Ukraine and incorporated it into Lenin’s newly created Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Harding describes Kurkov as an “optimist” but says that he himself felt “increasingly gloomy”: “Was history repeating itself a century later, with Moscow once more snuffing out Ukraine’s independence with another invasion?”
Harding had good reason for gloom. Russia had amassed 190,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders, and the White House had been warning of an imminent Russian invasion for well over a week. Just two days earlier, on February 21, Vladimir Putin had called a televised meeting of his security council to have the members endorse—some with obvious reluctance—his decision to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine (the Donbas), which paved the way for sending in Russian troops.
On the way back to his hotel, Harding received a phone call confirming his fears from a contact who had served in Ukraine’s foreign ministry. Russia would begin an invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of the morning. At 4:30 am Harding awoke to the sound of explosions and alarms across Kyiv. The Russian onslaught had begun. “Russia’s invasion would become the largest armed conflict on European territory since 1945,” Harding writes, “an attempt by one nation to devour another.”
The initiator of this conflict, Putin, had made his intentions for Ukraine clear in a seven-thousand-word essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published in July 2021. “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote. “Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.” He also described an “anti-Russian project” sponsored by the West in Ukraine, and made a point of saying, “We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia.”
When Putin announced in a televised address on February 24 that Russian troops were carrying out a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, it was clear that the intention was to overthrow the government in Kyiv and occupy the country. The main enemy, of course, was the morally bankrupt West, which, according to Putin, responded to Russian efforts to reach agreement with NATO on security issues with “cynical lies” and “blackmail.” As Harding notes, Putin had long resented NATO’s encroachment into Russia’s neighborhood—most notably the inclusion of the Baltic states and countries of the former Soviet bloc into the NATO alliance—and now “wanted nothing less than a new world order.”
According to a report by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Putin’s plans for the invasion were drawn up in great secrecy by a very small group, which included Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu; Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian military; and a few officials from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the presidential administration. The military-strategic tasks were as follows: destroy Ukraine’s air, maritime, and air defense forces; defeat Ukrainian ground forces by containing them in the Donbas (where they were concentrated); eliminate Ukraine’s political and military leadership; and occupy Ukrainian centers of political and economic power.
The RUSI report notes that a special directorate created within the FSB in July 2021 to plan for the invasion had conducted surveys that painted a picture of a politically apathetic Ukrainian populace, unlikely to put up much resistance to Russian occupiers. Meanwhile the Russian military leadership, in particular Gerasimov, had assured the planners that after more than a decade of modernization, Russian forces were sure to defeat the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Gerasimov had even told his counterparts in the British defense establishment that the Russian military had achieved parity with the conventional forces of the United States.
It was not long before Putin’s blitzkrieg against Ukraine turned into a series of military failures. The Russian army was unsuccessful in its efforts to capture Kyiv, and in early April began to scale back operations in Kyiv’s surrounding areas after Ukraine’s recapture of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel.
Russia then “redefined” its war aims and focused on consolidating control in Luhansk and Donetsk. In mid-April the Russian military suffered a huge setback when the Ukrainians sank the Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea fleet. In May Russian forces finally took control of Mariupol, a strategically important southeastern city that had been under siege since February. But that same month Moscow withdrew its forces from around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which its troops had been trying to seize since the beginning of the invasion, and by September most of the Kharkiv area was back in Ukrainian hands. Russia’s humiliating retreat from the city of Kherson, which its forces had seized in March, came in November.
Putin’s announcement of a conscription of 300,000 soldiers in September and his increasing dependence on the notoriously brutal paramilitary forces of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group—consisting mainly of convicts—and Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s battalions were clear demonstrations of the failure of his “special military operation.” The reasons for this failure are many. According to the RUSI report:
Russian military personnel—even up to deputy heads of branches within the Russian General Staff—were unaware of the intention to invade and occupy Ukraine until days before the invasion, and tactical military units did not receive orders until hours before they entered Ukraine…. The tiny pool of personnel involved [in planning] contributed to a range of false assumptions that appear never to have been challenged.
Among those assumptions was that there were sufficient Russian troops to achieve the ambitious multipronged attack and that these forces, trained for defensive military operations, would be capable of implementing a large-scale offensive mission. Because of poor planning and a shortage of skilled, motivated infantry, the Russians suffered heavy losses of equipment. They also had logistical difficulties, including bottlenecks in conveying fuel and munitions to frontline troops, and because of a paucity of secure communications, they had problems coordinating their attacks. When Russian soldiers resorted to using civilian cell phones, their units became vulnerable to targeting by Ukrainian artillery.
