Robert Patman asks how the Putin regime made such a grave strategic miscalculation in unleashing a war fast becoming disastrous for Russia 

Comment: More than two weeks after launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is increasingly evident Putin’s Russia has made a huge strategic misjudgment that potentially threatens the political survival of the authoritarian regime in Moscow.

Having failed to obtain a lightening, blitzkrieg style victory the Putin regime expected, the Russian military has resorted to encircling Ukrainian cities and blindly pounding them with artillery and missile strikes.

To date, Putin’s war has already destroyed an estimated $US40 billion plus of infrastructure in Ukrainian cities and caused the deaths of nearly 600 Ukrainian civilians.

If Putin’s regime seems willing to commit war crimes in the name of its so-called “de-Nazification” campaign, it is clear that Russia’s larger and heavily armed military has struggled in combat with a smaller, but tactically aware and highly motivated opponent.

Russia has lost large amounts of equipment and sustained thousands of casualties, almost as many in two weeks, according to some estimates, as America suffered in Iraq during seven years of war after Washington’s 2003 invasion.

Moreover, three highly decorated Russian generals have been killed by Ukrainian forces.

To be sure, the Russian army is still moving forward. Last week, it captured the city of Kherson, intensified its bombardment of Mariupol and Kharkiv, and is now advancing on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

But even if Russia takes Kyiv – and that could take months or longer – it is difficult to see how Putin can prevail.

Any attempt to establish a pro-Putin government in Ukraine will be fiercely resisted and necessitate a large Russian occupying force in a country of around 42 million people.

Yet Moscow does not have the political legitimacy or the economic resources to sustain an occupation against a nation-wide insurgency in Ukraine.

The Putin regime’s invasion has triggered crippling international sanctions on Russia. Moscow’s central bank no longer has access to the hard currency it needs to bolster the country’s banking system and steady the rouble.

About 290 international companies, including the likes of Visa, Ikea and MacDonalds, have curtained or withdrawn their business operations from Russia.

Such measures are already affecting living standards with some goods rationed and shortages of key components from the West reportedly leading to factory stoppages.

At the same time, pressures to extend now limited sanctions to Russian energy exports – the main earner of hard currency needed to pay for the country’s imports – could grow as the carnage in Ukraine intensifies.

All this begs the question – how did the Putin regime make such a grave strategic miscalculation?

Several factors loom large here. First, Putin’s regime views international relations as essentially a game played by great powers. In this top-down worldview, great powers are entitled to more ‘security’ than other states.

Second, and closely related, Putin has publicly claimed since 2008 Ukraine is not a legitimate sovereign state. Instead, Ukraine is viewed as part of Russia and the task of Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is to simply reclaim what belongs to Moscow.

Third, Putin’s regime since 2012 has projected itself as a leader of an international right-wing conservative movement battling against the liberal democratic values of the “failing West” in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Increased restrictions in Moscow on foreign NGOs, “gay propaganda”, political protests, and media freedoms have coincided with Putin’s Russia strongly backing national populist causes such Brexit and political leaders like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Orban.

Fourth, the Putin regime evidently believed it was possible to dictate the narrative surrounding its invasion of Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenksy’s government would be largely unable to counter the Kremlin’s framing of the event.

Messaging efforts by the Putin leadership include claims that Russia has not invaded its neighbour, missile bombardments of civilian areas in Ukraine are conducted exclusively by Ukrainian ‘saboteurs’, and that the Russian mission was to “de-Nazify” the country.

Suffice it to say, none of the preconceptions underpinning Putin’s invasion strategy have survived the shattering reality of war in Ukraine.

Fierce and heroic Ukrainian resistance has exposed Putin’s Greater Russia vision to be a fantasy.

Firm and widespread international opposition to Moscow’s blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty has largely marginalised and silenced foreign right-wing allies of Putin and left Russia diplomatically isolated.

Furthermore, the combination of global media coverage and Zelensky’s skill in using modern communications to get his message across to his nation and the world has discredited Putin’s spin on the invasion.

All of this will not be lost on the elite supporting the Putin leadership in Moscow. There were signs of discontent on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine when several Russian senior retired military officials explicitly warned Putin not to unleash a war.

Since then, indications of unrest in Russia have grown. There have been anti-war demonstrations across 44 or so cities, some children of sanctioned oligarchs have expressed their opposition to Putin’s war, disaffected Russian FSB intelligence agents apparently tipped off the Ukrainian government about an assassination attempt on Zelensky, and criticism of the war has been voiced on Russia’s state controlled media.

Meanwhile, Putin has sacked eight Russian generals and cracked down against elements in the FSB intelligence network, with Sergey Beseda, the head of foreign intelligence branch and his deputy, Anatoly Bolyukh, now reportedly held under house arrest.

While Putin has concentrated enormous power in his hands, it is clear that his regime is under growing pressure for a disastrous war in Ukraine, which is undermining Russian interests both at home and abroad.

Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago.

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