Capstones: Putin's Premise for War Capsized by Ukraine

March 2023

A year after Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian strongman’s pretext for war, basic premise of the war, and plans for how the war would progress have been exposed as false and deeply flawed. The primary reason for this welcomed turn of events is the courage of the Ukrainian people, who are teaching Putin a lesson about the power of free men and women fighting for a just cause—and re-reminding the Free World that freedom is not free.

Putin’s views on Ukraine’s legitimacy and sovereignty

In his major public statements (here, here and here) about the war he unleashed against Ukraine, Putin made it clear that he rejected Ukraine’s independence and had contempt for the very notion of Ukraine as a historical entity.

He declared, “Ukraine is not a real country” and “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood.” He called Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history.” He claimed, “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.” He said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.” He called Ukraine “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. He even mocked Ukraine because “almost 6 million Ukrainians…had to go abroad to find work.”

All of this was part of a campaign to delegitimize and ultimately erase Ukraine.

One way—the worst, bloodiest, costliest way—to test or prove that a nation-state is sovereign, durable and viable is to attack it from without. If the nation-state collapses, crumbles, divides or turns against itself, it’s not much of a nation-state. But if its people coalesce and fight back and unite, it’s not only viable and durable—it likely will be stronger as a result. That’s what has transpired in Ukraine since February 24, 2022, laying bare the very premise of Putin’s war of war crimes.

Worse for Putin: Even as his invasion supercharged the Ukrainian people’s sense of nationhood and unity, it has exposed a dearth of support among Russians for his war and his neo-czarist vision. Just consider how the Russian people have responded to this war. When Putin ordered 300,000 retired and reserve military personnel back into service, 200,000 Russians fled to Kazakhstan, 70,000 fled to Georgia, 66,000 fled to European Union countries, and thousands more to Turkey and Mongolia. Authorities in Argentina have uncovered a scheme in recent months that has transported more than 5,000 pregnant Russian women to the South American nation to give birth in hopes of obtaining Argentine citizenship. All told, at least 4 million Russians have fled their homeland since the start of Putin’s war.

In addition, Russian men are now fighting in Ukraine against Russia as part of the Free Russia Legion. Their short-term goal is to defeat Russia’s invasion force in Ukraine; their ultimate goal is “to liberate our home—Russia—in order to destroy the Putin regime and establish a new free country in Russia.”

All the while, Ukrainians are sacrificing, volunteering, fighting and dying for their country, their countrymen, their sovereignty, their freedom, their independence.

Putin’s views on what Ukrainians think of Russia

Putin simultaneously claimed that prewar Ukraine was plagued by “aggressive Russophobia,” even as he believed Ukraine would welcome his invasion force as liberators. Neither was true a year ago, although the former is definitely true today.

Putin’s war has unleashed a hatred of Russia that will take generations to tame. Before February 24, 2022, Carnegie Endowment polling revealed that 53 percent in Ukraine’s pro-Russia east and 45 percent in the pro-Russia south viewed Russia favorably. However, Russia’s invasion “largely put an end to this pro-Russian sentiment: By May 2022, only 4 percent in Ukraine’s east and 1 percent in the south still had a positive view of Russia.” Moreover, Carnegie reports 68 percent of respondents from the south and 53 percent from the east now call “Ukrainian” their native language.

Support for Ukraine joining NATO has even surged in Ukraine’s east and south—from 36 percent in the east and 48 percent in the south before the invasion, to 69 percent in the east and 81 percent in the south today.

Putin’s views on Ukraine’s government

Before and during the war, Putin propagandized his subjects and soldiers into hating the Ukrainian people not just by pushing the lie that Ukraine is “not a real country” and was “entirely created by Russia,” but by claiming that Ukraine is governed by “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” Thus, he vowed to remove “extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine.”

What Putin won’t tell his subjects is that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish; Zelensky’s grandfather fought the Nazi invasion of Ukraine. The deeper irony—obvious to everyone outside the Putin propagandists defending a war of extermination—is that by concocting phantom enemies, by rewriting history, by trying to rebuild a dead empire, by waging a war of aggression, by engaging in genocide, Putin is the one who’s imitating the Nazis.

Putin’s views of America and the Free World

Putin believed America and its Free World allies to be decadent, weak, tired and divided. The Free World’s shrugging response to his 2014 annexation of Crimea, his use of chemical weapons to assassinate political enemies on foreign soil, his arms-treaty violations and his cyberattacks fed his beliefs, as did the 2020 riots, January 6 insurrection and chaotic Afghanistan pullout.

All the while, Putin viewed his brand of business-suit autocracy as strong, dynamic, internally cohesive, inevitable. This is best captured in the joint statement Putin and PRC strongman Xi Jinping issued just days ahead of the Ukraine invasion. The declaration heaped criticism on NATO in Europe and “opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region,” boasted about “the establishment of a new kind of relationship between world powers,” and described the “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order” away from one led by the Free World.