Another problem was the Russian susceptibility to battlefield deception because of flaws in its command-and-communication structure: false Ukrainian signals traffic led to waste of munitions and loss of Russian aircraft. Thanks to Ukraine’s powerful air defense—strengthened with Western aid—Russia, which entered the conflict with insufficiently trained pilots, was unable to achieve air dominance over Ukraine.
As Harding points out, the Kremlin’s underestimation of Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership qualities was another serious error. In fact, it came as a surprise to many when Zelensky, a forty-four-year-old former comedian with a public approval rating of 25 percent, emerged as a powerful wartime president whose courage and communication skills inspired his people to ferociously resist the invading Russians. Zelensky also used his oratorical skills to win over NATO governments, giving brilliant, rousing speeches (remotely) to countless democratic assemblies, including the British House of Commons and the US Congress, where a few members were moved to tears.
By April the Biden administration had allocated $33 billion for the defense of Ukraine. Other NATO countries made hefty contributions of aid and armaments, and joined the US in imposing crippling economic sanctions against Russia, including Russian enterprises and members of the country’s government and business elite. In addition to energizing NATO, the Kremlin’s military aggression inspired Russia’s Nordic neighbors Sweden and Finland to announce plans to join the alliance. (At the beginning of last February, 44 percent of Finns supported joining NATO. By May, that had grown to 76 percent.)1
Harding writes that
Putin’s gravest mistake in the spring of 2022 was to misread the unyielding mood of the Ukrainian people…. It was a remarkable failure for a man who considered himself to be a superb intelligence professional.
Indeed, Putin should have known better than to accept the FSB’s predictions that Ukrainians would greet his troops with open arms. He had been closely monitoring Ukrainian politics for years, motivated by his concern about the dangers of democracy spilling over to his country. The power of Ukrainian democratic forces, in large part directed against Moscow’s influence, was on full display during the Orange Revolution of late 2004, which was ignited by election fraud. Similarly, when Ukrainians took to the streets during the 2014 Maidan protests against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, the widespread anti-Russian sentiment was apparent.
Putin must have been aware that his generals had been siphoning off funds from the military budget for their own enrichment. Since his appointment as minister of defense in 2012, Sergei Shoigu has presided over a supposedly sweeping program of military modernization, costing the Kremlin billions of dollars, but—as shown by the Ukraine campaign—with unimpressive results. In the meantime, according to the investigative team of Alexei Navalny, Shoigu, who regularly accompanies Putin on Siberian fishing and hunting trips, acquired a lavish mansion outside Moscow, valued at $18 million, and once flew a group of generals to the Seychelles for a costly fishing vacation at Russian taxpayers’ expense. Navalny’s researchers also discovered that General Sergei Surovikin, recently demoted from his post as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, was the beneficiary of lucrative financial deals involving the businessman Gennady Timchenko, a close friend of Putin’s. Timchenko’s company was mining phosphates in Syria when Surovikin was in charge of Russia’s brutal campaign there (for which he became known as “General Armageddon”).
It seems that Putin was so driven by his mission of subjugating Ukraine and thereby ensuring his place in history as a great leader that he chose to ignore reality. He turned seventy last October, and the 2024 presidential elections, though two years away, were already causing speculation about whether he would run again. He had recently declined to say what his plans were because “it would make the [political] situation unstable.” Putin’s approval rating at the end of 2021 was at 65 percent, which is on the low side for him, and Russian living standards were declining. His rating had been similar in early 2014, but after Russia invaded Crimea in February–March of that year his popularity soared, and by June 2014 his approval rating had reached 86 percent. The message was clear: Russians rally around a forceful leader who affirms their country’s greatness with military aggression. Putin may have decided it was time to recreate the “Crimea effect.”
Isolated at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow because of his fear of Covid,2 Putin might have been looking even further back in history, to early August 1999, when Boris Yeltsin announced that Putin was not only his new prime minister but also his designated successor as president. As the Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev observed in these pages, Yeltsin’s announcement was greeted with widespread ridicule: “Putin, a man with a professionally nondescript face, previously the director of the FSB (the KGB’s successor organization), was virtually unknown to the public at large.”3 Putin had little chance of defeating the experienced politicians who would be candidates in the scheduled 2000 presidential race, and Yeltsin was so unpopular that his endorsement was a drawback. Kovalev concluded that “the only way Putin could manage a political victory over his Moscow competitors was to achieve a military triumph.”
