Why Did Putin’s Plan Go Awry?

Why Did Putin’s Plan Go Awry?
Somewhere along the way, Vladimir Putin, the 70-year-old president of Russia, who was posted by the KBG in East Germany and was fluent in German, must have heard a dictum attributed to Field Marshal von Moltke (the elder): “No battle plan survives the first 24 hours of contact with the enemy.” As he got ready to launch his invasion of Ukraine, he just pushed that dictum aside. He knew how quickly Prague fell to the Soviet army in in 1968 and how that performance was repeated in Kabul in 1979.

In Ukraine, he felt he was dealing with a 44-year-old charlatan. Volodymyr Zelensky did not have much experience in politics. The man with a law degree had spent much of his career in the show business. In his most recent performance, he had portrayed an actor who gets elected as president.

Putin thought that when he would call upon the Ukraine military to surrender, they would comply with his command. Even if they decided to fight it out, his superior firepower would wipe them out. He assumed that the people of Ukraine would rise against Zelensky.

Putin had been wanting to take over Ukraine at least since 1999. That year, he had written a paper in which he lamented the fact that 25 million Russians did not live in Russia. What was especially galling to him was that 14 million of these expatriate Russians lived in Ukraine.

Putin must have known that the military that mounts an offensive in battle needs to outnumber the military that is on the defensive by a ratio of 3:1. He must have known that Ukrainian forces exceeded 300,000. Thus, he would have needed 900,000 to prevail.
But since he had written them off, he decided to mount his offensive with a force of less than 200,000. Furthermore, he launched his attack from three different directions, further dividing his forces.

The attack was launched at 5 am Kyiv time on February 24. Russian missiles were lobbed at military sites and airports in more than 17 of Ukraine’s 27 regions. According to the Ukrainian military, their forces shot down seven Russian planes and seven helicopters, and damaged or destroyed nearly four dozen tanks and other armored vehicles.

A week into the war, the Russian invasion is stalled. Military convoys have run out of fuel. Kyiv has yet to be taken. A long Russian column heading toward it has stalled. A column heading into Ukraine from the south has been hammered by the Ukrainian military. Thus far, the military operation has been an abject failure.

Not only has he failed militarily, Putin has also failed politically. Consistent with Clausewitz’s dictum, that war is a continuation of politics by other means, he resorted to war to turn Ukraine into a satellite state. He thought by calling Zelensky and his advisors drug-addled Neo-Nazi’s, he would win the sympathies of not only the Ukrainian people but of the world.

When he visited Beijing on the 4th of February, he was confident that he had won China over to his side. The communiqué issued at the end of his visit said that China and Russia had a ‘boundless friendship’. He assumed that President Xi would support his irredentist claims on Ukraine.
Of course, just about no one, possibly including the Chinese, thought he would actually invade Ukraine. President Biden was possibly the only world leader who was convinced that Putin would invade.

The entire world was indeed taken by surprise when Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, dubbed a “special military operation.”

An emergency session of the UN Security Council was called. The US submitted a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion and calling upon Russia to pulls its forces out of Ukraine.

When a vote was taken, the only country opposing the resolution was Russia. The Chinese did not oppose the resolution, nor did India, a long time Russian ally. Both abstained. In fact, no one sided with Russia and the overwhelming majority supported the resolution. Another resolution was passed calling on the UN General Assembly to hold an emergency meeting, only the eleventh in history.

The president of the General Assembly categorically condemned the invasion, saying it was a “violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.” He called for an immediate ceasefire. Even China’s representative said, “The cold war has long ended, and […] nothing can be gained from stirring up a new cold war.”

Putin’s political failures went way beyond his failures at the UN. Many countries imposed strict economic sanctions on Russia. Some went even further. Several European countries decided to send arms and ammunition to Ukraine. Even the traditionally neutral Switzerland condemned the invasion.

Turkey’s president, Erdogan, who walks a tight rope between the US and Russia, said that “Russia’s attack on Ukrainian territory [w]as unacceptable.” Turkey imposed a blockade on Russian naval vessels from leaving the Black Sea.

Large scale protests against the Russian invasion broke out not just in the EU but in 50 countries across the globe including Iran and Malaysia.

Protests even took place in Russian cities, despite the prohibition on such rallies. At night, iconic buildings in London, Berlin, Paris and New York were lit up with the colors of the Ukraine flag.

Finally, the invasion has failed economically. After a massive sell-off which saw a drop of 40% on the Moscow Exchange, it was closed. When the Russian currency fell by a third, the central bank doubled the interest rate to 20%.

Unable to make headway militarily, politically, or economically, Putin has called on Russian nuclear forces to be placed on ‘combat duty’. The official picture shows him sitting at the end of that very long table in the Kremlin with two defense advisors seated at the other end, Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff. Shoigu, who has known Putin since 1999 and who often hikes with him, is presumably the mastermind of the invasion. Even he seemed visibly shaken when Putin mentioned the nuclear option.

Doubts have begun to arise about Putin’s mental abilities. It’s unlikely that he would have reached the decision to invade five years ago. At least two intelligence experts have noted that the two years of isolation during the pandemic seemed to have turned Putin into a paranoid individual. He is unable to think clearly and has surrounded himself with yes men. His mind, suffused with hubris, has lost its powers of reasoning.

If the current trends continue, and protests become widespread in Russia, he may be deposed by very military that he commands.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui