For over 20 years, Russia’s leader has assumed a carefully-constructed persona: the Vladimir Putin myth. He was Russia’s latter-day Czar, a modern incarnation of Peter the Great. He would drag Russia out of its post-Soviet backwardness, make it a first-rate power again, and do it in with a manly panache. Steadily, he solidified control over his homeland. He put his economy in a strong position by taking advantage of the West’s “green” delusions and becoming Europe’s largest energy supplier. He also accumulated significant foreign currency reserves. Rebellions in Chechnya were crushed and an intransigent Georgia was quickly brought to heel.
Once strengthened at home, he sought allies abroad who also wanted to undermine American-led, Western civilizational primacy. Communist China was the most obvious choice, and with the arrival of Xi Jinping on the world stage, he found a ready, capable, and eager partner, securing his eastern frontier. He then began to flex his muscle more ambitiously. In 2014, he succeeded in partitioning parts of eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea. In 2015, he intervened in Syria and saved the Assad regime. Since then, he watched the West continually weaken itself with delusional ideology and hysterical narratives, culminating in the authoritarian, suicidal coronavirus response. With the accession of the Brandon administration, the West’s self-imposed humiliation seemed complete. He saw weakness and incompetence, an impression the United States’ mortifying withdrawal from Afghanistan magnified.
Therefore, he was ready to tackle the biggest problem facing him: Ukraine. Unfortunately for the latter-day czar, it would shatter the myth of Vladimir Putin and plunge him from the mighty edifice he spent decades building, as that country had done with other rulers in history, like Charles XII of Sweden and Adolf Hitler.
For the background and geopolitical aspects of this conflict, see the accompanying post at my premium Polybius Report:
Here, we will (briefly) discuss the military, moral, and character aspects of the conflict so far.
Putin Miscalculation #1: The Moral Law
Sun Tzu said:
The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by danger (Sun Tzu, I.3-5).
The sovereign who is imbued with the moral law is likelier to prevail in the engagement. It is one of the seven conditions by which Sun Tzu said he could forecast victory or defeat.
Vladimir Putin believed he would have the moral law on his side. His reasoning was not without merit. Ukraine is a corrupt and otherwise deeply divided country. There are many ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Many ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as their primary language. The eastern and western parts of the country have vastly different opinions on Russia, the European Union, and NATO.
So he was not going in blind. It was not the crazy move of a madman. He did not expect that by going in, he would unite the country against him. Although real-time reporting on the battlefield is as foggy now as it has ever been, despite the ubiquitous flow of information these days, Ukraine has shown remarkable unity in the face of the invasion. There are as now no real signs of significant elements joining forces with Russia aside from the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk areas. Indeed, opposing Vladimir Putin is now becoming a bedrock of Ukrainian national identity which had not existed before. A passage from Thucydides is telling:
This is from Thucydides, II.89.
It bears rereading.
"Great forces have been defeated by small ones because of lack of skill and sometimes because of lack of daring." pic.twitter.com/HduoM7uilZ
— QuintusCurtius (@QuintusCurtius) February 27, 2022
This is far from the first time that a divided country united in the face of invasion and far from the first time that it surprised the aggressor, who assumed he would at least find some support.
Meanwhile, the contrast between the leaders is stark. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has been out there, rallying his people, refusing to retreat, and making videos of defiance in the face of the invaders. His most famous line, which might go down in legend, was: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition,” when he was advised to leave the country. Zelensky is an entertainer by trade. He was previously an actor, comedian, and entertainment entrepreneur. These skills are proving useful now.
Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has been walled up in the Kremlin. When he has appeared, he has looked angry and frustrated (which he reportedly is). While Zelensky is in the trenches or in Kiev, vowing to meet the invasion head-on, Vladimir Putin is sitting over a dozen feet apart from his own generals.
Volodymyr Zelensky is with his people, actually performing the masculine virtues. Vladimir Putin is isolated and seemingly terrified of catching covid, a virus he has already been vaccinated against. Putin’s myth of being a macho, masculine leader, has gone down in flames. He looks personally weak and effeminate, seated behind his absurdly long table.
The result is that Ukrainians are united in defense of their country, and supported by the world, while the Russians’ morale is reportedly low. The moral law is in Ukraine’s favor.
Putin Miscalculation #2: Neglect of Speed and Firepower in the First 48 Hours
Russia’s long-range firepower is overwhelmingly superior compared to Ukraine’s. Yet, it was not deployed to scale in the first 48 hours of the campaign. Vladimir Putin seemed to believe that as soon as his forces crossed the border, made some explosions, and advanced troops landed in Kiev and other cities, Volodymyr Zelensky and his government would lose heart and come to terms. As such, he held back most of his heavy firepower and did not make lightning advances. There were legitimate reasons for such beliefs, and there were legitimate reasons to hold back. Vladimir Putin did not want to damage areas he intended to occupy too heavily. He also wanted to avoid civilian casualties and limit the world’s negative reaction against him.
