The Russian invasion of Ukraine is proving to be far harder than the Kremlin—and indeed, most outside observers—expected. This is above all a tribute to the grit and determination of the Ukrainian people, whom many expected, through no fault of their own, to be little more than speed bumps under the treads of Russian armor barreling toward Kyiv.
They have been anything but.
It is also due in part to skillful diplomacy by the West, and—ironically—a revitalized and freshly unified Western alliance, with Vlad the unintentional agent of that revitalization.
But the mess Russia faces is also an immutable principle of armed conflict.
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” as the old saying goes. (Attributed to the 19th century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, the elder, the literal quote is: “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main enemy force,” or “Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus,” if you want to be Teutonic about it.)
Or in the words of Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Putin has taken several punches in the mouth over the last few days, both on the literal battlefield and the metaphorical one.
To this old soldier, the first sign of trouble was the sight of Russian fighter planes being shot down. Moscow’s inability to achieve air supremacy is telling—and I do mean supremacy, and not mere “air superiority,” which is to say, total, uncontested control of the skies, as the US had in both its invasions of Iraq. Given the numerical and technological mismatch, the Russian military should have been able to effectively suppress Ukraine’s air defenses, and truly needed to do so as a prerequisite for the entirety of the operation to follow. That it has not been able to achieve that is an ominous sign.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Ukrainian resistance, both from the military and from ordinary citizens, has been staunch. Russian armored columns are said to be stalled in their attempt at a blitzkrieg; no major Ukrainian cities have yet fallen; Russian supply lines are already stretched thin; and the expected cyberattacks have not yet emerged (though Anonymous took down a bunch of Russian government websites in a preemptive counterattack).
The strategic weaknesses of an autocracy are showing. At home, many ordinary Russian citizens are said to be even more shocked than Westerners that this invasion would actually happen, and there is significant public protest. It’s even been reported—by LTC (Ret.) Alexander Vindman, among others—that some Russian soldiers didn’t know what country they were invading when they deployed to Ukraine, or indeed that this was a real world operation at all and not merely a training exercise. That is not a recipe for national resolve when the bodybags start coming home, or Western sanctions kick in.
The Russians also seemed unprepared for the level of defiance from their Ukrainian foe. In a place with the unimprovable name of Snake Island, a small, besieged group of Ukrainian soldiers responded to a Russian warship’s demand that they surrender by radioing back: “Go fuck yourself.”
And somewhere Tony McAuliffe is smiling.
WHEN INFOWARS AIN’T JUST A CUTE NAME
Russia is also losing the information war in a rout.
There has been near universal global condemnation of the invasion, a kind of scrutiny and opprobrium Putin did not have to deal with when he leveled Grozny, for instance, in the early ‘00s. (We’ll get to his overconfidence in a moment.)
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy is demonstrating that he is both a bold and brave leader and a savvy communicator. Among his countrymen, his TV and Internet appearances from various wartorn locations are earning him a reputation as a flatout hero. His impassioned speech to the EU heads of state via video evidently convinced that otherwise jaded and recalcitrant bunch to enact historic, punishing sanctions on Moscow, including its eviction from the world’s financial network. His memorable and meme-ready way with words is turning him into a rock star in the West as well. (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he apparently told the US when we offered to extract him, a quip since heard round the world.)
We ought not be surprised. Not widely remarked upon, but of special interest to comedy nerds, Zelenskyy is a lawyer by training, but also an actor and comedian who rose to fame playing a fictional President of Ukraine in a TV show called “Servant of the People,” before assuming that role for real, as the head of a political party bearing that same name.
Someone please page Armando Iannucci.
(Zelenskyy is also Jewish, making the score Ukraine 1, USA 0 when it comes to Semitic heads of state. That puts us in the same league as Saudi Arabia; Israel still has a commanding lead.)
The faceoff between Zelenskyy and Trump, star of “The Apprentice,” thus takes on the cast of the worst crossover episode ever. On the heels of that, and Sean Penn in Ukraine making a documentary, is it such outrageous satire to think Steven Segal—a naturalized Russian citizen—is fighting alongside Russian spetznaz?
As long as it keeps him off the road with his band.
