If anyone doubts the importance of individual leaders in the shape of world events, surely the war in Ukraine has dispelled them. It is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war and no one else’s, just as World War II in Europe was Adolf Hitler’s. Both men wanted war; both embraced it as a test of virility against a decadent enemy.

Nor would the invasion of Ukraine have followed the course that it has if Volodymyr Zelensky were not the president of Ukraine. Though Zelensky was an unlikely leader before the war began, the former comedian has overwhelmingly defined the country’s remarkable resistance against the far superior Russian military, telling U.S. intelligence officials who offered to evacuate him that he needed ammunition, “not a ride.” And it is Zelensky who has, in his continual direct appeals to Western leaders, the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, and the Bundestag, made the Ukrainian cause one that the West cannot ignore. At the same time, it matters enormously that Joe Biden, and not Donald Trump, is in the White House and able to lead a unified and tough, but mostly cool-headed transatlantic response.

To assign special agency to these men is not to return to the now discredited “great man” theory of history. It is simply to recognize that who holds office at a particular moment in a particular place can make a critical difference. In a great crisis, the eve of a war, for example, it matters who has the final authority to say stop or go. It also matters who is leading the country that is under attack and how its leader chooses to respond. As modern history has amply demonstrated, the greatest conflicts, and their outcomes, have often been shaped as much by personal leadership as by objective factors such as resources or military strength.

In the Cuban missile crisis, another U.S. president might have given way to the pressures coming from the U.S. military and many of his senior civilian advisers. But John F. Kennedy did not authorize a full-scale attack on Cuba or on the Soviet ships and submarines approaching the island, even though he was told that he was risking the defeat and destruction of the United States. His decision spared the world a war that almost certainly would have involved nuclear weapons.

In the present crisis, there can be no doubt that the two leaders, Putin and Zelensky, have determined the shape of the conflict. In Russia, Putin has re-established the highly centralized leadership style of Stalin, or of the tsars he admires so much. What he thinks and wants becomes Russian policy because he controls the levers of power and makes the key decisions. Yet it is already clear that one of Putin’s biggest mistakes was not take into account the personal qualities and resolve of the man whose country he was invading, a man who chose not to flee or surrender but to stay and fight. And that decision of Zelensky’s has already had momentous consequences.

War for Its Own Sake

Although the question of leadership is an old one—think of the attention paid to Alexander the Great or Napoleon—it has tended to be overlooked as experts focus on systems or quantifiable measures of power. The outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, for example, has been studied intensively in such terms to understand why wars start. As historians and international relations experts have variously suggested, the slide from peace to war in Europe can be interpreted as an example of a breakdown in a balance of power, a dangerously polarizing alliance system, imperial or economic rivalries, an arms race, too rigid military plans, or perhaps the result of domestic factors such as the upper classes seeking to overcome internal divisions through war. Less often scrutinized are the individuals who contributed to or failed to prevent that slide. And their decisions were not those of rational actors thinking calmly about what advantages they or their countries might gain but the result of their values, assumptions, and emotions.

It is impossible to ignore the backgrounds from which the leaders of Europe in 1914 came. Those making the key decisions were products of their families, their class, and their era. Their ideas—about honor, for example, or the utility of war as an instrument of state—were part of the Zeitgeist. What also mattered was how much power they had. If Napoleon had remained on Corsica he might have become a prominent local leader, but as ruler of a powerful revolutionary France he could use his great abilities to dominate Europe. Unlike Napoleon, the hereditary rulers at the head of the three key powers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia did not set out to master all of Europe. Rather, they wanted to ensure the future of their dynasties and preserve what they had. They persuaded themselves, or were persuaded by those close to them, that war, even a general war, was the only way to do that.

But individual characteristics also mattered. Kaiser Wilhelm II loved his soldiers but knew that they thought he was a coward. He wanted to be a powerful ruler and feared that he was not. Through his reckless actions and speeches, he helped create the fear of a belligerent, militaristic Germany, which in turn led to the growing partnership between France and Russia and ultimately Great Britain. Following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, hawks in the Austro-Hungarian imperial government, such as Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of the general staff, were prepared to wage war on Serbia, even in the knowledge that Russia might declare war on Austria as a result. “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a Monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously,” Conrad wrote.

Like Hitler, Putin had absolute power but wanted more.

