The Russian president’s biggest mistake is imagining he can control two nations at once.
Kiev’s story of resisting Russian military aggression has won support from around the world. Putin’s lies about Ukraine are not as powerful as the facts Ukraine can tell.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his co-conspirators in the attack on Ukraine are betting that inside every Ukrainian, there is a Russian trying to get out.
He is wrong. The opposite is true. Watching the onslaught of destruction brought by Putin’s forces, millions of Russians may discover there is a Ukrainian inside of them.
Russians watching the destruction in Ukraine, listening to the voices of Ukrainians speaking a language they can understand, citizens of the Russian Federation may realise that they share the same problem as the Ukrainians: the ruthlessness of the Putinist regime.
Withdrawing his troops today and giving up on his invasion is the only way Putin can avoid Ukrainians and Russians from finding out what they really have in common. The longer he waits, the more chances Russians will have to hear from their Ukrainian friends, family and relatives. The longer he waits to end a war he cannot win, the more Russian soldiers will die. Putin and his clique see them as expendable.
Despite deceptive rhetoric about the need to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, Putin’s forces have shelled Ukrainian civilians in the largest Russian-speaking city, Kharkiv. There is a grim irony that the man who writes at length about the familial unity of Russians and Ukrainians, and then launches a violent “special military operation” to convince them of their common heritage, is the same man whose regime oversaw the decriminalisation of domestic violence.
Putin dreams of establishing a “triune” state, composed of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, but with Moscow as its capital of capitals. Ukrainians, like the Belarusians before them, can expect to be relegated to second or third class status within this revived realm of Russian imperium, sometimes mistranslated in the West as a nebulous term “sphere of influence.”
But expanding a sphere of influence does not usually mean “territorial annexation by force.” Usually it means strengthening economic and cultural ties through peaceful means. But Putin has shown himself too impatient and paranoid to achieve that.
Today, Putin is trying to fix his mistake in 2014. That’s when Russia annexed Crimea and started supporting Russia-speaking Ukrainian separatists with weapons, starting a civil war. Those were his reactions to Ukrainian rejection of a Russia-trade deal in favor of a European economic agreement. Since then, Ukrainian opinions of Russia and Putin have cratered.
“It’s like a complex system of fragile balanced objects on top of a tabletop and one man decided to jump up and down next to the table – we can’t predict which bits will break, but break they will,” Jeremy Morris, a Professor of Russian & Global Studies at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Perhaps one aim is to deny Ukrainians as even an identity within the ‘new’ Russia that will emerge. It seems very short sighted and again, perhaps reflecting a poor level of knowledge in the Kremlin about what’s really going on.”
The self-appointed patriarch of Slavic peoples has overestimated his ability to command obedience from his so-called family members by force. As the Russian army’s pace of advance across Ukraine slows, the frustration has started to simmer on pro-invasion telegram channels. That reality is starting to break through a thick defences of delusion.
“The main problem of Russia in Ukraine is that in the eight years after the Maidan, the heads of Ukrainians were so filled with anti-Russian propaganda and Russophobia that most of the population is hostile to Russia. Russia has been blamed and blamed for all the troubles of Ukraine,” Who will explain to them now that Russia will improve their lives?” an anonymous post on a Belarusian telegram channel reads.
“Everything that is connected with the state of Ukraine should be demolished right away. Immediately get the consent of officials to work for Russia and only then leave them on the ground. And the flags, which immediately change to Russian everywhere. Ban all rallies and impose martial law and a curfew. Nothing can be done without drastic measures.”
Inflating the influence of far-right elements in Ukrainian society to justify violence against civilians, the author of the post comes to a genocidal conclusion: “If in Ukraine everyone became Nazis and Bandera, then they are all enemies.”
The frustration expressed here reflects the reality of being an occupier of a foreign country. In Syria, where Russia’s other “special military operation” has met with success at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives, the Kremlin was never responsible for policing dissent in the streets. Doing the same in Ukraine is impossible.
Those challenges, which will require money Russia no longer has, do not factor into the bellicose pronouncements of Russian imperialists.
“Russia will win no matter what,” the same Telegram account declares. “Russia is big, it is a country of warriors and heroes. No amount of rabid Western propaganda and disinformation will change this fact. Russia came to Ukraine forever.”
The writer is right that disinformation will not work, but the basic truth of the illegal invasion will blunt Russia’s aims. And it’s a truth Ukrainians know well. Recent images out of Russian-held territory show citizens taking to the streets in protest against the invasion. The surreal smartphone video shows Ukrainians exercising their right to free assembly even in the face of Russian tanks.