We’ve even seen statements by prominent Russian athletes who compete in the West, like the tennis pro Andrey Rublev, and to a lesser extent, a cautious statement by the NHL’s Alexander Ovechkin (of the Washington Capitals, for you fans of irony), heretofore a longtime pal and supporter of Putin. For many, however, Ovechkin didn’t go nearly far enough. Meanwhile, Formula 1 is canceling the Russian Grand Prix, and the Champions League is moving its final—a Super Bowl-level event, you maybe surprised to learn, my fellow Americans—from St. Petersburg to Paris. (So Liverpool supporters: change your tickets and get ready to watch Hendo & Co. hoist the trophy in the Stade de France.)
In short, we shouldn’t be surprised that, for all his alleged cunning, a lifelong KGB officer pushing 70 and ensconced for the past two decades in the Kremlin bubble is proving inept at the complex game of modern marketing. The down side is that Putin might decide to say, “Fuck it” and just stick with the part of statecraft he’s good at, which is killing people.
AN ARMY OF ONE
By some accounts, Vladimir Putin is the most powerful human being who has ever lived in all of human history. (Sorry Madonna.)
He is the richest man on earth with an estimated wealth of $200 billion, having robbed the Russian nation blind on behalf of himself and his cronies. (Elon Musk is reported to be worth more, but Putin’s personal fortune is surely an underestimation, given that the entire treasury of the Russian state is pretty much his own personal ATM.) At the same time he commands a nuclear arsenal second in size and power only to that of the US, capable of eradicating all life on Earth at the touch of a button. The President of the United States is often described as the most powerful person on the planet. But he (or she—it’s possible, right?) is constrained by a wide range of democratic checks and balances, from Congress to the courts to the Constitution itself. Vladimir Putin is constrained by nothing but his own sense of decency. Which is to say: not at all.
In military intelligence, we talk about the enemy not in the plural—“they”—but in the first person singular: “he.” He has such-and-such capability. We assess that he will do X, Y or Z. His forces are being attritted. He is vulnerable if we hit him here. (With apologies to Andrew Sarris, call it the military auteur theory.)
This is largely just a matter of style and tradition. But with Vladimir Putin, it is pretty much an accurate statement of grammatical fact.
Putin does not depend on the acquiescence of the Duma, nor the voters. He does not even really rely on the strategic advice of his top cabinet ministers or military professionals, whom he likes to keep at the far end of the longest table in all Moscow. He is a despot with virtually unlimited power who not only answers to no one but by all accounts does not even solicit anyone else’s advice.
Much remarked upon before the invasion was his cocksure “overconfidence.” And why shouldn’t he be overconfident? He got away with annexing Crimea, with invading Georgia before that, and Chechnya before that; with poisoning KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, on British soil; he even got away with ratfucking a US election and installing his own personal puppet as President of the United States. Looks pretty good on his Linked In profile.
Domestically he’s gotten away with turning the Russian government into a cult of personality, with shutting down opposition parties and making a mockery of elections, with seizing de facto control of the media, with arresting and jailing his enemies on the flimsiest of provocations or no provocation at all. Litvinenko is the least of it, though still perhaps the most baroque, as Putin has gotten away with blithely imprisoning, murdering, or trying to murder uppity oligarchs, dissident journalists, and all manner of political opponents from Mikhail Khodorkovsky to Anna Politkovskaya to—most recently and dramatically—Alexei Navalny.
So yeah, he’s pretty cocky. And we thought he was gonna be reluctant to invade Ukraine?
Even so, there were so many good reasons to think that this invasion would be a colossal disaster for Russia that until it happened many informed observers found it hard to believe that he would go through with it, even as he made it abundantly clear that he intended to do so. To that end, there has been a lot of debate over whether he is a “rational actor” or not.
In some ways it’s a matter of semantics, which is another way of saying that the answer is both yes and no.
Putin is a murderous despot, but he’s not stupid. He cannily played his hand against the Western powers and carefully prepared the battlefield for this operation with all the usual bullshit about a genocide of ethnic Russians within Ukraine, Orwellian talk of sending in “peacekeepers,” pearl-clutching about Russia as the real victim, etc etc etc. All that is supremely “rational”—if evil—in the extreme.
Putin really made it hard to obey Godwin’s Law when he was covering all of Adolf’s greatest saber-rattling hits: the country I want to invade is historically part of my country, it’s not really a country at all, it’s the aggressor threatening me and my people, all I really want is a protective zone for my nation’s legitimate self-defense, and you know, maybe some room to grow—lebensraum, to coin a phrase. The parallels to 1938 were so blatant as to be ridiculous, right down to the not-coincidental choice of Munich for the last-minute security conference on the crisis.