Other leaders failed to take seriously the threat of a Europe-wide conflict, with far-reaching consequences of their own. Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, was perhaps too ready to assume that Europe’s leaders, following the assassination, would judge the costs of a general war too high and therefore would behave sensibly. He persisted in dismissing the assassination as but yet another unfolding crisis in the Balkans until it was too late. In the last frantic days of July 1914, as their respective militaries urged mobilization of their vast armies and other war preparations, the three hereditary rulers of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia, with their great power, still could have refused to sign the orders. All gave way to the pressures on them: Wilhelm, who did not want to back down in the face of crisis, as he had done before; Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who was old and alone; and, in Russia, Tsar Nicholas II, who gave up his resistance to war, apparently because he was told it was the only way to save his dynasty. In the ensuing catastrophe, Europe and the world changed forever. Some nine million combatants died, as well as an unknown number of civilians; Russia was transformed by revolution; Austria-Hungary disintegrated; and a defeated Germany emerged smaller and a republic. The Great War, as it was known until a second even greater one came, was not inevitable. With other, stronger, more skillful leaders, those mass armies need not have been set in motion.

Similarly, World War II could not have happened as it did without the man who controlled Germany. Hitler determined its start, its expansion across Europe and into the Soviet Union, and the final destruction of Germany. The leaders of the allies Britain and France did their best to avoid war through appeasement. Stalin knew how unprepared the Soviet Union was for war, and he hoped to sit out any conflict between capitalist nations and build his own strength. But Hitler wanted a war in Europe for its own sake and to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.

For Hitler, it was never enough that he had made Germany the dominant power on the continent by the end of the 1930s. He had acquired the prosperous countries of Austria and Czechoslovakia without a shot having been fired; other powers in the center of Europe, such as Hungary and Romania, were falling under his sway; and Italy was an ally. His generals and his closest colleagues in the Nazi Party were content to consolidate Germany’s position. Hitler was not. He regarded the avoidance of war in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was carved up at Munich, as a defeat. He was shocked at the relief expressed by many Germans that peace had been maintained, and he ordered Joseph Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, to start a campaign to imbue the population with the right warlike spirit. And it is unlikely that another German leader would have kept fighting as long as Hitler did. In the late stages of World War II, he persisted in the war long after it was lost—long after many of his own generals had turned against him—and he went to his death, in the ruins of Berlin, complaining that the German people had let him down and did not deserve to survive.

The World Is Not Enough

Like Hitler’s decision to start a world war, Putin’s decision to undertake a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is very difficult to understand as a rational choice, designed to maximize his or his country’s advantage. In wealth and power, Putin already had it all, down to the gold toilet seats in his absurd palace in Crimea. In Moscow, he had eliminated all rivals, surrounded himself with compliant servitors whose own wealth and lives depended on him, turned the Duma into a piece of window dressing, and tamed the Russian media. Abroad, Russia was doing well, with its growing relationship with China and friendly leaders in countries such as India, Hungary, and Serbia. Putin had successfully fostered divisions in Europe, the European Union, and NATO. Pro-democracy protest movements in Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose autocratic regimes were backed by Moscow, had offered worrying indications that those countries could be slipping from Russia’s embrace—but in both countries, Moscow had quickly ensured that control was reestablished.

Moreover, Putin had already scored a series of victories over the West. He had successfully tested the willingness of the United States and its allies to confront Russia when, as President Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister, he ordered the flattening of Grozny, in Chechnya, at the end of the 1990s; when, as president, he waged war on Georgia in 2008; and when, during the Syrian civil war, he helped Bashar al-Assad destroy Aleppo and use poison gas against his own people. Going further, in 2014 Putin seized Crimea and created the two breakaway republics in the Donbas. In all of these cases, the West, either as individual nations or collectively, did little.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking via videolink, Kyiv, March 27, 2022

From 2016 to 2020, Putin could also watch the chaotic and irresponsible foreign policy of the Trump administration, which suited Russia well. In attacking NATO—saying it was obsolete, even hinting that the United States might withdraw—Trump threatened to weaken an organization that Putin loathed. As useful, from Putin’s point of view, were Trump’s threats to withhold American military aid from Ukraine. The first year of Biden’s presidency did little to alter Russian perceptions that the United States was preoccupied with Asia and uninterested in what was happening in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The badly managed withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan could be read as evidence of the decline of American power and resolve. By the fall of 2021, Putin could sit back and enjoy the apparent weakness and division of his enemies, and his growing profits from Russian’s energy sector, on which most of Europe seemed to rely.

But like Hitler, Putin wanted more. He wanted a Russia restored to its greatest extent and treated as the world power he insisted it was, with himself as a world leader. His increasing isolation during the pandemic, during which he often interacted with only a few courtiers and bodyguards, and his hypermasculinity led him to become increasingly convinced of his own infallibility. Power, as Lord Acton pointed out, corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. History gives many examples of rulers who came to believe that they were always right and who would not listen to contrary views. Stalin forged ahead with forced collectivization and exported grain to raise money for his industrialization as millions of his people starved, and then he shattered his own Communist Party and his military with his purges. Mao killed far more of his own citizens than the brutal Japanese invasion did, as he pursued his ruinous Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution. Who among the terrified survivors who served the dictators was going to tell them they were wrong?