Putin did just that. Following a series of terrorist attacks in Russia in September 1999—which were falsely blamed on Chechens, although overwhelming evidence points to the FSB—Putin launched a brutal war in Chechnya that devastated the small Muslim republic, killing tens of thousands. By late November 1999 Putin’s popularity had soared, and his path to the presidency was assured.
The Russian journalist Andrei Kolesnikov has described the similarities between Stalin toward the end of his life and today’s Putin, both men securely in power after establishing ruthless dictatorships. “As with the Soviet Union under Stalin, one gets the impression that Russia today has no alternative to Putin,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “This means that there is no alternate path to anything he says or does: it seems that it is useless to oppose him.” But Stalin was in a strong position because he had presided over the Soviet Union’s victory against German invaders; Putin ordered an invasion of a country that posed no military threat, and Russia is losing the conflict. Also, Stalin was surrounded by slavishly loyal subordinates, who had little better to do than spend late nights at their master’s dacha getting drunk.
The members of Putin’s elite, long accustomed to Western pleasures, are a different breed. One wonders how they feel about being ostracized by the West and told by their leader that they are better off living in a country that is being cleansed of the Western contagion of homosexuality, decadent anti-Christian morals, and Hermès scarves. Harsh sanctions imposed by the West against Putin’s elite mean no more Swiss boarding schools for their children and grandchildren, no more Paris shopping trips for their wives and mistresses, and no more sunbathing on the French Riviera. Those whose financial assets abroad have been frozen could eventually see their money used for war reparations.
Lyubov Sobol, a former lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation who was forced to flee Russia in 2021, captured the irony of Russia’s isolation when she tweeted a photo of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov seated casually at an outdoor patio table, with the following comment:
Lavrov has an iPhone, and is wearing an Apple watch and a T-shirt with the name of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat on the front. And they call me a foreign agent? What happened to Putin’s import substitution?
Sobol was alluding to Russia’s foreign agent law, which was recently expanded to require anyone “under pressure or influence from foreign actors” to register as a “foreign agent,” and to the Kremlin’s vigorous promotion of “import substitution,” intended to reduce Russians’ dependency on the foreign-made products that are becoming increasingly scarce.
Writing in Foreign Affairs after Russia’s retreat from Kherson in November, Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, portrayed a divided political elite in Moscow. So-called realists are increasingly questioning the invasion, because they don’t think Russia has the resources to win. Some are even wondering if Putin is fit to continue as the Kremlin’s leader. The ultranationalist hawks, on the other hand, are pushing for complete victory, calling for a full mobilization of eligible Russians and possibly a deployment of nuclear weapons in a fight to the bitter end.
But, Stanovaya said, the radical hawks dominate the public discourse, and even the realists are not prepared to support a peace that would entail Russia’s losing the territory it has gained since the invasion began. A humiliating Russian defeat would threaten their political futures—given that Putin has enlisted all of them, whatever their doubts, into the war effort—and possibly result in war crimes charges for some members of his ruling circle. She concluded, “The country’s elites will not dare turn against Russian President Vladimir Putin. For all his failures, Russia’s leader remains their best bet for preserving the regime that keeps them safe.”
Stanovaya is probably right. But this does not rule out the emergence of dissent at lower levels in the government, even in the military, whose officers were forced into a conflict for which they were ill-equipped. It is also possible that, if Russia loses more ground in Ukraine or fails to achieve a decisive victory in the next few months, Putin and his team will face serious public discontent. The Russian independent news website Meduza reported in late November on the results of an opinion poll commissioned for internal use by Russia’s Federal Guard Service showing that 55 percent of Russians favored negotiations with Ukraine, and only 25 percent supported a continuation of the war. Back in July the numbers were reversed: only 32 percent wanted negotiations, and 55 percent favored continuing hostilities.
Similar polls conducted at the end of February by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, show the percentage of those favoring peace negotiations declining slightly since October, but still at 50 percent. According to the center’s director, Denis Volkov, it was Putin’s September mobilization decree that caused the shift in the public’s mood. This is probably why Putin, in his February 21 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, did not announce a further mobilization of troops to serve in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine needs to end. No one doubts that, and some foreign policy experts have urged the Biden administration to push for a negotiated peace. They acknowledge that justice for Ukraine means that Russia should withdraw completely, given the devastation it has wrought there, but there is little guarantee, they say, that a continued conflict would achieve that end, and if the war continues Russia might gain more territory or use nuclear weapons. So better to put a stop to the bloodshed and destruction by pressuring Ukraine to give up its demands for a full Russian retreat and come to the negotiating table. The punishment Russia has suffered because of its invasion—close to 200,000 casualties, a depletion of its military armaments, economic decline, and crippling Western sanctions—would be lesson enough to the Kremlin that further military aggression against Ukraine or other countries along its western border would be folly.