Yet, this was a mistake. Speed is always of vital importance in war. It is particularly the case with modern war, where there is no impediment on the spread of information. You are always fighting first and foremost against your enemy’s psyche. By failing to establish overwhelming superiority in the first 48 hours, Vladimir Putin set the table for a far longer, bitterer campaign. The Ukrainians dug in and the world’s ire fell on Russia anyway, in the form of near-universal revulsion and crippling sanctions.
Let’s again turn to Sun Tzu:
Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. (Sun Tzu, 3.3)
If Vladimir Putin had gotten the job done and toppled the Zelensky government in the first 48 hours, he likely would have been able to balk the enemy’s plans, which was to get the support of the world to impose the worst sanctions on Russia. For the first 48 hours after the invasion (February 24-5), we indeed saw hesitation and waffling by the United States and its allies. By the 26th, things changed. Russia was largely cut off from the Swift financial system, its central bank was sanctioned, and it was isolated almost everywhere. Germany, who contributed so much to this moment with its naive belief in “the end of history,” announced it was rearming, upending decades of policy.
Surprise, speed, and violence of action are critical. The most successful campaigns – Thutmose III’s in 1457 BC, Alexander the Great’s in 331 BC, Genghis Khan’s in 1219-21, The Duke of Marlborough’s in 1704, are all examples of this in practice. In the age of spy satellites, the element of surprise is not what it once was, but finding ways to use it, and use it with speed and the concentrated application of lethal force at key points, remains as crucial as it was since the dawn of time. Clausewitz knew it, too:
Again, I turn to Carl for his thoughts. Look at VIII.4 of "On War," which I think supports what I said earlier about the need for speed and overwhelming force.
A "quick, irresistible decision" is essential, NOT one in stages. pic.twitter.com/CawAlT7T7w
— QuintusCurtius (@QuintusCurtius) February 26, 2022
Because Vladimir Putin expected Ukraine to collapse quickly, he did not apply this principle, and because he did not, Russia’s inherent military weaknesses were exposed. Currently, the advance in the south out of Crimea is proceeding satisfactorily (after a dither in the first few days). The northern campaign, toward Kiev and Kharkov, though, is a laughing stock. Supposedly elite paratroopers were repelled. Armored units have taken heavy casualties, thanks in part to Western-trained Ukrainian special operators. Stingers and Turkish drones are playing their part. A 40-mile convoy, portrayed as an object of fear, has been hilariously stalled for the better part of a week, lacking supplies. Supply has been a problem in general. Many of the units cannot fight at night.
Quintus Curtius describes the first 48 hours:
For an effective offensive operation on this scale, we should have seen by now massive airborne drops, deep penetration by specwar teams, body snatches of key players, massive armored thrusts, and a punishing air campaign.
We've seen almost none of this. Not impressed.
— QuintusCurtius (@QuintusCurtius) February 26, 2022
The result of the conduct in the first 48 hours was that the Russians are now in a place where they need to adopt “the worst policy of all” and “besiege walled cities.” They have failed to balk the enemy’s plans. They have so far, failed to prevent a junction in the enemy’s forces as supplies come in from NATO daily, and large areas of Ukraine remain open for the Ukrainian army to shift troops and supplies around. Now, they need to attack the enemy in the field (where they are taking heavier casualties than expected), and besiege walled cities, earning the ire of the world as large civilian areas get shelled and turned into rubble.
Again, the myth of Vladimir Putin, strategist, at least requires reassessment, based on the conduct of the war (particularly in the north) so far.
Putin Miscalculation #3: Overestimating his own Abilities
Arrogance is an inherent danger of power. The greater and longer the power, the greater the danger. This is why so many rulers have overestimated their abilities. From Croesus in 547 BC (examined in an original essay – chapter 7 in Lives of the Luminaries) to successive American presidents in the Middle East, this deep part of human nature haunts the ages. Vladimir Putin is proving no exception.
His previous successes in Georgia and Syria must have helped inflate his assessment of himself. Absolutist rulers are particularly vulnerable to this because by necessity, the people who surround them will be flatterers. Such a thing is necessary for advancement, even survival. This is a drawback that Louis XIV understood well, when he warned his grandson in his memoirs:
Love all people attached to you, do not give preference to those who flatter you most, and hold in high esteem those who for a good cause venture to displease you. They are your real friends.
Successful rulers will implement this principle. Unsuccessful ones will not.
