The international media constantly warned that a Russian attack on Ukraine was “probable” and then “imminent”. But the possibility of an actual full-scale military invasion was almost universally dismissed.
At the invasion — or “special military operation” in the Russian Orwellian language — happened, Russia’s troops swarmed from all sides, from Russia proper, Russian-controlled Donbass, Crimea, the Black Sea and Belarus. And the world hasn’t seen such a big ground war in Europe since 1945 is up to us. Without exaggeration, the future of European and global security is at stake. What was Vladimir Putin thinking? What’s on his mind now? How did it happen?
A simple answer is that over time Putin has been able to become the only player in town in Russian politics – that is, he has built his own personalist regime with himself at the helm. Of course, such a strong concentration of power is never a good idea.
But this is not the only explanation. Given Putin’s own background in covert operations and his (former) penchant for denial, his (former) general risk aversion, an invasion of Ukraine is a Rubicon that very few people have seen can cross.
While the Kremlin had been considering it for years – as is well known, the Russian general staff has folders for all eventualities, including the invasion of the Aran Islands or Vanuatu – Putin’s previously chosen options were further down the escalation ladder. His A typical modus operandi revolves around what could either be plausibly denied (like Russia’s hacking during the Uchoice) or which can be reduced if necessary (limited military engagement in Syria) or both (since 2014 semi-covert Russian military activities in Donbass). He must have considered the risks, but still given the order.
We can only speculate about the reason. About Over time, Putin has become increasingly isolated from and hostile to alternative opinions, particularly on economic issues. The acquisition of EEastern Ukraine, planned in 2014, was likely abandoned at the time due to sanctions warnings he received from his economic adviserrs. Not so in 2022.
I also don’t think we can call him irrational as such – for him the costs and benefits are clear. Still, his self-imposed isolation in a “bunker” during Covid-19 probably allowed certain ideas to smolder unchecked for far too long. It is unlikely that he consulted his inner circle. If so, it was an echo chamber with the equally hawkish Bortnikov of the FSB, the ssecurity cPatrushev of the Council, perhaps Shoigu, who ddefense minside. The decision to invade Ukraine rested solely with Putin. During the televised ssecurity ccouncil meeting on On February 21, Russia’s top officials, even the head of foreign intelligence, were clearly unaware of what the “right” response to Ukraine was, what to endorse. Surely not a war?
Vladimir Putin is an autocrat, and a degree of paranoia about political survival is arguably part of the job description of a self-respecting autocrat.
However, his decision to invade Ukraine was not driven by “rally the flag” expectations to boost his popularity. The problem is He genuinely, perhaps even messianically, seems to believe that he is doing it for the greatness of Russia. That’s more dangerous than if his behavior were driven solely by his worries of survival.
Putin is no ordinary dictator. Much like Putin, Saddam and Gaddafi were sanctioned at some point during their dictators’ careers and they fought aggressive wars. However, their nations were not major nuclear powers; Nor were they permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. We are in unfamiliar territory.
Angela Merkel concluded that in 2014 Putin lived in “another world” and she was right. It’s largely an analog world – he’s known for shunning digital devices – but it’s also a world of great power, status and spheres of influence. Unfortunately for Ukraine, he is convinced, it is in the sphere of Russia. Unfortunately for Putin, Ukraine disagrees.
His thinking, and that of his immediate inner circle, is likely to be: Putin really believes NATO is an existential threat to Russia, strange as it may seem. He repeatedly stated that the United States has done so exploited the weakness of Russia; Russia has been in retreat for far too long, he says. Russia has agreed to German reunification, closed its military bases, and seen the US withdraw from the anti-ballistics treaty. The list of complaints is long, like every EU diplomat who has it listening to their Russian counterparts would certainly testify.
It is an article of faith in Moscow that NATO broke his promise to Gorbachev not to move an inch east. Whether such promises were made is disputed. Crucially, Putin is clearly convinced of Western treason. And Russia’s demands from Washington in late 2021 that Ukraine should never join the alliance, this time for “iron-clad, legally binding” guarantees, not tacit promises like before, should be understood in the context of years and Russia’s concerns – as Putin understands them – are not to be taken seriously.
You could say that in 2022 Putin went nuts. In public he veils and veils; occasionally he is very insightful. In his autobiography he tells a story from his childhood about hunting rats. A rat was cornered and frantically whipped the young Putin, who had to flee in horror. This is its origin story; he is convinced of NATO has cornered him.
says Putin any further expansion into the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is its “red line”. While prospects for such membership were slim, at least before the war, close cooperation between Ukraine and the alliance could not be ruled out. Washington and its European allies have tried to placate Russia by agreeing to discuss its concerns in a series of high-level meetings, but of course they couldn’t promise that Ukraine, an independent nation that had already ceded its territory to Russia in 2014 russian aggression would never try to join the alliance.
Macron, Blinken and Scholz all hoped that face-to-face meetings would be enough to defuse the situation. But this time the man in the Kremlin apparently didn’t just find that out again he was not taken seriously, but that didn’t matter what Russia’s concerns had been or were they dismissed or discussed, regardless.
The decision to invade Ukraine is a war crime. It is also, to use the famous words of de Talleyrand, worse than a crime; it’s a monumental, strategic mistake.
Vladimir Putin adopted his “military special operation” would achieve military success within days, even hours. How the Russians then planned to dominate Ukraine – a proud nation of 44 million with a very strong identity and political culture – is not clear. And you know what they say about the best plans. It is already clear that Russia’s “operation” is beginning to resemble the Winter War in Finland from 1939-40, when a very small but determined Finnish army humiliated the mighty Red Army. The Ukrainian army has shown itself to be a serious, motivated and courageous opponent.
As Russia has become the target of a global “breakdown” campaign, the dire consequences of this war for the Russian economy are beginning to emerge. In office, Putin has never faced major setbacks or defeats like the likely outcome of this war. It is unclear whether and how he can leave Ukraine face-saving. Putin sees Russia as equal to the US; Whatever the US has done, so can he. He warned the US against recognizing Kosovo, now he can do the same. If the US has invaded Iraq or bombed Yugoslavia, he can do that too. The US is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in war. If the US did it, why can’t Russia?
Russia’s conventional armed forces are no match for those in NATO. Putin often reminds that Russia has nuclear weapons, most chillingly in 2018 when he concluded that after a nuclear exchange, “we will go to heaven as martyrs and they will just die.” It may be a bluff, but the idea of using his wonder weapons is clear in his mind; his talk of red lines in Ukraine was also previously dismissed. We could find ourselves in a new moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis without fully realizing it.
dr Alexander Baturo is a Dublin City University academic researching various aspects of comparative democratization, political leadership and post-Soviet politics
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/putins-assault-on-ukraine-is-a-monumental-strategic-error-41415679.html Putin’s attack on Ukraine is a monumental strategic blunder