And Putin Knows Russians Are Unkind To Leaders Who Lose
Yesterday, Gerard Baker penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal, The Terrifying Paradox of Russian Weakness. He probably thrilled his readers with a quick glance at essential Russian history, noting that "The Russian people are rightly proud that it was their bravery in war in consecutive centuries that stopped in their tracks, then triumphantly reversed, the two most ambitious efforts to establish an empire across Europe-- Napoleon’s in the 19th century and Hitler’s in the 20th. The Patriotic War of 1812 not only secured for Czar Alexander I his own throne and created a heroic template for Russian cultural genius. It incepted a Continent-wide reaction against the subversive tides of liberalism and secularism. The Holy Alliance that Alexander formed in 1815 with Prussia and Austria was the ancien régime’s monarchist bulwark against those currents that had flowed from the French Revolution, and it survived for about 40 years." I'm laughing about the reasons the Wall Street Journal thinks this was a good thing.
"The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45," Baker continued, "propelled Russia to global superpower status, inaugurated the defining ideological struggle of the second half of the 20th century, and made Joseph Stalin the most powerful Russian ruler since Alexander. It gave Moscow control over the territory of half of Europe and, for a while at least, a controlling influence over the minds of almost half the world’s population. But Russia has disastrously lost wars too-- and on every occasion in the past century and a half, defeat has led to regime change at home and crushing reversal on the world stage. Defeat in the Crimean war in 1856 led to the dismemberment of Russian possessions in Eastern Europe and the loss of its Black Sea fleet. That conflict also precipitated the premature death of Czar Nicholas I, whose successor, Alexander II, introduced far-reaching reforms of Russia’s autocratic system. In 1905 defeat in the Russo-Japanese war led to the First Russian Revolution. Czar Nicholas II was compelled to introduce reforms to temper the despotic rule that had been reimposed after Alexander II’s assassination, but Nicholas’s temporizing and authoritarianism were his undoing."
[T]he Soviet Union’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan exposed the hollowness of Russian military might and the futility of the sacrifice of thousands of Russian families. That led directly to the collapse of the U.S.S.R. two years later.
Putin is now firmly impaled on this long historical precedent. It already seems that a possibly inconclusive struggle for Ukraine is a likely outcome, but history suggests there are only two alternatives for the Russian leader-- a victory of some sort, at any cost, or the collapse of his regime.
This lesson emphasizes the peril for all of us. We watch in awe the bravery of the Ukrainian people in resisting Russian aggression. But the stakes for Putin are so high that they create a terrifying paradox of Russian weakness: The longer the fight goes on, the greater his incentive to escalate. The fear of full nuclear war may be overdone, but we are already a couple of rungs up the ladder that leads to it.
For the West, a defining moment will come in the next few weeks. We are tempted to push harder in Ukraine not only out of empathy with the innocents suffering there, but also by the rising prospect of defeat for Russia and the fall of the regime. Yet every further step up the ladder-- the supply of money, weapons and fighter jets, even stopping well short of the no-fly zone some have called for-- raises the risk that Putin intensifies or widens the conflict to avert his own fall.
We are then in the early stages of a process that will require an almost preternatural level of sophistication in our diplomatic approach.
We cannot let Putin win. Anything that looks like capitulation by Ukraine to his central demand that it never be allowed to join the West only strengthens him. But we can’t risk pushing him to the brink. As unedifying as it seems, we have to find a way to end the suffering in Ukraine, secure the principle of national self-determination, and yet provide Putin with something that enables him to escape without the excuse for further escalation. Whatever misgivings we have about the quality of Joe Biden’s diplomatic team, we had better pray they have the precise mixture of intestinal fortitude and intellectual suppleness to pull this off.
Because one other thing we know from Russian history is that the aftermath of disastrous wars can be profound, not only for czars or their modern counterparts, but for the rest of us too.
At the same time, a trio of NY Times writers reported that "[N]early two weeks into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine-- Europe’s largest land war since 1945-- the image of a Russian military as one that other countries should fear, let alone emulate, has been shattered. Ukraine’s military, which is dwarfed by the Russian force in most ways, has somehow managed to stymie its opponent. Ukrainian soldiers have killed more than 3,000 Russian troops, according to conservative estimates by American officials. Ukraine has shot down military transport planes carrying Russian paratroopers, downed helicopters and blown holes in Russia’s convoys using American anti-tank missiles and armed drones supplied by Turkey... The Russian soldiers have been plagued by poor morale as well as fuel and food shortages. Some troops have crossed the border with MREs (meals ready to eat) that expired in 2002, U.S. and other Western officials said, and others have surrendered and sabotaged their own vehicles to avoid fighting."
Militaries in Europe that once feared Russia say they are not as intimidated by Russian ground forces as they were in the past.
That Russia has so quickly abandoned surgical strikes, instead killing civilians trying to flee, could damage Putin’s chances of winning a long-term war in Ukraine. The brutal tactics may eventually overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses, but they will almost certainly fuel a bloody insurgency that could bog down Russia for years, military analysts say. Most of all, Russia has exposed to its European neighbors and American rivals gaps in its military strategy that can be exploited in future battles.
...“The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military,” said Andrei Kozyrev, the foreign minister for Russia under Boris Yeltsin, in a post on Twitter. “Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead. Potemkin military.”
...While the Russian army’s troubles are real, the public’s view of the fight is skewed by the realities of the information battlefield. Russia remains keen to play down the war and provides little information about its victories or defeats, contributing to an incomplete picture.
But a dissection of the Russian military’s performance so far, compiled from interviews with two dozen American, NATO and Ukrainian officials, paints a portrait of young, inexperienced conscripted soldiers who have not been empowered to make on-the-spot decisions, and a noncommissioned officer corps that isn’t allowed to make decisions either. Russia’s military leadership, with Gen. Valery Gerasimov at the top, is far too centralized; lieutenants must ask him for permission even on small matters, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.
In addition, the Russian senior officers have proved so far to be risk-averse, the officials said.
Their caution partly explains why they still don’t have air superiority over all of Ukraine, for example, American officials said. Faced with bad weather in northern Ukraine, the Russian officers grounded some Russian attack planes and helicopters, and forced others to fly at lower altitudes, making them more vulnerable to Ukrainian ground fire, a senior Pentagon official said.
“Most Russian capabilities have been sitting on the sidelines,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute, in an email. “The force employment is completely irrational, preparations for a real war near nonexistent and morale incredibly low because troops were clearly not told they would be sent into this fight.”
...“Having the Ukrainians just wreck your airborne units, elite Russian units, has to be devastating for Russian morale,” said Frederick W. Kagan, an expert on the Russian military who leads the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “Russian soldiers have to be looking at this and saying, ‘What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?’”