Other videos show determined citizens standing in front of columns of armoured Russian vehicles. Despite the desires for vengeance and bloodshed of Russia’s Extremely Online General Staff sitting in comfy anonymity, the soldiers do not roll through the crowd.
One Twitter account, apparently run by a Russian citizen going by the name Andrei, said Moscow’s expectations of an easily conquest had always been wrong.
"The Russian degenerate command relied on demoralization and desertion by the Ukrainian military. This delusional idea did not justify itself - the Ukrainian military did not lay down their weapons and did not massively switch to the Russian side,” Andrei wrote on February 25, the day after the invasion began.
“Therefore, I listen to these Soviet nonsense from grandfathers from the command about ‘the Ukrainian army serves the people and does not resist.’ The idiots thought it would work. No, it didn't work.’’
The next day, Andrei sent another tweet: “In Russia, it seems that Twitter has slowed down. Nothing loads or works for me.”
As of now, he hasn’t tweeted again.
What went wrong?
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed sanctions on the Russian economy.
"Russia has many friends and it can not be isolated," Lavrov told Al Jazeera in an interview.
He is right. Russia does have many friends. Russia has millions of friends around the world who enjoy and study Russia’s culture, art and history. They have visited Russia or even speak Russian. They have Russian friends, family and colleagues. Those friendships are Russia’s greatest treasure. They cannot be auctioned or owned by any oligarch. They were there before Putin, and they will be there after Putin.
Putin does not have nearly as many friends as Russia does. He is outnumbered, too, and by more than most people realise. He has his supporters in Russia, and his clique of allies in business and media, but none of them matter as much to the project of subjugating Ukraine as he does.
It’s not just the hundreds of thousands of armed Ukrainians who despise Putin, it’s also the tens of millions of Ukrainians who support them. Beyond them, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world disgusted and outraged by the war. The 141 votes cast Wednesday in the UN General Assembly to condemn Putin’s aggression, and the abstentions of Kremlin-curious or friendly countries like China, India and Iran, suggest that billions of people are not on Putin’s side.
Putin does not listen to these people anyway. And the people he does listen to are not in a position to contradict him. When he makes a self-destructive decision there is no one there to stop him. Indeed, his closest circle has every reason to encourage him.
Yuri Akopov is a Russian essayist who has been keeping track of trends in the discourse in Russian-speaking social media circles that support Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. These discussions are nearly invisible to pundits who don’t speak Russian.
“Most of communication in these circles is understandably conducted in Russian (some prominent figures, e.g. Alexander Karlin, tweet in English as well), but I am not sure it is easy to navigate for someone who doesn’t speak the language even with the help of Google Translate,” he told TRT World. “This is because this culture is, like American alt-right a few years ago, runs on a few levels of irony-that-isn’t-irony mixed with truth, and it might be difficult to fish out the useful nuggets.
Distilling bluster and trolling from sincerely held beliefs, Akopov has been able to discern a trend in their opinions about Ukraine.
“They see Ukrainian identity as a veneer hiding the same old Russian one, so it needs to be peeled off (‘Ukrainian activists should be purged’). People realising they’re really Russian is very much expected in these circles,” Akopov told TRT World.
“The expectations were clearly for something like 2014 in Donbas (sporadic resistance with people and officials welcoming them in), and needless to say this didn’t turn out as expected. There isn’t a shred of a doubt about whether the whole thing was worth it though,” he said.
Akopov draws a distinction between the “low level propaganda” made for general consumption, where Putin’s threats of global nuclear murder-suicide are taken more seriously than these more elite circles, which do not include “normie Putin fans.”
General consumption propaganda has tried to hide defeats, but the notion of sacrificing thousands and thousands of soldiers for the cause of national rejuvenation or survival is hardly a new concept in Russian history. Nationalist intellectual narrators
Russia’s nationalist intellectual narrators “are aware of sustained losses, this doesn’t change anything for them,” Akopov added.
In a Twitter thread on the same topic, he goes into greater detail.
“The possibility of resistance after the active phase of war is dismissed, they are confident that after there is a change of power and Ukrainian activists are purged by military police, most people in Ukraine will come to their senses and accept the new reality,” he said. “The was is existential in a way that it is supposed to destroy the Ukrainian identity. The desired outcome seems to be not friendly Ukraine with a new government, but at least partial annexation with Ukrainian culture suppressed.”
And where is the West in all this? Akopov says the nationalist intellectual circles aren’t worried.
“Overall, complete dehumanisation of Ukraine, dismissal rather than aggressive challenging of the West (yesterday's hegemon) and the start of a Russian golden era,” he concludes, describing the discourse.
