Putin’s Risky Gamble in Ukraine

by March 2022
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo credit: REUTERS.

As events in Ukraine unfold, we are only just beginning to glimpse the parameters and characteristics of a transformed system of international relations. Undoubtedly, the world is facing one of the most acute crises since the end of World War II. At the same time, the rapidly developing crisis requires decisive analytical conclusions, instead of the effort to cook up self-deceptive theoretical rationalizations at any cost.

First, the explanations offered by Vladimir Putin himself should be rejected. This is not “a struggle with the West for the security of Russia,” but rather a struggle to restore the Russian Empire in its most basic historical sense, as a means of survival for Putin’s regime. Before the rationale for this assertion can be explained, a certain caveat is called for. The above argument does not intend to totally absolve the West of critically reviewing its attitude toward Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Yeltsin’s democratic regime. Mistakes were made. The West could have possibly been more understanding of the specific challenges faced by all leaders of Russia.

However, Russia’s internal struggles and Moscow’s weakening grip in the so-called “spheres of influence”—the countries of the post-Soviet space—are by no means the results of the intrigues of the West, as Putin has tried to present it. Russia’s influence over its neighbors has waned year after year due to the evolution of Putin’s regime that threatens the neighbors’ sovereignty. That evolution has led to the degradation of the Russian economy, civil society, science, technology, and culture, and finally to the moral and professional deterioration of its diplomacy.

The current impression is that Western pundits have been mistakenly divided while studying Putin’s Russia. Roughly speaking, the unique internal features of the regime were well observed, and the foreign and security policies were largely covered, but separately from each other.

The popular assumption was that no matter how much Putin moves his country toward autocracy and how easily he allows the looting of resources as a payment for the loyalty of the bureaucratic pyramid, in the international arena he should be perceived as a rational actor.

There has been a tendency to perceive the aggressive Russian propaganda—claiming the greatness of Russia—as a tool for mobilizing legitimization, which has been cynically used by the Kremlin, without the necessary reckoning that the constant atmosphere of anti-Western, anti-liberal sentiments must affect at some point the very core of the regime itself.

On a personal note, I should add that a decade ago when I suggested to some experienced and renowned scholars in Europe that Putin’s rhetoric had gradually turned from being neutral and even friendly to the West into a rhetoric similar to that of radical ultranationalist thinkers like Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Gennady Zyuganov, the reaction was quite dismissive: “Are you really trying to convince us that a cold-minded and non-ideological leader such as Putin is turning into a radical ultranationalist leader?”

In fact, on February 24, 2022 Putin answered these questions, by launching a war, which had been predicted in detail by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Zhirinovsky as early as 2018. Putin’s speech the day before, delegitimizing the right of Ukraine to sovereignty and its own original identity, is also very much a restatement of Zhirinovsky’s approach to the topic, loudly and constantly voiced by him at least since 1998.

In all likelihood, it was this evolution (or regression) of the decision-making process and of situation assessments by the Putin regime that made the extremely risky decision to invade Ukraine possible.

This gradual shift or Putin’s ideologization did not turn Russia into a completely “irrational actor,” but it has become a significant structural factor for the standard pretending-to-be-rational process of day-by-day decision making in Moscow. As a result, the Russian official risk assessment became distorted. The component of honor rose to excessive levels; the sincere ideological hatred and contempt distorted the assessment of the strength of rivals like Ukraine; and the deterministic belief in its greatness shaped Russia’s self-assessment. The decision makers may well have been blinded by cheerful and unjustifiably positive reports of officials, appointed to their posts on the principle of absolute personal loyalty and the skills of sycophants. Few if any new (and questioning) faces have joined the upper circle. For example, 66-year old Valery Gerasimov, the current chief of General Staff of the Russian army, has held his position for more than ten years—an absolute record in Russian history, at least since the mid 19th century.

As for the so called “economic wing” of the Putin regime, even if they had soberly assessed the potential consequences of a military adventure for the Russian economy, they no longer had the opportunity to convey their opinion to the leadership, without losing influence or even their positions and without being perceived as “pro-Western traitors” or just cowards.

In all likelihood, it was this evolution (or regression) of the decision-making process and of situation assessments by the Putin regime that made the extremely risky decision to invade Ukraine possible. But what exactly does Putin intend to achieve? Right now, three main goals can be discerned. First, Putin has decided to finally cut the Ukrainian “Gordian Knot” by seeking to occupy Kyiv, replace the democratic government, and subjugate this “troublesome”—and in his eyes, artificial—neighboring state once and for all. In this manner, he seeks to get rid of the constant headache that takes the form of a democratic alternative in a country that is historically and culturally close to Russia and that might serve as a model of aspiration for Russian citizens.

Second, one can assume that Putin’s intention is to frighten the Western world and force its leaders, especially the Europeans, to become more convenient negotiators. In the long run, by combining forceful threats with energy blackmail, Putin presumably will impose his will on the EU. In turn, the results of this pressure may help Putin stabilize the Russian economy, which already was collapsing under the pressure of mounting corruption, excessive state intervention, and sheer backwardness and inefficiency.

Finally, the collapse of Ukraine should have been a terrible signal to Russia’s neighbors from among the former Soviet republics. The message was simple: accept the influence of Moscow or your fate may be similar to that of Ukraine. However, as we can carefully assume at this stage, something has gone critically wrong for the Russian plans.