But Biden and most of his fellow NATO leaders believe, with good reason, that allowing Moscow to emerge from the conflict with any military gains would embolden Putin to threaten Russia’s western neighbors with additional armed incursions. And Zelensky is adamant that a peace deal must require Russia to relinquish not only the area it has seized since February 2022 but all Ukrainian territory that has been occupied by Russia or its proxies since 2014, including parts of the Donbas and Crimea.
As for Putin, he announced in September that the four regions of Ukraine that Russia “annexed” and that his troops partly occupy (Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia) will belong to Russia permanently, and he has demanded that Ukraine recognize Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea as part of any peace agreement. Moscow also wants legally binding guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO, which Kyiv would never agree to.
Putin, yet again, seems to be underestimating his adversary. In early December, responding to Russia’s extensive missile attacks against Ukraine’s infrastructure, Ukraine used low-flying Soviet-era drones to strike two air bases deep inside Russia. For the first time in the conflict, Russian territory was under attack. Meanwhile, on December 6 Igor Girkin, a former Russian military commander and a hard-line critic of Moscow’s war leadership, wrote on Telegram after visiting Russian troops in the Donbas that they were “fighting by inertia,” with no idea of Russia’s strategic goals. Ukraine’s troops, Girkin added, were much better motivated and, after their autumn victories, “will only fight more fiercely and more stubbornly.”
When Ukraine used US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to strike a military garrison in the Russian-occupied town of Makiivka on New Year’s Day, reportedly killing hundreds of Russian servicemen, Girkin and other pro-war military bloggers were scathingly critical of military commanders for storing ammunition in the same building that housed troops. And Prigozhin, anxious to prove his worth to Putin, has been claiming that his Wagner Group, which captured the city of Soledar in mid-January, is superior to the regular military.
“So, who’s in charge?” the retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges, who commanded US Army forces in Europe from 2014 and 2017, wondered aloud in January, noting that Prigozhin doesn’t take orders from Russia’s generals. “They don’t have a coherent plan. They really, fortunately, have still not learned and fixed all the institutional flaws that they showed back in February, March.”
The criticism has thus far not been directed at Putin. When Putin gave his annual New Year’s Eve address, a group of Russian troops was shown behind him—a clear message that the country is at war, not just conducting a special military operation, and that he is leading the effort. But as the leader encourages his people to support their country’s soldiers, he will increasingly be blamed for mounting Russian casualties. Putin could face a public backlash.
In early January the Russian opposition democrat Vladimir Milov, Putin’s former deputy minister of energy, observed, “We are just a few steps away from Putin being named across the country as the guy who is responsible for what is going on.”
On New Year’s Eve twenty-three years ago, Russia was also at war, in Chechnya. Putin gave his first address as acting president and then flew, on January 1, 2000, to Chechnya to visit Russian soldiers. He was accompanied by then FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, who, as head of Russia’s security council, remains one of Putin’s closest advisers. Not much has changed. Russia’s military strategy in Chechnya was similar to that in Ukraine: demolish urban areas while terrorizing the inhabitants. Then, it succeeded; by May 2000 Russian forces had control of the breakaway republic, although the Chechen insurgency continued for years.
In Ukraine, however, Russia faces a far greater challenge—an opponent armed by the West with advanced weapons (another US packet of $2 billion for military aid was announced in February, and other Western governments have scaled up their support) and with an unwaveringly resilient population.4 As Harding observes of Ukraine, it is “one of history’s survivors: of two world wars, Stalin’s famine, the Great Terror, and the Chornobyl explosion.” To be sure, the Russian war machine is more than capable of a sustained military engagement with Ukraine. The crucial question is how long Putin can survive as the Kremlin’s leader without a victory.
Putin’s fear of getting Covid bordered on the irrational. Before his annual press conference on December 23, 2021, the Kremlin spent close to $20,000 on disinfection booths, where members of the press were sprayed with antibacterial silver particles and given special protective masks. ↩