Unrestrained brutality against civilians served Russia’s geopolitical interests in Syria. Repeating the same results in Ukraine is a different story, however. Russia will become completely responsible for the administration of a restive Ukraine.
Keeping control over Russia is one thing, but adding another 40 million people to that sphere could strain the capacity of the state to stamp out dissent. Putin may not have the police or truncheons necessary to suppress an insurgency in Ukraine, now under military occupation, while dealing with discontent inside Russia against the war and the economic devastation Putin’s one-man rule has brought the country.
“Well that’s the problem with autocracies – they don’t need domestic buy-in if they are effective in being authoritarian,” Morris, the professor at Aarhus University, told TRT World. “Average Russians are bewildered, afraid, and increasingly some are ‘bloody-minded’ – reacting to the sanctions with grim resignation or even more loyalty to the regime. It’s a temporary rally-around-the-flag effect.”
Meanwhile, Russian soldiers are left without food and fuel on the frontlines of fighting in Ukraine, victims of Putin’s arrogance and disorganisation. The shambolic campaign suggests impulsivity on Putin’s part, but also something more about the people around him.
Morris doesn’t see them as arch Eurasianists of the Aleksandr Dugin variety, enchanted by a world-historical fascist fantasy, but rather as petty incompetents interested in self-promotion. They were wrong. They ignored important details, like the maintenance of Russia’s massive land forces.
Failure to maintain tire pressure on expensive, deadly mobile weapons systems has meant many of the vehicles are trapped in Ukraine’s wet soil, abandoned by troops whose lines of communication are too fragile to even receive orders. As a previous generation of invaders of Ukraine found out in 1941, nihilistic careerism and imperious hubris are no match for mud.
“I think Putin is listening only to a small circle of people and that group-think has set in. These are not Duginist types, but I think it’s more the ‘banality of evil’ type of arrangement – ‘Yes’ men, mediocrities, and people who want advancement by saying they can ‘make this work’ – that’s why we see so many failures at all levels of state capacity. I also think no one really understood the complex results of sanctions, neither in Russia, nor in the West,” Morris added.
“Finally, I think even if Putin had a good idea of the sanctions Russia would be subject to, he probably took a calculated decision that it was ‘worth it’ – also a miscalculation about Russian people’s passivity and capacity for absorbing punishment.”
Where the battle is lost and won
After the humiliation and economic depression of the 1990s, Putin was able to marshal Russian energy resources by demanding the compliance of oligarchs to the demands of the state. A disastrous era after the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to be over for good. Western brands entered the Russian market, and the flow of Russian natural gas satisfied European markets. As a guarantor of stability, Putin’s popularity grew. In the last week, he has thrown that away.
Russia was unequal, but it was relatively rich. After the deluge of last week’s sanctions, Russia is still unequal, but no longer rich. Governments imposing sanctions hope that the seizure of Russian foreign reserves, saved over years by Putin’s unpopular austerity policies, will both hinder its plans in Ukraine and foment domestic unrest that the Kremlin cannot control.
With foreign exchange denominated currency unavailable and their remaining rubles rusting in their pockets, ordinary Russians who themselves had no control over Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine are in dire financial straits. Putting pressure on civilians in the hopes of spurring a popular uprising against an oppressive and militaristic government has failed before in other countries. Whether it “works” or not in Russia, policymakers cheering it should be clear to themselves about the pain they will cause to Russian civilians.
"Their brains are currently focused solely on punishing Russia as much as possible. Certainly, this affects the economy and the social sector, but I assure you, we'll resolve all these problems that the West is causing us not out of the desire to ensure its security but out of the desire to deprive Russia of its ability to pursue an independent policy. Not so many countries are left that can afford this luxury. Therefore, if you will, the sanctions are a kind of tax on independence," Lavrov said on Thursday.
Betting on Putin’s regime falling because of sanctions is not a comprehensive strategy. No one knows, for instance, whether he will see the use of nuclear weapons, probably against Ukraine itself, as the only way to preserve the state. And Putin sees himself as the equivalent of the state itself.
Russian police will see their salaries and savings crumble. But no one knows whether they will exact revenge in the streets against anti-war protesters instead of in the offices of their bosses. The same goes for hopes that the military will refuse to fight. Even civilian officials cannot abandon Putin’s plan.
"You can only resign right to jail,” a government source told independent Russian outlet Agents Media.
