The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has proved to be a strategic miscalculation of historic proportions. Having failed to produce a quick victory for Moscow, the unprovoked invasion faces a ferocious Ukrainian insurgency that has already caused some 15,000 Russian combat fatalities, roughly the same number that the Soviet Union lost in its entire nine-year campaign in Afghanistan. The Russian economy has been battered by extraordinary international sanctions. Calls for Putin to be tried as a war criminal have echoed around the world. It is safe to say that none of this was what Putin expected when he launched his attack.
How did Putin get things so wrong? In part, he clearly overestimated Russian military power and underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. But just as important was his misreading of the West. His long personal experience—observing the weak international response to Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Georgia, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—convinced him that the West would abandon Ukraine. Given Europe’s concerns about Washington’s commitment to European security in the wake of both the Trump presidency and the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, he may also have anticipated that the invasion would divide the United States and its European allies, thus delivering a larger strategic victory than simply the installation of a puppet government in Kyiv.
Had Putin been a better student of how Western democracies have responded to vital threats to their security, he would have understood why these assumptions were wrong. True, one lesson of the past century is that Western democracies have frequently ignored emerging security threats, as many of them did in the lead-up to the two world wars, the Korean War, and the September 11 attacks. As the U.S. diplomat and historian George Kennan once put it, democracies are like a prehistoric monster so indifferent to what is happening around him that “you practically have to whack off his tail to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed.” But an equally important lesson of the past century is that when their tails are whacked hard enough, Western democracies react with speed, determination, and strength. For the United States and its European allies, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—which in size and scope constitutes the largest use of military force on the European continent since 1945 and poses a direct threat to NATO territory—has provided just such a case.
Yet even though the Western response has been surprisingly robust, it is far too soon for the West to declare victory. If democracies are capable of forming a swift and united front against exceptional threats, they have also long been prone to shifting priorities and turning attention inward once the immediate crisis has passed. For Western leaders, then, having quickly closed ranks to confront Putin’s aggression, the challenge now is how to sustain that unity. U.S. President Joe Biden stressed that point in Warsaw in March: “We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come.” This is no easy task. To achieve that goal over the long term, the United States and its allies must overcome the political polarization, shifting economic burdens, and changes of leadership that have often fragmented the West in the past. Otherwise, the unity over Ukraine could turn out to be short-lived, leaving the West once again divided and autocrats strengthened.
It is not surprising that Putin would have assumed that the West would respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine with harsh rhetoric but not much more. In 2008, when Putin sent Russian forces to dismember Georgia, French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to negotiate a cease-fire that kept Russian gains in place, while the United States and other European countries declined to back up their official dismay with even symbolic sanctions. The reaction six years later to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his instigation of a separatist war in eastern Ukraine was only slightly tougher: although Russia was evicted from the G-8 and subjected to limited sanctions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama both ruled out sending lethal military aid to help Ukraine defend itself.
In similar fashion, Washington and its European partners refused to impose meaningful penalties on Russia after it intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, indiscriminately bombing civilians, targeting hospitals, and eventually leveling the city of Aleppo. In recent years, attempted assassinations of Putin’s opponents at home and abroad with nerve agents prompted only the imposition of small-scale sanctions and the expulsion of some Russian diplomats from Western countries. And when Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Western democracies and media outlets criticized the Kremlin but did little else.
How did Putin get things so wrong?
The behavior of European leaders in the months leading up to the attack on Ukraine suggested that the West was likely to stick to this pattern. Dismissing the evidence presented by the U.S. and the British governments of an imminent invasion, many European leaders assumed that Putin was amassing troops near Ukraine for leverage to negotiate new security arrangements. Several of them traveled to Moscow looking to cut a deal. The German government in particular recoiled at the prospect of responding forcefully to Putin’s mounting aggression, blocking attempts to activate the NATO Response Force and denying NATO allies permission to send Ukraine lethal equipment of German origin. At a White House press conference in early February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pointedly refused to pledge to terminate the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline should Russia invade Ukraine. The apparent divisions of the West were so obvious that Biden openly worried that a “minor incursion” might lead to a Western “fight about what to do and not do.”
