Putin’s 7 Deadly Mistakes

March 25, 2022
After a month of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has become evident that Vladimir Putin has made one mistake after another, always choosing the worst possible option. That is why the final result of this war is beyond doubt: Putin will lose, and all of Russia will lose with him. Here are his most crucial mistakes.
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1. Putin annexed Crimea

Ukrainians are already debating how to name this war. Suggestions include the Ukrainian Patriotic War, the National War, and the Third Liberation War (following the attempts to create and defend an independent Ukrainian state from 1917 — 1922 and 1938—1950). However, in fact this war started not on February 24, 2022, but almost exactly 8 years earlier on February 20, 2014, when Putin decided to annex Crimea. The events of today are the result of what happened then. That's why I believe it was the first of Putin's fatal mistakes. He had several options for how to react to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. He could have left Ukraine "as is" and influenced Ukraine from the inside, both legally via pro-Russian parties and illegally by bribing Ukrainian functionaries. Russia had lots of money for these purposes. Another, much worse scenario would have been to  occupy the Crimean peninsula and recognize it as  "independent." This would have made Crimea a "gray zone" like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniestria, but at least it would not have been as ruinous/damaging for Russia. However, the Kremlin chose the worst option, and declared Crimea to be part of the Russian Federation. This not only resulted in Western sanctions, but raised the stakes of Russian-Ukrainian confrontation to an existential level. Since then neither Kyiv nor Moscow could take a step back; eventually, of the two countries, only one could remain.

Now, in 2022, the defining moment has come, and the annexation of Crimea has turned into the opening chapter of the inevitable collapse of Russia.

Crimea is Ukraine!

2. Putin underestimated Ukrainian leadership

There is no secret here: Volodymyr Zelensky was perceived by many as not a "true politician." This, by the way, partially explains his electoral popularity: many Ukrainians voted for him not so much personally but as an "ordinary guy" who stood against the old professional elites. Western and Russian attitudes to Zelensky as a "comedian" were, if anything, even more pronounced. And, indeed, many of his decisions, including his staff appointments, gave real grounds to very pessimistic expectations. Thus, one may suppose that Putin expected to see the Ukrainian government collapse on the very first day of the invasion, which would have either left Zelensky ready to accept any of Putin's demands, or made it easy to replace him with another character — say, Viktor Yanukovich.

However, the reality disproved all of these expectations

The office of President of Ukraine always fosters a sort of national pride, all the more in the times of war. Zelensky suddenly found himself in the role of hero, even of leader of the entire free world.

It seems that the role has suited him well enough. Now he is no less (perhaps even more) of a pro-Ukrainian hardliner than Petro Poroshenko or Viktor Yuschenko. It also bears recognition of the very wise, if belated, appointments of the current Minister of Defense, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, and Chief of General Staff. The ministers of foreign and home affairs have also proven to be a match for the demands of their posts. The same goes for Ukraine's parliamentary deputies, with a few exceptions. Thus, Ukraine has not only held onto its leadership, but instead has demonstrated the viability and resilience of its political model.

Should we rename the position of Ukrainian President as "Hetman?"

3. Putin underestimated the Ukrainian Armed Forces

The successful occupation of Crimea played a nasty trick on the Kremlin. Its leaders sincerely believed that Ukrainian army was not combat-effective, was poorly equipped and commanded, and was poised to fall to pieces after just one serious blow. Even the fierce combat in Donbas of 2014-2015 did not shake this self-assurance. Putin's public speeches after the beginning of the invasion create an impression that he perceived some mythical "groups of nationalists" as the only real force in Ukraine that opposed the Russian army near Donetsk (2014) and Debaltsevo (2015). He assumed that 200,000 Russian regular troops  and police forces would be way more than enough to crush them. Other Ukrainian army units would be simply blocked from the fight, as they were in Crimea, until they gave up and surrendered. This false perception resulted in truly suicidal tactics by Russia's invading forces: narrow tank columns rolling over long distances with no support. Why bother with air and infantry escorts if no resistance was expected?