Officials and bureaucrats did not expect the invasion, just like the young soldiers who thought they were merely conducting drills. Putin has taken hostage not just his soldiers, but also his government. Only after the tanks started to roll and bombs started to fall did Putin decide to inform the public of his “special military operation.”
“While media coverage of the war itself appears to be ramping up — after a few days in which it was almost not discussed — Russian media are under strict orders to quote only official sources and to avoid using the words ‘war’ or ‘invasion,’” Sam Greene, a professor at Kings College London and author of “Putin v The People,” wrote on Twitter.
“Russian legislators are reportedly preparing further restrictions, including jail sentences of up to 15 years for distributing whatever the state believes is “fake news” about the war,” he added.
Beyond the humiliation of Russian ground forces and air forces, Putin’s failure to establish information supremacy over the war could be the reason he loses it. He did not expect the Ukrainian information campaign to be so determined and robust at rally global condemnation against Russia at the UN and in the global marketplace.
His biggest mistake was underestimating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s skill, eloquence and bravery in the face of Russian assault. Zelenskyy has provided daily updates and even held interviews with reporters in Kiev.
“A key in this is to remember the multiple audiences he is aiming at. One is Ukraine people and soldiers, the power of a leader who is right there with them, literally in the streets. But there is also the key audience of the West and its leaders,” wrote Peter W. Singer, a professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University.
Zelenskyy has also established a contrast with Putin, Singer notes. Ukraine’s president eats with his fellow citizen soldiers. Russia’s president won’t allow his advisers within ten meters of him.
Ukraine’s government has also engaged in “messaging that shows off the victims of the Russian attacks are the Ukrainian people in vivid ways,” Singer adds. “It does so with examples of Russian strikes that don't just resonate, but also are clearly and inarguably civilian in nature, such as a missile hit near a playground or in front of a grocery store.”
Images like these are powerful for a reason, and that’s because they are true. The Ukraine government has truth on its side, and the Russian government does not. That’s a major advantage. And with the Russian army’s turn towards sadistic strikes on civilians, they are producing more and more reasons for Ukrainians to fight them, both now and in the long term.
The Kremlin clique responsible for this terrible conflict convinced themselves that it could manufacture any kind of reality in the minds of Russians and foreign observers. But just like Russia’s military has been stretched to the breaking point, so too have Kremlin propagandists been unable to bend and twist facts despite so much success in the past. They are no match for Ukrainians relaying the reality of Russia’s campaign.
“I think that you have seen a remarkable plethora of Ukrainian voices on the ground being very resourceful and very good at documenting things and just getting the truth out there. They are doing an amazing job. They are going to lose some advantages as the Russians start to dismantle the infrastructure," Kurt Bassauner, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, told TRT World.
“So long as the Ukrainians are able to communicate. Ukrainians’ story of resisting Russian aggression is pretty locked in. It’s going to be awfully hard for Russians to change that narrative, if they even try. I think they are just going to try to stop them by brute force. Even as this gets worse, I think the Ukrainians are going to have a compelling story to tell,” he added.
Russia cannot win against Ukraine with the story it has brought to the battle. That story demands the rejection of basic truths about who poses a threat to whom. Ukraine does not pose a nuclear, chemical or biological threat to Russia, despite what its foreign ministry asserts as a justification for the invasion.
Russia has parroted the mendacity of former US President George W. Bush’s administration, but forgot that those lies grew into a bitter backlash against the entire US political establishment. It was a gamble leveraged by outright lies. The American people realised and rejected those lies eventually, and grew to despise the people who told them.
Russians and Ukrainians fighting each other because of Putin’s paranoid, power-driven falsehoods, which have already sent his own citizens to their deaths. In order to win, Ukrainian leaders like Zelenskyy must hold onto the truth, because it is his best defence.
Far more than sanctions imposed by the West, Ukrainians telling their own story to their Russian neighbours is the best way to slow or stop the conflict. Moscow has cut off access to foreign media sources, but those efforts cannot keep every fact about the injustice of the conflict out of every Russian mind.
Ukrainian citizens can tell Russian soldiers in their own language that the war is wrong. The more Russian soldiers who circle through an occupied Ukraine, the more chances Ukrainians have to tell them. Ukraine’s president, a Russian speaker, can also address Putin directly.
"Good Lord, what do you want?” Zelenskyy asked Putin in a speech Thursday night. “Leave our land. If you don't want to leave now, sit down with me at the negotiating table. But not from 30 meters away, like with Macron and Scholz. Sit down with me and talk. What are you afraid of? We're no threat to anyone."
Without truth on its side, Russia has no hope of winning. And as long as Ukraine keeps truth as an ally, there is still hope it can survive.