These developments reinforced Putin’s conviction that the West was a spent force. “There is also the so-called liberal idea,” the Russian leader told the Financial Times in 2019, “which has outlived its purpose.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin’s collaborator in a strategic partnership “with no limits,” undoubtedly encouraged that thinking. The Chinese president’s mantra had long been: “The East is rising, the West is declining.” But such calculations failed to account for what would happen when Russia undertook a blatant, unprovoked invasion of a sovereign European democracy—an act that went well beyond any of Putin’s earlier aggressions.
Rather than splitting the West, Putin’s assault against Ukraine united it. Within days of the invasion, the United States and its allies joined forces to impose a sweeping sanctions regime on Russia, making it the most sanctioned country in the world. Russian banks were barred from using the SWIFT money exchange mechanism, Russian central bank reserves in foreign countries were frozen, and exports of critical technologies were banned, affecting 50 percent of Russia’s technology imports and 20 percent of all imports. Putin, senior officials in his administration, and a host of Russian oligarchs were sanctioned and their assets seized. Russian aircraft were banned from entering the airspace of 33 countries. Germany shelved Nord Stream 2, the United States and other countries cut off imports of Russian oil, and the EU moved to reduce its reliance on Russian energy. Nearly 500 Western companies have left the Russian market. The West’s intent, as French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire put it, was to “cause the collapse of the Russian economy.”
Western countries also mobilized against Russia politically. The UN Security Council voted 11–1, with three abstentions, to condemn the invasion, although Russia’s lone veto blocked its enforcement. The UN General Assembly followed suit, voting 141–5 to demand that Russia withdraw from Ukraine. The International Court of Justice ordered Russia to halt all military operations in Ukraine. International cultural and sporting organizations, such as FIFA, world soccer’s global governing body, also joined in by banning Russian participation in their activities.
Rather than splitting the West, Putin’s assault against Ukraine united it.
The West’s military response was equally impressive. Rather than withdraw forces from eastern Europe as Putin had demanded, NATO doubled its combat presence in the region, activated its Response Force, and placed 40,000 troops under its command. More than 35 countries began or increased weapons shipments to Ukraine. This aid ranged from the basic—rifles, ammunition, helmets, Kevlar vests, artillery shells, and grenade launchers—to the sophisticated—Stinger antiaircraft missiles, U.S. Javelin antitank missiles, Swedish AT-4 rocket launchers, British next-generation antitank weapons, and armed drones. The United States has contributed over $1.7 billion in aid to the Ukrainian military since the start of the war, and the EU committed 500 million euros to the Ukrainian defense, marking a first for the bloc, which had previously never provided military assistance to another country.
Support for these measures has also been broad and deep, including in countries that have historically been among the most reluctant to be drawn into international conflicts. Both Switzerland, the quintessentially neutral nation, and Singapore, a proud practitioner of great-power balancing, imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Japan, which has infamously strict immigration policies, opened its doors to Ukrainian evacuees. Most significantly, Scholz announced a Zeitenwende—a historic pivot—in which Germany committed to provide Ukraine with lethal aid, pledged to exceed NATO’s defense spending target of two percent of GDP, created a 100 billion euro defense fund to buy equipment for its depleted armed forces, and promised to rapidly end its reliance on Russian energy. “It is clear that we must invest much more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and our democracy,” Scholz told the Bundestag on February 27. It was a sentiment widely shared in other Western capitals.
Putin’s failure to anticipate this unified response reflects a misunderstanding of how democracies operate. His flawed analysis is partially rooted in the reality that given that they are responsible to their people, democracies tend to be more concerned about problems at home than about threats gathering abroad. Since the end of the Cold War, moreover, many European governments also seemed instinctively to doubt that other countries might resort to war to achieve their geopolitical aims and assumed that the economic integration and globalization of recent decades had rendered war on the European continent obsolete. Why fight when commerce and exchange are so profitable?