(The question of the Olympics, to which I alluded last week, is both absurd and emblematic. To think that a man who routinely kills his political opponents cares about the Olympic tradition of suspending hostilities every four years is laughable. Yet the timing of the invasion, on the day after the closing ceremonies, was likely not coincidental, as the Russia Federation, like its Soviet forebear, has aggressively weaponized the Olympic movement for its own ends, with China now following suit.)
But with Biden and the West having credibly informed Putin of the specific ways in which he was going to suffer if he went ahead with the invasion, surely he must be irrational to have still gone through with it. So what was he thinking?
Well, I suspect he was thinking the same thing Saddam Hussein was thinking when staring down the barrel of a US invasion in the spring of 2003, his second in twelve years: that his grip on power was better served by defying the West, even with the lumps he would take, than by allowing threats to that power to continue to metastasize. And in Putin’s case, as we discussed last week, the chief threat to his power was and is the rise of democratic nation-states in what was once the Russian sphere of influence, including former parts of the USSR itself.
I do not believe it was a simple matter or having painted himself into a corner. An unchallenged supreme leader who has control of all significant media in his country could, if he wanted to, simply withdraw from his attack positions on three sides of Ukraine (four, if you count the ocean), declare victory, and tell the Russian people, “Mission accomplished!”
But that would not relieve him of the central problem of a democracy next door that might give his own people worrying ideas.
In other words, pre-war debates over how Putin could extricate himself with face intact missed the point. He did not want to extricate himself. His only way out has always been through Kyiv.
Now he must deal with the consequences of that calculation.
NERO ON THE MOSKVA
As far as being a rational actor goes, even before the invasion kicked off, the image of Putin as icy grandmaster took a hit with his address of February 21 to the Russian people, and the world. Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, offered a tidy review of how unhinged that speech was:
He had the presence not of a confident president, but of a surly adolescent caught in a misadventure, rolling his eyes at the stupid adults who do not understand how cruel the world has been to him. Teenagers, of course, do not have hundreds of thousands of troops and nuclear weapons.
But body language was the least of it. Putin’s words were a jaw-dropping greatest hits barrage of Soviet-style paranoia and lies. I thought he might take his shoe off and bang it on the table. The same was true for the televised charade of his meeting with his advisors, which had the feel of dystopian science fiction or a Python sketch, or both.
Yet we keep hearing that it’s a mistake to think Putin is simply a madman. OK, point taken—I agree, and I would not underestimate him. (Not sure I would go to Mike Pompeo-level of fanboyism, though.) That said, Vlad continues to behave in ways that belie that presumption of rationality. Former US Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul tweeted, “I’ve watched and listened to Putin for over thirty years. He has changed. He sounds completely disconnected from reality. He sounds unhinged.”
(For that matter, the same applies to Trump. Look at the old clips of him on Letterman in the ’80s. Always a racist megalomaniac and human skidmark, he could at least put together a coherent sentence back in the old days. No more.)
Of course, is entirely possible to believe that Putin was once a ruthless, eminently rational, coldly calculating KGB officer, and at the same time believe that, over twenty years of dictatorial power, surrounded by groveling yes-men and sycophants fearing for their lives, he has, as the clinical term goes, lost his shit.
Over the past ten years, Putin has definitely engaged in some Nero-like behavior. Check out his child’s piano recital version of “Blueberry Hill” from 2010, or the 2017 ice hockey game in which he scored six goals (somebody get me two octopi, Red Wings fans), while the professional players in the game somehow forgot how to play defense. (NPR’s Scott Simon: “Putin gets the puck. He’s blocked, but he sends his opponent to a labor camp. The goal is open. Putin scores. Putin with the puck again. He goes left. He goes right. But wait—the defender’s hit by a bathtub falling out of a window. Putin scores!”)
(For an instructive comparison, see this scene of President-for-Life Idi Amin in a swimming race, from Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait.)
The less said about his scuba diving, horseback riding, and shirtless beefcake posing on the beaches of the Black Sea the better.
Putin seems suffering from an ailment common to despots, which is the dangerous, mind-clouding isolation of authoritarian rule, with no one able or willing to give him good advice or tough love. Not to put it on a scale with Napoleon’s invasion of (yep) Russia, but Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine may prove an own goal of such foreseeable stupidity that future historians will shake their heads in puzzlement at how such a savvy player could make such a big mistake.