The Free World’s response to Putin’s war on Ukraine has proven Putin wrong, put Xi on notice, and reminded America and its allies of the staggering power they can wield when they work together.

Putin thought he held all the energy cards—and that his winning hand would force Europe to fold over Ukraine. But Europe—once Russia’s main energy customer—has banned Russian oil and coal imports. European countries have rapidly shifted to dependable producers in North America and the Middle East for natural gas. Germany is receiving LNG deliveries from the U.S. via new terminals built at light speed.

The EU is delivering $1.5 billion in economic aid to Kiev per month to sustain the Ukrainian government throughout 2023. NATO members, the EU, Japan and other partners disconnected Russian banks from the global messaging system that enables financial transfers among 11,000 banks in 200 countries. More than 1,000 multinational firms and organizations have pulled out of, ceased operations in or curtailed operations in Putin’s Russia. NATO, allied governments, American universities, rock stars, actors, and multinational businesses have taken up Ukraine’s cause with videos, apparel, tweets, advertisements, and guerilla QR codes. Facebook, Apple, Roku and DirecTV de-platformed purveyors of Kremlin propaganda.

France’s finance minister aptly calls this barrage of financial and cultural counterstrikes “all-out economic and financial war on Russia.” It has left Moscow far more isolated than the USSR—with its satellites, Cominform and bloc of partners—ever was.

The Free World’s financial salvos against Putin have been eclipsed by its military support for Ukraine. Led by the U.S. and its NATO allies, 50 nations are sending arms and aid to Ukraine and punishing Putin.

In the first six days of the war, NATO members rushed 17,000 antitank weapons to Ukraine. That was literally just the tip of a massive iceberg that has capsized Putin’s military. The U.S. has appropriated more than $100 billion for Ukraine-related military assistance and replenishment. America is sending everything from anti-drone systems and artillery shells to Patriot missile-defense batteries and M1A2 Abrams tanks. Plus, the U.S. has shared vast amounts of intelligence with Kiev and conducted high-level joint wargaming. The Pentagon is training Ukrainian combat units at facilities in the U.S and Europe. And the Pentagon has stood up a special command based in Germany to coordinate the massive amounts of military assistance flowing into Ukraine.

Britain, France, Poland, Australia, Germany and scores of other allies are following suit—shipping antitank weapons, Challenger 2 tanks, AMX-10 RC light tanks, rocket-launch systems, Leopard 2 tanks, air-defense systems, howitzers, ammunition, fuel, refurbished Soviet-built tanks, armored vehicles and ground-attack drones. Western-built fighter and attack aircraft will soon be added to this list.

Putin’s views on NATO and post-Cold War Europe

As Putin positioned his invasion force on Ukraine’s borders in late 2021, he proposed a deal that sounded more like a gun-to-the-head diktat: If America and its NATO allies agreed to: “prevent further NATO expansion,” “refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders” and withdraw NATO’s “military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997” (before Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic joined NATO), he would graciously not invade a country that had neither threatened nor attacked Russia. If NATO refused, the alliance and Ukraine would “face a military-technical alternative,” his deputy foreign minister warned.

These demands were based on Putin’s fictionalized version of history—namely, that NATO’s post-Cold War growth violated agreements made at the end of the Cold War. However, as the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement” as the Cold War thawed. Gorbachev himself repeatedly explained, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”

Again, Putin’s views and demands flowed from a false premise. NATO’s growth—indeed its very existence—has always been about countries seeking security by joining together on their own volition. It has never been about one country seeking new lands to control or conquer. Putin, an imperialist at his core, cannot grasp this.

It pays to recall that NATO was born in 1949, in response to a series of aggressive actions on Moscow’s part—the blockade of West Berlin, a coup in Czechoslovakia, efforts to take over Greece, and military demands against Turkey. NATO has been growing ever since—not by conquest but by consent, not by the force of arms of its members but by the desire for security of its aspirants.

The reason these sovereign nations sought NATO membership is obvious: They deeply distrust Moscow, and they recognize that NATO is the only source of security in Europe. From the Baltics and Poland during World War II, to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, to Georgia and Ukraine today, these fears have been borne out repeatedly. Indeed, history explains why seven of the Warsaw Pact’s eight members chose to join NATO; why three former Soviet republics chose to join NATO and two others (Georgia and Ukraine) desperately want to join NATO; and why two longtime neutrals (Sweden and Finland) are joining NATO.

In short, those who blame NATO for Putin’s wars (Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, Ukraine 2022) believe that Putin invaded Ukraine and Georgia because Ukraine and Georgia wanted to join NATO. But they have it precisely backwards: Ukraine and Georgia wanted to join NATO because Putin wanted to invade Ukraine and Georgia.

