By Álvaro Peñas and Maciej Zajączkowski
LAST WEDNESDAY marked six months since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hardly anyone believed that Ukraine could withstand the Russian steamroller for so long, but six months later the “special military operation” (which the most pessimistic people were extending until June) is far from over. This article addresses the erroneous assumptions that made the Kremlin consider the invasion feasible and also the consequences for Russia of this strategic mistake.
Over the past six months, emotions surrounding the war in Ukraine have reached a fever pitch. The effect of this phenomenon has been to cloud the strategic picture of the conflict. Periodically, in all phases of the war, we have seen waves of panic articles. However, when we take a cold look at events, we can see more and more clearly the magnitude of the disaster that the Russian Federation has caused.
A Tough War to Win
Russia is currently fighting a war it cannot win. All phases of the conflict so far have demonstrated the lack of strength and competence of the Russian army to control all of Ukraine or even a significant part of it. Since the beginning of the conflict, we have witnessed the spectacular failure of the spring blitzkrieg, the offensive in the Donbas conducted in the style of the Battle of the Somme (and with similar successes) or the summer pogrom orchestrated by the HIMARS.
This, combined with the gigantic Russian losses in equipment and personnel, has led to a situation of strategic stalemate on the front (which does not imply, however, a significant decrease in the intensity of the fighting). In fact, Russia’s greatest military success in this war to date has been the exemplary execution of the withdrawal of its forces from Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. However, it should be noted that the current situation does not automatically imply the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive or its success. There are other factors that are also relevant in this regard, but they are not the subject of this article.
However, the worst thing for Russia is that this war involves most of its forces: militarily, economically, and politically. Compared to proxy wars of the past, such as the Vietnam War or the USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan, this is an almost unprecedented situation. A situation not found in superpowers, that is, in states that, in order to maintain their current international status, must be able to carry out a potential armed conflict with their rivals.
The Russians are facing the reality that they are increasingly short of personnel, equipment or logistical problems. At the same time, they are aware that a possible victory in the Donbas would only be the end of a certain phase of the conflict. To end the war it would be necessary to win more battles: for Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhya and Dnipropetrovsk or for Kyiv itself. And each of these battles would involve the huge losses characteristic of fighting in urban areas. A difficult task even in the case of a Russian mobilization announcement, something that seems politically impossible. Even after capturing all the above-mentioned targets, Russia would have no assurance that Ukraine would not continue a guerrilla war based in the western part of the country and with more foreign assistance.
How did the Kremlin come to such a catastrophic decision? Why did it make a decision that seemed irrational to many observers on February 24, 2022? At this point, it is worth going back in time to 1946; the Cold War had just begun and the United States was laying the groundwork for its future strategy against the Soviet threat. This was not easy, since not so long ago the Soviet Union had been its ally and enjoyed the undisguised sympathy of a significant part of former President Roosevelt’s administration. After the end of World War II, a situation arose in which Americans found it increasingly difficult to understand the behavior of the USSR on the international scene. Washington expected its diplomatic mission in Moscow to answer the question of what were the real objectives of Soviet foreign policy.
This answer came from one of its diplomats, George Kennan, who clearly and precisely identified the origin of the USSR’s actions in the international arena, its objectives, and the means used by the Russians to achieve them. Despite the passage of time and the transformations that Russia has undergone, Kennan’s text seems more relevant today than ever. His response, known as the long telegram, contains many astute insights into the nature of Russian imperialism, but one that is particularly relevant to the issues described in this article is the one concerning the immanent role of lying in the state power apparatus. Kennan put it as follows:
It should not be thought that Soviet party line is necessarily disingenuous and insincere on part of all those who put it forward. Many of them are too ignorant of outside world and mentally too dependent to question [apparent omission] self-hypnotism, and who have no difficulty making themselves believe what they find it comforting and convenient to believe. Finally we have the unsolved mystery as to who, if anyone, in this great land actually receives accurate and unbiased information about outside world. In atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this Government, possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth–indeed, their disbelief in its existence–leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this Government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy; and I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of outside world. Here there is ample scope for the type of subtle intrigue at which Russians are past masters. Inability of foreign governments to place their case squarely before Russian policy makers–extent to which they are delivered up in their relations with Russia to good graces of obscure and unknown advisors whom they never see and cannot influence–this to my mind is most disquieting feature of diplomacy in Moscow, and one which Western statesmen would do well to keep in mind if they would understand nature of difficulties encountered here.
Times have changed, but the Kremlin’s decision-making process prior to the start of the war in Ukraine seems to confirm Kennan’s thesis throughout. The process was tainted with lies, the most important of which are set out below.
The first of these concerned Ukraine itself. Before the war, the Kremlin considered it a failed state. Its armed forces were not considered a major opponent, which was influenced by the course of the war in Donbas. In addition, the Kremlin greatly overestimated the strength of pro-Russian sympathies in Ukrainian society. The Russian leadership expected negligible resistance and even that some Ukrainians would go along with the dismantling of the state and smooth annexation to the so-called “Russkiy mir”.
In fact, before the war, Ukraine was already one of the poorest countries in Europe, plagued by numerous social problems. However, Moscow did not recognize the progress made in the Dnieper in terms of reforms. These range from the economy to rebuilding the armed forces from scratch (with significant help from NATO trainers). By 2022, Ukrainians have managed to have a well-organized, battle-hardened and well-led army.
The Role of Crimea and the Donbas
But since 2014, the biggest change has been in the minds of Ukrainians, who have successively rebuilt their national consciousness after the trauma of losing Crimea and part of the Donbas. Moreover, this consciousness has taken a decidedly anti-Russian turn. Following the numerous war crimes committed by Russian troops during the ongoing war, the situation has only deteriorated from the point of view of Russian interests. There is no room for the feeling of capitulation in Ukraine: the population is well aware of the dire consequences of defeat in the war.
