The conventional wisdom is that Vladimir Putin miscalculated catastrophically.
He thought the Russian-speaking Ukrainians would welcome his troops.
He thought that he would quickly overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelensky.
A damaged Ukrainian government administration building is seen after a shelling, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Photo REUTERS/Nacho Doce
He thought it would split NATO.
He has joined her.
He thought his economy was sanction-proof.
It has destroyed her.
He thought the Chinese would help him.
They are hedging their bets.
He thought his modernized army would make mincemeat of the Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainians are making mincemeat of it, at least on some fronts.
Putin’s miscalculations raise questions about his strategic judgment and state of mind.
Who, if anyone, is advising you?
Have you lost touch with reality?
Are you physically unwell?
Condoleezza Rice warns: “He is not in control of his emotions. Something is wrong.”
Russia’s sieges of Mariupol and Kharkiv, two Russian-speaking cities that Putin claims to be “liberating” from Ukrainian oppression, parallel what the Nazis did to Warsaw, Poland, and what Putin himself did to Poland. Grozny, Chechnya.
Several analysts have compared Putin to a cornered rat, more dangerous now that he is no longer in control of events.
They want to give you one safe exit of the situation he supposedly created for himself.
Hence the almost universal contempt heaped on Joe Biden to say in Poland:
“For God’s sake, this man cannot stay in power.”
Conventional wisdom is entirely plausible.
It has the benefit of vindicating the West’s strategy of defensively supporting Ukraine.
And he tends to the conclusion that the best outcome is the one in which Putin finds a face-saving way out:
additional Ukrainian territory, a Ukrainian promise of neutrality, the lifting of some of the sanctions.
But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong?
What if the West is only playing in the hands of Putin once again?
The possibility is suggested in a powerful reminiscence by Carlotta Gall of The New York Times about her experience covering the Russian siege of Grozny during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s.
In the early stages of the war, motivated Chechen fighters took out a Russian armored brigade, stunning Moscow.
The Russians regrouped and annihilated Grozny from afar, using artillery and air force.
Russia is operating from the same playbook today.
When Western military analysts argue that Putin cannot win militarily in Ukraine, what they really mean is that he cannot can win fair.
Since when has Putin played fair?
“There is a whole stage following Putin’s playbook, which is well known to the Chechens,” Gall writes.
“As Russian troops gained control on the ground in Chechnya, they crushed any further dissent with arrests and filter camps and by transforming and empowering local protégés and collaborators.”
Let’s assume for a moment that Putin never intended to conquer all of Ukraine:
that, from the beginning, their real objectives were the energetic riches of eastern Ukraine, which contain the second largest known reserves of natural gas in Europe (after Norway).
Combine that with the territorial seizures Russia’s previous claims in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of a huge shale gas field), as well as Putin’s bid to control most or the entire coastline of Ukraine and the shape of Putin’s ambitions become clear.
He is less interested in bringing the Russian-speaking world together than in securing the energy domain From Russia.
“Under the pretext of an invasion, Putin is executing a huge robbery,” said Canadian energy expert David Knight Legg.
As for what remains of a mostly landlocked Ukraine, it is likely to become a welfare case for the West, helping to foot the bill for resettling Ukrainian refugees in new homes outside of control. Russian.
Over time, a figure similar to Victor Orbán he could take the presidency of Ukraine, mimicking the strongman political style that Putin favors in his neighbors.
If this analysis is correct, then Putin does not look like the miscalculating loser his critics say he is.
Their strategy of targeting civilians also makes sense.
More than just a way to compensate for the incompetence of Russian troops, the mass killing of civilians exerts a enormous pressure on Zelensky to accept the very things that Putin has demanded all along:
territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality.
The West will also look for any opportunity to de-escalate, especially when we become convinced that a Putin mentally unstable is prepared to use nuclear weapons.
Inside Russia, the war has already served Putin’s political purposes.
Many in the professional middle class, the people most sympathetic to dissidents like Alexei NavalnyThey have exiled themselves.
The remains of a free press have been shut down, probably forever.
To the extent that Russia’s military has embarrassed itself, it is more likely to lead to a well-aimed purge from above than to a broad revolution from below.
Russia’s new energy riches could eventually help it free itself from sanctions.
This alternative analysis of Putin’s performance could be wrong.
On the other hand, in war, politics, and life, it is always wiser to treat your adversary like a cunning fox, not a crazy fool.
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