Overall, the presumably forceful abilities of the Russian army are now being seriously questioned. After more than a week of fighting, they have still not occupied any of the large cities of Ukraine.

Preliminary Impressions From the Battlefield

Not surprisingly, the Russian command’s prewar assessment seems to have been wrong. At the tactical level, the supposed attempt to elegantly and easily occupy Kyiv—by an advanced descent operation, which included the landing of spetsnaz at the Gostomel (Ukrainian: Hostomel) airport, and a subsequent planned advance into the center of Kyiv—has been completely foiled.

Overall, the presumably forceful abilities of the Russian army are now being seriously questioned. After more than a week of fighting, they have still not occupied any of the large cities of Ukraine. In fact, only two notable cities are under Russian control right now: Kherson and Melitopol. All the attempts to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv have failed, with significant losses for the Russian army (even if Ukrainian numbers cannot be fully trusted).

The air defense system of Ukraine is still active, hindering the activities of the Russian Air Forces, at least over the main Ukrainian cities (Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and Odessa). Russians cannot credit themselves with any serious achievements in the field of cyber and electronic warfare, and Zelenskyy has done quite well in the traditional battle over the “world” (i.e., US) public opinion.

The whole operation now seems clumsy, slow, and without glimpses of original military thought. An analysis of hundreds of videos published by Ukrainians suggests that the Russian army’s equipment looks—among other difficulties—outdated from the results of prolonged budgetary denials.

On the contrary, the Ukrainians, who simply trusted Putin’s honest and loud promise to wipe out their identity and sovereignty, have been fiercely resisting—with little regard for losses and suffering—since the war began. Ukraine’s leadership, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has proved itself as stress-resistant, organized, and self-confident. Zelenskyy’s popularity, until recently in sharp decline, has risen dramatically. Indirectly, Putin managed to unite most Ukrainians overnight. A majority of the political parties in both Ukraine’s parliament (Rada) and municipal councils now act as a united national political movement.

One gets the impression that the Russian command is not yet risking either a full-scale frontal assault on cities nor the use of full-scale firepower against residential areas. Both scenarios could lead to an even greater shift in public opinion in the West and push Western leaders to take even more decisive steps against Russia and perhaps not only in the economic dimension. On the economic and diplomatic fronts, the Russians are doing even worse than on the military one. The ruble is in free fall against the euro and the dollar, and the Moscow Stock Exchange is dead. At least three powerful oligarchs and a board of directors of the Lukoil oil company called upon the Russian leadership to stop the war.

In the UN, 141 states voted to condemn Russia, against only four which voted with it against the resolution. Most of the post-Soviet states, considered close partners of Russia, were absent from the voting or abstained. Kazakhstan and Armenia ignored the call of Moscow to join it in its “operation” against Ukraine.

Given what is at stake, it has become imperative that the democratic world do anything necessary to avoid future dependence on Russian energy.

Initial Implications

Despite everything said above, Russia is still a military power capable of changing the current situation in its favor, at least on the battlefield. At the same time, the Ukrainians also have not yet had their last word. It seems that they are very determined and are receiving significant financial, military, and political support from all over the West.

Meanwhile, both are still locked in a mostly zero-sum game, with both sides risking their political existence. In the worst case, the Ukrainians are in danger of their democratic regime being violently replaced by the Kremlin’s puppets. However, should the Russian army’s efforts result in a fiasco, Putin’s regime may finally lose its stability and be in danger of destruction.

Given what is at stake, it has become imperative that the democratic world do anything necessary to avoid future dependence on Russian energy. Moreover, it must be ready to put Putin’s dictatorship in its place by providing a steady flow of military means to Ukraine, in the worst case. China and Iran are watching closely, and the West’s hesitation may push them to be more assertive. 

As one could expect, while struggling on the battlefield and in the economic sphere, Putin turned to apocalyptic threats rattling his nuclear sword. His previous messianic and suicidal claims from 2018 that “we, as a martyrs will go to heaven, and they [the West] will just peg out”  were a part of a pre-planned intimidation campaign, intended to present Putin as a “crazy” actor, ready to die for his “principles.”

Nevertheless, the West need not recoil from doing what needs to be done even in the face of Putin’s harsh threats. If the Western leadership conveys weakness in that regard, the oligarchic ruler in the Kremlin will conclude that further exploitation of the nuclear issue may serve his interests. It is this logic that may become really dangerous.

Finally, the current situation is extremely challenging for the Israeli leadership. Israel’s government will have to solve a very complex mathematical equation, with many variables: the beneficial outcome of deconfliction with the Russian Air Force in Syria versus belonging to the Western democratic camp; the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons versus the understanding that Iranian oil may become critical for the EU in cancelling the purchase of energy from Russia.

In this extremely difficult situation, one certain task lies ahead: resolving the legitimate political rifts dividing Israeli society; it is surely the time for more dialogue and less diatribes, given the magnitude of the possible challenges the country might face.

Dima Course
Dr. Dima Course is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science of Ariel University. He is an expert on the politics and security of the countries of the post-Soviet space.
Read the
print issue
Get the latest from JST
How often would you like to hear from us?
Thank you! Your request was successfully submitted.