When you gather around yourself stooges, flunkies, cronies, and dimwits, your judgment will necessarily be impaired. Seek out alternative opinions, challenging personalities, and individuals better trained than you.
But doing this requires a sublimation of the ego.
— QuintusCurtius (@QuintusCurtius) March 3, 2022
Louis XIV was a successful ruler. Though he met with misfortune in the last 15 years of his career, he took a deeply divided France and made it the most powerful state on the European Continent. Louis was an excellent judge of talent and elevated the best people in their field to serve him, knowing that his own glory would rise in the process. This does not appear to be the case with Vladimir Putin, who ousted the man who was in the process of successfully modernizing the Russian armed forces and discarding Soviet-era incompetence.
Yes, Minister Serdyukov indeed reformed the army. He increased its efficiency, fought with corrupt and crony armament producers improving the army supplies. As a result he became extremely unpopular, made tons of powerful enemies and was ousted in 2012 losing his power and status pic.twitter.com/jaCHcElvH1
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) February 27, 2022
Now, do you remember that “Russia’s Defense Minister” meme which circulated a few years ago? I do. I found it funny, myself.
Like all good humor, it pointed out an underlying, ironic truth – Western decadence, while Russia (and others) projected strength. Yet, it turns out, memes aren’t reality. Appearances matter. They speak about values. But strength isn’t the only thing that Russia values. It tuns out that the guy in the meme cosplays as a military man but is in actuality a courtier who panders to interest groups to keep his power.
What does it mean? It means he's a cunning political entrepreneur, great in court politics, publicity, image. You survive every single administration by maxing your political survival. And to max it you need to minimise animosity. So you never object to powerful interest groups pic.twitter.com/tx3K2mhSpS
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) February 27, 2022
Shoygy not only purged Serdyukov's appointees, pondered to old military establishment, stopped arguing with army suppliers about the equipment cost and quality. He also pondered to numerous feel-good-lies regarding the Russian big strategy. Let's consider the army vs navy problem pic.twitter.com/l77EwcwC9O
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) February 27, 2022
To a large extent, the Russian under-performance in the north lies with him, but the buck stops with Vladimir Putin, who allowed all of this to happen. While Louis XIV, as absolute monarch of France, was in many ways as vain and concerned with appearance as Vladimir Putin the latter-day czar, Louis surrounded himself with people like Vauban, Turenne, Condé, Villars, and so on. There were some flunkies, as there are in any regime, but he staffed his government with competent men who could get the job done. The jury is still very much out on Vladimir Putin in this.
Despite the ineptitude seen in this campaign, especially in its opening days, Vladimir Putin will almost certainly win this war militarily, barring a Joan of Arc miracle. The question is: at what cost? It is already great and will be even greater. He cannot easily back down, because failure here could well cost him his crown and his life. He has already ruined the lives of the Russian middle class and oligarchs. He must achieve victory in some form. What does victory mean?
My assessment of the situation as of now is that Vladimir Putin has no intention of occupying territory west of the Dnieper River beyond the Black Sea ports. First and foremost, his goal is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Leaving the country in ruin would successfully do this. Leaving the country in ruin, though, is not simple. He might find himself forced into a protracted military commitment and occupation, which in turn could leave a bitter insurgency, festering like an ulcer for years. Think Napoleon and his Peninsular War, the “Spanish Ulcer.” Vladimir Putin will not find reconciliation, even with Russians and Russian-speakers, so easy after his conduct in the past week, with far more brutality to come.
Meanwhile, the sanctions will stay for as long as he’s in power. The long-term geopolitical effect of this war may be to reduce Russia into a client state of China, as it is now wholly dependent on selling energy, food, and other products there. Russia does have some leverage over China, because China cannot feed itself (which risks a great power conflict), but overall, China is now a survival-dependent trading partner for the Russians.
Theodore Roosevelt knew that the availability of a country’s power determines its clout. Power is a limited resource. It must be used wisely, with as little expenditure as possible. Such is the marker of wise statecraft. Vladimir Putin had up to this point played this game effectively. He had gained massive power for little investment. That is not the case now. He will succeed in preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, but it could come at enormous cost which may accelerate Russia’s decline as a great power. Russia is in a far weaker position now than it was on February 23, 2022.
We do not yet know how this situation will end. What we do know is that the myth of Vladimir Putin is over. He is not a great strategist or a masculine man. He is an isolated man, terrified of covid, who will win only through brute force (the costliest form of victory).
For more stories on power and its wise (or unwise) use, read Lives of the Luminaries. This situation is exactly what the book was written for.
And don’t forget to look at The Fall of the Fated Queen on my Patreon page! My space opera universe centers on these very kinds of themes! In fact, The Fall of the Fated Queen itself is a story centering on great power politics and their relation to regional conflict. It was sadly well-timed.