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Putin misjudged Ukraine. Is the West falling into a similar trap with Russia and China?
A good way to start the New Year: The New York Times and Washington Post have run excellent post mortems on why Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster so far. The larger question, however, is whether this failed invasion was a surprise. Many countries, particularly the United States, have blundered in using force and starting wars, assuming that its formidable military could not fail.
Why should Russia be immune to similar misjudgments?
Fully understanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisionmaking must be circumstantial. But consider his likely thought process, ironically paralleling that of several American presidents in deciding to go to war. In late 2021, Putin may have been ambivalent about launching a “special military operation (SMO).” But he probably thought his two options were “win-win.”
Either the U.S., NATO and the EU could accept his “demands” for a new strategic framework in Europe, limiting NATO’s expansion east and preventing Ukraine from joining the alliance. Or, if the allies refused, having already deployed his forces on Ukraine’s borders in a so-called training exercise, an invasion would lead to a quick rout of Ukraine’s forces in the dash to seize Kyiv and other key cities. That the U.S. and NATO immediately rejected even discussion of Putin’s demands infuriated the Russian and likely provoked the decision to invade Ukraine.
After all, how could Russia not succeed? It had modernized its military, organizing its forces into self-contained Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) equipped with weapons proven in battle in Syria and elsewhere. With a relatively small force of about 5,000 and a handful of Kalibr cruise missiles, Russia had saved Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. It had learned from its bungled South Ossetia operation in 2008 and taken Crimea peacefully in 2014 with “little green men.”
Thus, from Putin’s perspective, while a “slam dunk” was never inevitable, this SMO was not far from that. Yet, so far, the Ukraine war has been Putin’s worst nightmare. Whether Russia can reverse the state of the war with a more competent general in charge and mount a new offensive remain to be seen. But Putin’s errors were not unique to Russia.
America’s defeats in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq after 2003 should have been warnings to Putin. They don’t seem to have been. First, all three wars were deemed in America’s vital interests when they were not. Second, American presidents were overly confident about the capability of their militaries, from President Lyndon Johnson’s order “to nail that coonskin to the wall” to George W. Bush’s “combat operations” in Iraq are over and we “have prevailed.”
Third, the U.S. was grossly wrong in estimating the ability of the enemy to respond and endure as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and, later, the Taliban did. After Saddam Hussein’s army was eviscerated in “Iraqi Freedom” in 2003, the Bush administration failed to anticipate the following insurgency. Putin has ignored these lessons.
Putin’s current strategy is to “win by not losing.” His obscene bombing campaign to destroy Ukraine’s power, water and food infrastructure is meant to force Kyiv to capitulate or to accept terms favorable to Moscow. Meanwhile, Russia is rebuilding and restoring a badly mauled army. Ukraine continues to mobilize and train hundreds of thousands of troops to defeat any Russian offensive and recapture as much of the occupied territories as possible.
Predicting how this war ends is what former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called an “unknown unknown.” But deadlock appears among the more likely outcomes. And, as the U.S. persisted in Vietnam for well over a decade, Afghanistan for two decades and still has some forces in Iraq, Russia could be following a similar track.
One conclusion is clear: Without full knowledge and understanding of the conditions in which force is to be used, failure may not be inevitable, but it is extremely likely. Have the U.S. and NATO taken this axiom to heart in thinking through both future strategy and the forces needed for successful execution of that strategy in dealing with the Ukrainian war? Russia did not.
Money is not the answer. Despite an $858 billion U.S. defense budget, how knowledgeable are U.S. senior political civilian and military officials on the strengths and weaknesses of China and Russia, their strategies, leaderships and overall competence to achieve strategic aims? Indeed, is it possible that China’s military prowess has been as exaggerated as Russia’s?
Putin and his generals were flagrantly ignorant about Ukraine. Is the West falling into a similar trap regarding China and Russia? Answering that question is vital.
Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.