However, the situation would not have been so serious had it not been for another lie that poisoned the strategic thinking of the Kremlin leadership. This lie concerned Russia’s possession of the “second army of the world”. The Russian Federation has gone to great lengths over the years to give its armed forces an image of modernity, efficiency and power. This propaganda was reinforced by extensive reform programs, large-scale planned military exercises and successful military operations against opponents with negligible military potential (Georgia, Ukraine in 2014 or Syria). Many Western observers and professional analysts have also succumbed to this illusion. But the reality of war in 2022 soon belied the Russian propaganda and, as described above, it became clear that the king was naked. The illusion of modernity gave way to Soviet crudeness. The Russian Federation is incapable of waging effective, modern warfare. Its achievements in Ukraine compare especially poorly with U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
However, all this would remain irrelevant were it not for the political, military (supply of equipment, reconnaissance, advisors) and economic involvement of the West in the conflict. The Russian Federation could eventually crush Ukraine because of its sheer size. A war of attrition, despite the gigantic losses it would entail for Russia, would have to end with its success. However, the above does not apply when there is a constant flow of military equipment, ammunition, fuel or funds to Ukraine, and the Russian Federation itself has been subjected to unprecedented economic sanctions. Sanctions that, contrary to Russian propaganda, will eventually lead to its economic collapse.
The Russians would not be in this situation if they did not believe another of their lies, perhaps the biggest one: that of the collapse of the West. This is nothing new in the history of the world. But, unfortunately for them, the West had no intention of ceding its economic, ideological or military supremacy. In the latest iteration of the “decline” of the West, this would happen through the rise of the former Third World, led by the People’s Republic of China.
In the Kremlin’s view, the West was weak and divided, and the United States was incapable of defending its vast empire. To disprove this myth it was enough to consult any statistical yearbook, but the Russians decided to test it on the battlefield. And they suffered the consequences. Of course, the various Western states are involved to a greater or lesser extent in their support for Ukraine (and in different spheres). However, it seems that the forces of the most active ones are sufficient to contain Russia: the United States, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and other Central and Eastern European states. The less involved states, such as Germany, do not have adequate leverage over Ukraine due to their lack of significant assistance. An additional problem for the Kremlin is also the low involvement of non-Western countries on its side, especially China, fearful of a Western reaction and mired in its own internal problems.
All these lies are the consequence of the worst mistake rulers can make. The mistake of believing their own propaganda. All the more avoidable since it was obvious to many observers even before February 24. To conclude that the forces assembled to attack Ukraine were insufficient in number, or that the Ukrainian state would rise up to fight, did not require legions of intelligence agents. Similarly, the question of Valery Legasov, the protagonist of Chernobyl, can be asked: what is the price of a lie? In the aforementioned series, the price is the inability to recognize the truth. However, in the case of the Russian empire and the consequences of the war in Ukraine, the price may turn out to be more concrete.
The real tragedy for the Russian political leadership is that they cannot withdraw from the conflict in Ukraine. And this is despite the fact that the ongoing war does nothing but drain the resources of the Russian Federation without offering any benefits in the context of the global competition of the great powers. Every day of carnage in Ukraine only means that Russia’s position on the international scene grows weaker and weaker. Only the subjugation of all of Ukraine could justify the costs already incurred by Russia, an unrealistic scenario at this point.
The Kremlin cannot end the conflict for reasons of prestige. In theory, it might seem that, compared to existential issues, these considerations should not be important in Russian political calculations. However, this is not the case because it is related both to the nature of the empire outside the country and to its own political system.
In the first case, prestige is understood as respect for Russia’s military capabilities. The state’s ability to use overwhelming force has a chilling effect on any actor that might threaten the cohesion of its sphere of influence. The Russian Federation is politically and militarily involved in many more or less conflict-prone areas of the world. These include, among others: Belarus, Transnistria, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Mention should also be made of the unresolved territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. In all these areas, Russia’s position is secured by the threat of force. If this threat becomes implausible, Russia’s sphere of influence could suffer a leap of decay.
Prestige is also an integral component of Vladimir Putin’s power, as it once was in the power of the communists or the tsars. Part of the Russian “social contract” is for the authorities to ensure foreign political success, even militarily if necessary. A withdrawal from Ukraine would (rightly) be perceived by public opinion as a defeat and a sign of weakness in power. Russian historical experience in this context should not fill the Kremlin leadership with optimism; it is worth mentioning here, for example, the reactions to defeats during the Russo-Japanese war, the First World War or the war in Afghanistan. All the more so since the government’s power apparatus would also be perceived as weaker than ever.
Thus, the real price of Russian lies would be the loss of Russia’s great power status. This will not happen on a particular day, but will be a process. A process that has already begun and cannot be stopped. All the Russians can do now is to try to slow it down, if they can shed their own propaganda and start making rational decisions. Russia will also remain a nuclear state, but the practical importance of this fact is demonstrated by the situation in North Korea or Pakistan.
When the dust from the battlefields in Ukraine settles, what will matter is not whether the Russians have managed to hold Kherson or control the entire Donbas – but whether their economy has any global relevance, whether their military is capable of fighting more wars against more challenging opponents, and whether they have managed to maintain political stability in their own country. There are many indications that the Kremlin has not yet realized this truth. And there are also many indications that the U.S. understood very well the potential of the Russian elite’s blindness before February 24, 2022, and deliberately allowed Russia to make one of the biggest mistakes in its history.