I would refer them to neuropsychologist Ian Robertson’s book The Winner Effect, about the physiological changes in brain chemistry produced by massive fame and power, for which evolutionary biology has not adequately prepared mere mortals.
INTO THE ARMS OF THE WEST
Perhaps the most ironic part of the backfiring of Russia’s invasion is the re-strengthening of NATO and the broader Western alliance, and the re-emergence of the US as a world leader. And all this just a few short years after Trump all but trashed eight decades of delicate and methodical postwar alliance-building. Whoda thunk it?
Surrealism abounds. Biden is hailed as a great statesman and America as the tip of the NATO spear. For the first time in almost 80 years, Germany is setting aside its well-founded fear of its own militarism and sending weaponry to aid a beleaguered foreign nation. (To say nothing of suspending Nord Stream 2.) Even famously neutral Switzerland has joined in global financial sanctions on Moscow. Hell, the last time the Swiss took sides, even covertly, it was to aid the Nazis.
In fact, forget NATO: Zelenskyy has applied for Ukrainian membership in the EU! While the former might have more practical military impact with the collective security implications of Article 5, the latter represents an even more stark break with Moscow and realignment with the West. Precisely the thing Putin feared and that he invaded Ukraine to stop.
Writing in The Atlantic just before the war began, Tom McTague put the Ukraine crisis in the broader context of shifting (let’s not hastily say waning) American power, arguing that “Russia’s challenge to the West today….is predicated on its belief that American power is retreating, and with it the power of its example. Europe’s response, however, has been to reveal how powerful America remains. The truth is that it’s possible for both sentiments to be true at the same time.”
Warts and all, the Russian invasion demonstrates how the United States remains the indispensable nation to which the rest of the democratic world looks for leadership in a global crisis, whether it’s COVID or the climate emergency or Ukraine. We have not always lived up to those expectations, of course, but we saw what happens when the US abdicates that role, or proves unworthy of it, as under Orange Julius. Among many other reasons, that is also precisely why it was so wrenching to see Trump wantonly break the bones of our already imperfect democracy here at home.
Here in the US, some 74% of Americans view the Ukrainian invasion as a travesty, a rare moment of near-unanimity in our polarized nation these days. Beyond that, however, the understanding of the nuances of the situation is not great.
The self-righteousness on the center-left, bordering on jingoism in some cases, leaves me cold. (From the far left we continue to hear only about US imperialism.) All the rah-rah sanctimony about how we can’t let Ukraine fight alone is great, but ignores some practical realities. Yes, the US should provide as much support to the Zelenskyy regime as humanly possible: military materiel, technological assistance, intelligence sharing, economic and financial pressure, cyber operations, PSYOPS, some degree of clandestine and covert special operations, and yes, also moral support, which is more important than it sounds.
(Gee, wouldn’t it have been great if we hadn’t blackmailed them and withheld Javelin anti-tank missiles back in 2019? What might have been.)
But the deployment of conventional US military units in active combat—not even under discussion, except on Facebook—is not on the table and rightly not. It would be madness to risk letting a regional conflict, however noble, spiral into an omnicidal world war between the nuclear powers.
If it is gutting to watch Ukraine fight for its life and not do truly everything we can to help, to include putting our own military might into the fray on Kyiv’s behalf, then we must reckon with the very nature of warfare itself, its meaning and purpose and implications. But the American public has never had a very keen grasp on the limits of military power as a tool of national—or international—political objectives.
Meanwhile the actively pro-Russian propaganda from the US right is even more appalling, as I wrote last week. Silver lining, maybe: even if MAGA Nation is never moved by even the most blatant demonstration of their Dear Leader’s monstrousness, or that of his supplicant lieutenants from Hawley to Cruz to Cotton, for any sentient observer this crisis ought to expose the despicable nature of GOP’s ass-kissing of Vladimir Putin, and its blood-drenched results.
As Amanda Carpenter writes in The Bulwark, “It’s worth remembering now, as so many Republicans pin ‘Stand with Ukraine’ images to their profiles, how little most of them cared when Donald Trump withheld critical military assistance from the country in 2019 as he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to do his political dirty work.”
Yet another figure from Impeachment 1.0, Dr. Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia and formerly an advisor on the National Security Council, writes in her recent memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here: “There’s no Team America for Trump. Not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second.” Asked about the difference between Trump and Biden on national security, Dr. Hill said, “You couldn’t get a sharper contrast.”