The irony is that Putin’s war has secured the very opposite of the objectives he outlined and demanded before the invasion. In response to Putin’s war:

  • NATO is growing. Sweden and Finland are joining the alliance. The Baltic Sea is now ringed by NATO members. And Russia’s border with NATO is 832 miles longer than it was before his invasion.
  • NATO’s military capability and infrastructure are deployed further east than even the most hawkish NATO-phile could have imagined 13 months ago. NATO had four “rotational” battle groups in Eastern Europe before February 2022; today, it has eight battle groups in Eastern Europe that look awfully permanent.
  • The U.S. military presence is larger. America has 100,000 troops in the European theater—more than at any time since 2005.
  • Germany is rearming and reawakened to the threat on its doorstep. Germany is increasing its annual defense outlays to 2 percent of GDP (something Washington and NATO have been begging Berlin to do since 2006) and pouring resources into a new $112.7-billion rearmament fund.
  • NATO’s members are closer internally than at any time since 9/11. NATO’s value is recognized across Europe, North America and even the Indo-Pacific more than at any time since the Berlin Wall’s collapse. And NATO’s members are more committed to collective defense than they’ve been since the 1980s.
  • Finally, Ukraine is closer to NATO—militarily, institutionally, politically, operationally, technologically—than ever. Britain, France and Germany—three key members of the alliance—are even floating proposals for a special security pact for Ukraine.

Putin’s views of Russia’s military capabilities

Before the war, Putin boasted that Russia “has certain advantages in a number of the latest types of weapons” and that “the soldiers and officers of the Russian armed forces…will professionally and courageously fulfil their duty.”

But after a year of fighting, everything from Russian weapons systems to Russian personnel to Russian training to the Russian way of war has been exposed as broken. Consider the combined-arms ineptitude, the logistics debacles, the abysmal morale, the beastly war crimes, the failure to achieve air superiority (let alone air supremacy), the dead generals, the untrained, unequipped, undisciplined, unmotivated soldiers. Some Russian units don’t have enough water. Some units have been told provide their own protective gear and first-aid supplies. Many have been sent into battle on trucks that can’t move due to neglect or lack of fuel. Others have been forced to use 1960s-vintage tanks and rusted rifles. Even a pro-Putin journalist recently concluded that Russian military units have been “abandoned without communication, without the necessary weapons, without medicines, without the support of artillery.”

This explains why thousands of Putin’s “professional and courageous” soldiers refuse to deploy; why some are purposely shooting themselves to be removed from the warzone; why some have killed their commanding officers; why some have turned basic training into fratricidal massacres; why some regiments have rioted or mutinied; and why Russia is sustaining ghastly losses: Russian military units, security forces, intelligence agencies and military contractors have lost 180,000 causalities (killed or severely wounded) in a year of fighting—including as many as 60,000 dead. That’s four times more than the Red Army lost in Afghanistan (in 10 years of fighting). At least 29 generals and senior field commanders have been killed. Russia has lost at least 1,688 tanks; 2,263 trucks/jeeps; 2,797 armored vehicles/infantry fighting vehicles; 497 heavy artillery systems; 172 multiple-launch rocket systems; 71 fixed-wing aircraft; 76 helicopters; and 12 ships. (An IISS analysis suggests even heavier losses for Russia: 2,000 to 2,300 tanks—fully 50 percent of its tank arsenal).

Nor is the Russian military showing any signs of learning from past mistakes. A week ahead of the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Russia was sustaining casualties as high as during the first days of the war, according to the British Ministry of Defense. Russian troops and tanks attempting offensive operations near Vuhledar just days ago “were shot like turkeys at a shooting range,” according to a pro-Russian source.

“We used to think Russia was the second-best military in the world,” AEI’s Kori Schake cleverly observes. “And now it’s not even the best military in the former Soviet Union.”

Putin’s expectations of a short war

Before the war, Putin boasted he could take Kiev in “two weeks”—or even in just a few days. “Russian invasion plans,” as the New York Times has reported, “show that the military expected to sprint hundreds of miles across Ukraine and triumph within days”—a report confirmed and underscored by the parade-dress uniforms found among Russian units that unsuccessfully tried to take Kiev.

Putin expected a lightning three-day war; the capture, surrender, assassination or flight of Zelensky; and a swift installation of a puppet regime. The main reason none of that came to pass can be traced to Zelensky’s truly heroic decision to stay put in Kyiv. As Russia invaded, it pays to recall, Zelensky was offered a chance to evacuate. His defiant response would send a message to Putin and his henchmen, to Europe and America, and especially to Ukraine: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine has stood up to Putin—and chewed up his army—because Zelensky stayed with his countrymen. Leadership matters; courage matters. Just compare what happened in Kiev in 2022 and Kabul in 2021.

Ukraine’s guerilla-conventional hybrid force is bleeding Russia’s conscript army, holding Kiev and Odessa, and grindingly liberating Russian-occupied Ukraine (some 46,256 square-miles to date). But this has come at enormous cost: Ukrainian losses are estimated at 100,000 military casualties and at least 30,000 civilian dead—a number certain to skyrocket once the toll is tallied in all the cities bludgeoned by Putin’s war.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Landing Zone.

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