But as Kennan noted, although democracies are slow to anger, they react with fury when their interests are directly threatened. German Kaiser Wilhelm II never anticipated that his support for Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia would trigger war with France and the United Kingdom, a dynamic that repeated itself 25 years later when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Washington sought to sit out both world wars and joined them only after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The U.S. policy of containment, which sought to prevent the spread of communism during the Cold War, took root only after North Korea invaded South Korea. Western leaders eagerly embraced the peace dividend that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they were only partially awakened from their slumber after 9/11.
The West’s unified front against Russia’s invasion must not be allowed to weaken or erode as the war progresses.
The tendency of democracies to switch from passivity to action is just that—a tendency, not a rule. Whether or not they do so is often determined by the choices that Western leaders make. Here Biden’s adroit diplomacy in the face of an exploding crisis was critical. He and his team used the threat posed by Putin’s aggression to make good on his long-standing vow to strengthen transatlantic relations and the broader democratic community. When U.S. intelligence concluded in late 2021 that Russian forces were preparing to invade Ukraine, Biden made two critical decisions. The first was that the United States would not defend Ukraine itself. The second was that he would work with NATO members and other partners to pursue a three-pronged strategy to impose massive economic penalties on Russia, bolster NATO’s posture in eastern Europe, and send more weapons to Ukraine to help it defend itself.
Beginning in mid-November 2021, Biden worked to build a collective Western response to Russia’s likely invasion. Top U.S. intelligence officials briefed allies on Putin’s plans, sharing sensitive information that even senior U.S. officials normally wouldn’t see. U.S. diplomats engaged with their counterparts to map out possible sanctions packages. U.S. military leaders met with NATO and other allies to discuss how to improve readiness and devise possible security assistance for Ukraine. This painstaking diplomacy reflected the conviction that making demands of allies would be counterproductive. Instead, Washington needed to give allies time and space to make their own decisions. Biden wasn’t seeking credit for his exceptional leadership; he was seeking to forge a united Western response that could meet the moment.
That initial objective was achieved because of the audacity of what Putin attempted. Had he simply seized another slice of Ukraine, as he did when he took Crimea, he might have left Biden facing a NATO alliance that remained split on whether or not a redline had been crossed. But by opting for a full-fledged invasion, Putin removed any doubt regarding the extremity of his actions.
For Biden’s approach to succeed, however, the West’s unified front against Russia’s invasion must not be allowed to weaken or erode as the war progresses. Many obstacles stand in the way: Putin will doubtless attempt to exploit divisions within the alliance; disputes could arise over what steps to take next or what concessions to offer; and the burden of punishing Russia will inevitably fall unequally across countries, fueling resentment and disagreement. These problems will be multiplied if, as Kennan warned, democracies react with so much fury they not only damage the adversary but also themselves—as could be the case if the objective morphed from restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence to a policy of active regime change in Russia. It is possible to do too much as well as too little.
These challenges will require skillful diplomacy to resolve. As leaders in Washington, Brussels, Tokyo, and other capitals navigate such problems, they should be looking to formalize the cooperation that Putin’s brutality has prompted by creating the core of a new alliance of democracies that many have long called for. In the years to come, there will likely be more geopolitical threats, such as Russian revanchism, and they will need to be countered with strong, institutionalized cooperation among the major democracies. Because unity generates strength, Western countries should improve their mutual defenses and deepen their economic relations, including by bringing the United States and the EU into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and negotiating a transatlantic trade and investment pact. As a first step, they should expand the G-7 to include Australia, South Korea, and the European Union. That would bring the major advanced democracies of North America, Europe, and Asia under a single umbrella and provide a powerful counterweight to the pressures buffeting all democratic countries. The West should dig in for a longer fight now: Putin’s challenge to Western interests and values will by no means be the last.