Let’s go Brandon indeed.
FIGHTING FAKE NEWS, AT HOME AND ABROAD
To speak of Ukraine as a chance for Biden to regain his foreign policy mojo after the fall of Afghanistan is a kind of uniquely American obscenity. For starters, it overstates this administration’s culpability for the ugly end of that forever war. But worse, it reduces this valiant fight by a brave people to mere partisan politics viewed through the most parochial of lenses. Still, there is no denying that Team Biden has handled this crisis well thus far. Thank God Joe and not Don is behind the Resolute Desk at this dark hour.
Russia still has terrifying assets at its disposal and may yet bring the hammer on Ukraine. One thing we know is that Putin is not about to be humiliated, or settle, even if he brought this mess upon himself, which means that things might get very nasty indeed before it’s all over. And when it’s over it still won’t be over, because he will face a grinding insurgency from a people who have already shown their toughness. Right now the US is on an admirable path to helping them. Let’s keep it up.
Before hostilities commenced, it was startling to hear Biden boldly predict that Putin would go into Ukraine instead of deploying the usual diplomatic front that “he may or may not, we dunno.” The reasons were likely two-fold.
First, it served to announce to Vlad the efficacy of US intelligence collection and analysis, and perhaps put the fear of God into him over what else we might know, and how. In that sense, it flipped the usual intelligence paradigm. Normally the IC prefers not to let anyone know what it knows; ask the good people of Coventry. So this was a bold and clever inversion of that orthodoxy and impulse.
The second aim was to get ahead of Russian fake news, such as the possibility of a false flag pretext, or other fairy tales, which, sure enough, Putin predictably trotted out anyway.
On the eve of the invasion, New Yorker writers Joshua Yaffa and Adam Entous explained this strategy, which also involved rapid sharing of intelligence with allies to create a united front and deny Putin the opportunity to exploit differences of opinion. “In some cases,” they write, the White House rapidly declassified intelligence “in order to expose Russian plots and complicate Putin’s apparent invasion plans.” As one senior US official said, “One of the big lessons learned….is that shining a light on Russia’s nefarious activities is the best kind of antidote to their plots.” (In that sense the US learned a lot from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.)
Yaffa and Entous write that “The current US strategy to quickly declassify and publicly relay intelligence about Russian intentions and deployments may not prevent a war, but it has certainly complicated and raised the costs of one.”
Of course, we may never know exactly how these revelations affected events. And none of these moves can forestall an invasion, if Putin has already made up his mind. Still, a shared, coherent, and factual understanding of the roots of any war is necessary to insure a unified response on sanctions and other measures.
At the very least, the US has shown a new willingness to try and outflank Putin’s attempts at disinformation. “For years, Russia looked to be one step ahead of everybody, able to create a certain reality and make others react,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, said. But now, at least in part, the roles are flipped: “Russia also has to react. And they look irritated, like they’re not used to it, having to explain themselves over and over.” Irritated and deterred are, of course, very different things.
Yaffa and Entous go on to say: “The modern Russian information strategy is aimed not so much at making its narrative the dominant or convincing one but at creating such a cacophony that the very prospect of knowability comes into doubt.” It is a model that Trump and American right wingers have studied and gleefully embraced.
Here we must go to the Rosetta stone on that subject, Hannah Arendt, who in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote of the dangers of “an ever-changing, incomprehensible world” in which people reach “the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”
The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Perhaps there are some lessons here for fighting fake news at home. Preempting Putin’s lies didn’t stop him from invading Ukraine, any more than calling out Trump’s voluminous lies have shaken his millions of followers out of their 3.0 BAT-level Kool-Aid-drunkenness. But it’s still something, to plant the flag of truth amid a minefield of lies.
There’s a quote widely attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn—and he should know—but it turns out it is actually from the Russian émigré writer Elena Gorokhova (not to be confused with the late Russian painter of the same name), from her 2011 novel A Mountain of Crumbs. Whichever Russian said it, it’s never been more apropos, for their country and ours:
We know they are lying. They know they are lying. They know we know they are lying. We know they know we know they are lying.
But they are still lying.
Photo: Putin’s top military advisors explain that the Ukrainian situation is so dire they are forced to meet around a shuffleboard table.
h/t CDR (Ret.) Mason Weaver, USN for the Solzhenitsyn/Gorokhova quote.