Needless to say, these expectations were also crushed. Kyiv did not fall within 48 or even 72 hours. Putin most likely planned to finish the war in less than two weeks, so as not to spoil the celebration of International Women's Day on March 8. However, after three weeks of war, the Russians have managed to capture just one regional center, Kherson, and seem incapable of taking more. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not simply retreated or resisted passively, but have shown that they are more than a match for the  Russians, capable of active mobile tactical defense and sound strategic planning. They have also demonstrated unsurpassed capacity for combined-arms warfare, coordinating of unmanned combat aircraft, artillery, and infantry.

Eight years of war in Donbas were indeed eight years of hard military training. The result: about 10 Russian soldiers killed for every fallen Ukrainian soldier.

One should not send slaves to liberate free people.

4. Putin underestimated the Ukrainian people

Putin's misunderstanding of the Ukrainian people already gave birth to numerous memes. It seems as if like he truly persuaded himself that there were no "Ukrainians," but rather only Russians spoiled by the West and captured by a "Nazi" Ukrainian government. Give them the slightest chance, and they would overthrow Zelensky, restore Yanukovich, and run with all their might back towards a union with Russia and Belarus. In the very worst case, ethnic Russians of Eastern Ukraine would certainly rise en masse against the "Kyiv junta" for "New Russia" and the Russian language.

Instead, national unity in Ukraine has risen to unprecedented levels. Not even Ukraine's 1991 independence was supported as fervently as the fight for independence today. Citizens of Ukraine, for all their differences in ethnic origin, everyday language, and religion affiliation, have united to fight for their own land and freedom.

Nobody in Kremlin understood this. The reason is that the Russian population is actually hold together only by money (at the top) and bayonets (at the bottom). With no petrodollars and RosGvardia, there will be no united Russia at all; its numerous peoples will try again to establish their own national projects. Paradoxically enough, this is the vision that Putin had mistakenly projected onto Ukraine.

In truth, Ukrainians are defending their Motherland not out of desire for profit or out of fear of "Nazi punishers." They are doing so because Ukraine is a free country where people decide themselves how they want to live. And if in 2014 many Ukrainians still had some illusions about Russia, in 2022 there are not enough collaborationists even to show on TV, to say nothing of the organization of any local pro-Russian governance.

This Ukrainian unwillingness to flow into the "Russian sea" is the real cause of Russia's large-scale terrorism against civilian populations in Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other Eastern Ukrainian cities. Having been met with no love, the Kremlin, in typical Russian fashion, is now trying to coerce this love by force. As the Russian proverb goes, "beating one's wife is a sign of love." In Ukraine, however, this perversion was never popular, and this is what makes Russians mad. Now they are retaliating by deliberately killing Ukrainian civilians.

Impressed by Ukrainians' standard of living, they have even resorted to looting Ukrainians toilets' to take back for their homes.

5. Putin underestimated the collective West and overestimated the East

When Putin ravaged Chechnya in 2000 with fire and sword, the West was silent. When in 2008 Putin did the same to Georgia, Obama offered him a "reset." Even the annexation of Crimea was not met with an adequate response (as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted  last week). The West only really began to react  after the Russian downing of MH17. Thus, Putin had every reason to expect nothing worse than yet more"deep concern" from the West with no harm to  Russian exports of gas and oil, whereas China would have  Russia's back in the East.

This would very likely have been the case if not for the steadfastness of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people's readiness to fight — both of which were quite unexpected for Putin, his allies, and even his enemies in the West.

After the third day of war, it became clear that instead of victorious blitzkrieg, Putin would get only a blitzf*ck. Then the flywheel of Western sanctions started moving at full speed. For the first time  in many years, the voices opposed to Russia scored a decisive victory over Russophile forces.

Now, de-facto (if not secretly de-jure), there is a determination to wreck the Russian economy as such. Even "soft" Western elites have lost their patience and are currently trying to not just to trim the claws of the mad Russian bear, but actually break his spine. That's why even if  Putin  surrendered tomorrow, it would not save Russia. It is excluded from the world economy forever. Most of the Kremlin's western riches are frozen and will be given to Ukraine. Even the Russian oil industry is worth nothing without Western technologies and commodity exchanges. Europeans and Americans are willing to pay more in order to support Ukraine's independence — and for the first time in recent history, pro-Russian demagogues in Germany and France are powerless.

