Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine has brought into sharp focus a number of historical lessons that were largely overlooked or ignored prior to the conflict. There is no doubt that the “fog of war” often causes leaders, both military and political to make bad decisions, but now in hindsight, we wonder how the Russians and President Putin in particular, could have been so naïve and utterly wrong in their perspectives and assumptions that led them to invade Ukraine.
The most striking of these lessons which history has demonstrated repeatedly, is that the more powerful a ruling tyrant, the more removed he becomes from facts and reality, and the less rationality there is to his decision-making process. When all state power becomes concentrated in one individual, the stronger the tendency is for those serving him to tell him what he wants to hear rather than the real facts about any given situation. The longer such a despot remains in power, the further removed he becomes from understanding what is really going on in his perceived universe. Putin and the Russians believed that taking over Ukraine would be a pushover, that the Ukrainians would welcome their “liberators” and put up little resistance.
They had begun to believe their own propaganda and viewed Ukraine as a “failed state” run by Banderites and neo-Nazis that were strongly oppressing their own citizenry. Despite the fact that Russia’s intelligence services more than likely knew that such assumptions were badly flawed, the intelligence chiefs were too scared to contradict their fearless leader and tell him the true state of affairs. Even now, after all the significant losses they have incurred during their invasion, they still largely cling to this fiction, though one could hazard a guess that this is more for propaganda purposes than what they secretly know to be true.
Related to this, was the naïve Russian belief that because a large proportion of the population of Eastern Ukraine was either Russian or Russian speaking, that they would enthusiastically support the Russian invasion. It did not seem to enter into their minds that the indiscriminate bombing and shelling that totally destroyed the homes and the lives of these people might also cause them to question their so-called allegiance to the “Russkiy Mir”. The obvious conclusion here is that one should not believe one’s own propaganda.
The other significant lesson that has emerged is that Russia’s decade long military build-up and modernization effort mirrors all the other “reforms” that have taken place under the Putin regime. Russia is a deeply corrupt nation state, with power and wealth concentrated in a small elite of unscrupulous oligarchs. Corruption is how they achieved their wealth and power, and it is now demonstrably clear, that the Russian military is as corrupt and structurally flawed as the rest of Russian society. Putin has plowed huge sums of money into the armed forces in the past ten years and he should not be surprised that the Generals have emulated his and the oligarchs’ methods and funneled most of that money into their own pockets. Very little of that funding has reached the poorly equipped and poorly led front line troops, and this became very clear as the invasion unfolded. Most of their equipment is old and poorly maintained. Logistics and supplies have proven to be sorely inadequate. Most of the officer corps have been exposed as highly incompetent and likely owe their commissions to being well connected rather than to having any innate or acquired ability. The only superiority the Russian forces hold over the Ukrainians is their huge supply of bombs, artillery and missiles, which they use to utterly destroy what they cannot capture by conventional means.
The last and most significant lesson that the Russians have been forced to acknowledge is that the closer the threat, the more an alliance will mobilize and strongly resist that threat. Putin likely believed that because his earlier forays in Syria, Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea were met with few consequences on the part of the U.S., NATO and the E.U., that the same would happen with his attempt to take total control of Ukraine. This flawed assumption had proven especially damaging to his ambitions and the very future of the Russian empire.
The crucial difference between the earlier scenarios and the current war in Ukraine, is that those other conflicts were perceived by the west as being in the “backwoods” and of little real threat to Europe and the West. Ukraine, on the other hand, is right on the border of the European heartland, and the leaders of the western powers know full well that if they allow Putin to take over Ukraine, it is more than likely that he will not stop there but will continue his imperialistic aggression until he has reconstituted the former Soviet empire. Putin has made his intentions of doing exactly this fairly clear, but did not appreciate the fact that Ukraine constituted the “red line” that would force the U.S. and NATO to call his bluff. It is now doing this with increasing commitment and Russia is paying a heavy price for its miscalculation. Bankruptcy and defeat loom in the not-too-distant future.