Putin’s War of Choice... and Miscalculation

March 2022

The Russian military launched an invasion of Ukraine early on February 24.  Ukraine did not threaten Russia. This war began because one man – Vladimir Putin – chose it. Yet, his war of choice has revealed a series of miscalculations.

By Steven Pifer

Vladimir Putin Russland Steve Pifer
flickr / Alan Santos PR

To be clear, Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. The Russian military is significantly larger and much better funded than the Ukrainian military. Moreover, Russia has 4,400 nuclear weapons in its active arsenal. Ukraine has none. In the 1990s, Kyiv gave up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, in large part because Russia committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to not use force against Ukraine.

One month into the war, it obviously is not proceeding as Mr. Putin might have hoped and has revealed major miscalculations by the Kremlin.

First, the Russian leadership apparently did not take the Ukrainian military seriously.  The Ukrainians have fought with skill, courage and determination. That seems to have surprised the Russian military, which originally sent relatively small units to seize Kyiv, only to be repulsed.

Russia's inability to understand Ukraine

The Russians should have had a better appreciation of their foe. Western analysts expected a staunch resistance (I visited Kyiv in late January, and it was absolutely clear the Ukrainians would fight). This flawed Russian assessment may reflect a broader failure of the Kremlin to understand Ukraine. For example, Mr. Putin regularly says that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people, a line sure to infuriate Ukrainians who hear it as a negation of their culture, history, and language.

The Kremlin also miscalculatedin overestimating the capabilities of Russia’s armed forces. The first weeks of war revealed glaring deficiencies:  a failure, despite a far larger air force, to dominate the sky and provide effective air support to ground forces; an inability or unwillingness to conduct ground operations at night; and a host of logistics vulnerabilities.

To be sure, the Russian military can change its concept of operations, particularly against Kyiv, and it retains significant advantages in numbers and mass. Still, it is a question of whether the Russians will win, not when. A military stalemate seems an increasingly likely scenario.

Even if the Russian military defeats the Ukrainian military and occupies Kyiv, what would then happen? The Russians presumably would install a pro-Russian government. However, it could not survive unless backed by a large military and security service occupation – of a population that would be angry, hostile and, in some cases, armed. Russia’s war with Ukraine would not end; it would enter a new phase of resistance.

Putin's aggression has revived NATO

Mr. Putin’s third miscalculation was an underestimation of the strength of the Western reaction. Some 30 countries are providing Ukraine defensive assistance and weapons. The war has reinvigorated NATO, which has deployed additional forces to the eastern flank countries, including the Baltic states. Mr. Putin did not like the relatively small deployments in the Baltic region before; he will like what he sees now much less. Finnish and Swedish officials now regularly take part in NATO consultations on the Russia-Ukraine war.

The United States, Europe, and others quickly hit Russia with major sanctions, including on the Russian Central Bank. The bank kept an estimated 50 to 60 percent of Russia’s more than $600 billion in foreign reserves in Western financial institutions, and those funds are now frozen and unavailable to Moscow. The ruble fell to record lows, portending a future of significant price inflation.

Nowhere has the change in approach toward Russia been greater than in Berlin. In one week, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government erased five decades of previous German policy.  Berlin suspended the Nord Stream II gas pipeline, agreed to cut Russian banks from SWIFT, overturned a policy of not supplying arms to conflict zones in order to provide weapons to Ukraine, and announced a 30 percent increase in defense spending plus an additional 100 billion Euros – twice what Germany spent on defense in 2021 – for the military.

A fourth miscalculation is the effect the war will have on the Russian population. Thousands have been arrested at anti-war demonstrations.  While initially supportive, the big unknown is how the general public will react as they begin to feel the painful economic consequences of Mr. Putin’s war and as Russian casualties grow.

The war can be stopped. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has sought to meet with Mr. Putin and has offered to compromise, for example, he has shown a readiness to set aside Kyiv’s desire to join NATO and accept neutrality.  Moreover, the West has left open the door for discussion and negotiation of Russian security concerns. Unfortunately, however, the Kremlin has shown no serious interest in negotiation. That could prove to be yet another miscalculation by Mr. Putin: the deeper he gets into Ukraine, the harder he may find it is to get out.

Steven Pifer rund grau

Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry Research Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, and Brookings - Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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