In addition, the Kremlin's aggression has effectively put an end to all Western divisions. US Republicans and Democrats, Brussels and Washington, "old" and "new" Europe — all have joined efforts in order to stop Russian attempts to dominate the world.

Even Switzerland broke its 200-year neutrality to join in anti-Russian sanctions.

All of this happened not because countries like  Hungary suddenly fell in love with Ukraine, but because even the most retrograde Europeans realized that they are next in line for Russia's imperialist wrath. That is why the Ukrainian Army is fighting with more and more Western arms. The West has already decided who will get Javelins and who will get sanctions.

Putin's hopes for China haven't  worked out, either. Once again, if Moscow had captured Ukraine in three days, China would have been tempted to find a similar  "final solution" to the question of Taiwan. Now, however,  supporting Russia does China more harm than good. Mere rumors of Russia's requests for Chinese aid were enough to cause a sharp fall in Chinese stock markets. Of course, China is striving to relitigate the world order and weaken the US, but now certainly not in alliance with a ruined  Russia.

Russia spat in the face of the world, and the world wiped its face. The world spat back at Russia, and Russia was brought low.

6. Putin overestimated the Russian army

1 300 aircraft, 3 300 tanks, 13 000 armed vehicles, almost 1 000 000 soldiers, and nuclear missiles — Russia sure boasted a lot quite a lot about it's military! If you ever heard about a "#2 military in the world, " it  was surely Russia's . Their new T-14 Armata super-tanks were met with reverent awe by Western experts; their Zircon and Kinzhal hypersonic rockets were shown spectacularly striking Florida in animations on Russian news; some of the newest Star-Wars-style arms based on "new physical principles"... Well, the Russian military knew how to market itself. Now it seems that this was the only thing it knew how to do well.

Instead of top-of-the-line combat vehicles, Ukrainians mostly met old and clumsy rubbish; instead of trained fighters, they found pimpled youngsters; instead of clever generals, dead generals.

Just as in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, frontal attacks remain the pinnacle of Russian military thought. However, Ukraine is too big, too populated, and too well-armed for that approach. Yes, quantity still matters, especially in aircraft and artillery. But as we have seen, the Russians have been able to use these tools effectively only against defenseless civilians...

It seems that this shameful condition is caused by total corruption. One just cannot have a fit-for-combat army in a bribe-based country. Those who have watched the Russian army closely knew about their traditions of fierce hazing and billions of dollars in cash ending up under the floors of ordinary Russian colonels. That is why having 1/5 of Russian military equipment in a working condition is already quite an achievement. However, Putin only saw his military on paper, and on paper everything looked good. The result is all that we are seeing now in action.

They talked about assaulting Washington, but they've gotten bogged down in Kyiv's suburbs.

7. Putin overestimated the Russian economy

If even Russia does not announce a default formally, it has already happened in reality. If even Russia does not imprison its subjects for purchasing dollars on a black market, there are no dollars anyway. If even Russia does not introduce exit visas, there is no place to go.

The Russian system of import-substitution has collapsed due to the lack of imported components, and this is no joke.

The Kremlin spoke so adamantly about the invulnerability of the Russian economy that it eventually believed its own fantasies. The real situation there is even worse than in the Russian military.

If forecasts of a 30% contraction of Russian GDP in 2022 comes true, this would mean the collapse of the state as such. The only more drastic crash of the Russian economy was seen in 1917 — 1918. It was not military defeats but economic collapse that caused the revolutionary explosion of the summer of 1917. In 1991 there was no war at all, but empty grocery shelves were enough to ruin the Soviet Union. And even if an embargo on Russian oil and gas is not introduced right away, the world is set to wean itself those resources of its own accord within about 5 years. And this will be the end of the line for Russia.

As British actor Hugh Laurie put it, what makes it hard for the world to boycott Russian products is the fact that Russia doesn't produce much to begin with.

Ukraine has to hold its ground for several more weeks, or, at most, several months — and we'll finally pass this test of world history for the right to have our own independent state.

English translation by Oleksiy Panych,

Kyiv, Ukraine

Serhiy Gromenko
Historian

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