No One to Say No

Putin has built a system in which he is not challenged—not by the Duma, not by the media, most of which is now firmly under his control, not by the supine judiciary. He has his own guards; the intelligence services and the military answer to him; and the oligarchs, who control much of the Russian economy, depend on his favor. He has been preparing to invade Ukraine. He has patiently built up Russia’s financial resources and redirected its trade toward China as insurance against Western sanctions and has re-equipped and modernized his military. For the most part he also controls the narrative inside Russia, insisting on Russia’s former greatness and portraying Ukraine and Ukrainians as an indissoluble element of greater Russia. Ukraine, he maintains, is separate today only because of malign outside influences and the traitorous “Nazis” and “anti-Semites” who control it. So far, a large majority of Russians apparently believe him.

Dictators often find history useful for mobilizing their peoples against others and for giving them cause to reconstitute the glories of the past. Mussolini boasted of the glories of ancient Rome and promised to build a second Roman Empire. The Nazis celebrated the battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, when Germanic tribes defeated three Roman legions and venerated Frederick the Great. Putin sees himself as a historian and looks back not just to the Soviet Union, whose disappearance he called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, but to the reign of Peter the Great (1672–1725), when Russia became the dominant power in northeastern Europe. His long 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (which, curiously, is no longer available on the Kremlin’s website) uses his version of history to argue that there never was and never can be a separate Ukrainian nation. And he goes back further still, to Kievan Rus, the first Slavic state in the ninth century, and to the conversion of the Slavs to Orthodoxy in the tenth century, which in the Russian nationalist vision makes Russia the legitimate heir to the Byzantine Empire. (It is a tragic irony that Putin is prepared to kill Ukrainians and destroy today’s Kyiv in the name of what he calls the centuries-old spiritual and territorial unity of Russians and Ukrainians.)

What also shapes Putin's worldview are the toxic theories of his favorite Russian nationalists: Ivan Ilyin, a Russian fascist of the interwar years, who held that God made the Russian nation the only pure one on the earth, and Lev Gumilev, who held that different races were created by cosmic rays, and that since Russia got zapped last its people are the youngest and most energetic. Conveniently, Ilyin also foresaw that a manly redeemer would lead Russia to triumph.

If Putin were a rational leader, committed to protecting his own position in Russia and ensuring its security abroad, he would not have gambled on a huge war. He would not have apparently assumed, along with his generals, that Russian troops would be greeted by Ukrainians with flowers, and the traditional bread and salt. He was blinded by his own convictions. As the war has quickly made clear, he is not a redeemer but a war criminal. He has damaged, perhaps fatally, his own armed forces, and made Ukraine more of a nation than ever before. He has strengthened his hated enemies NATO and the European Union, and he has provoked a rare bipartisan response in a United States long riven by deep political divisions. And he has stimulated resistance in Russia, which will surely grow as word spreads about Russian casualties. China may be a friend, but a weakened Russia will now have to bend to Beijing’s will.

Churchill in Kyiv

One reason that Putin’s invasion hasn’t gone according to plan has been the leader on the other side. Along with men like Putin and Hitler, history has occasionally produced another sort of leader: the one who appears, sometimes out of nowhere, to rally his people against what seems like long or impossible odds, and in so doing alters the course of events. In 1939, when World War II started, Winston Churchill was widely regarded as a has-been politician with an interesting but checkered career. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brought him back to the admiralty only because of his experience and growing support in Parliament. In 1940, as Hitler’s armies attacked France, Chamberlain was forced out of office and a reluctant King George VI invited Churchill to become prime minister.

Suddenly, as many of those who worked for him later wrote in their memoirs, the government was suffused with a new sense of purpose and a new energy. Churchill’s steady stream of questions and orders, covering even the smallest details of the war effort, were “like the beam of a searchlight, ceaselessly swinging round,” the cabinet secretary, Lord Normanbrook, wrote. And in his great series of wartime speeches, Churchill spoke to the British people and gave them the hope that they would endure and triumph.

Zelensky’s decision to stay and fight has changed the war.

If Chamberlain had stayed on, or if another of his possible successors had taken office, it is possible, indeed probable, that the British government would have tried to come to an agreement with the Nazis, leaving Germany in control of the continent and Britain still in possession of its empire, at least until Hitler decided to invade the British Isles or bomb the British into submission.

Zelensky is an even more improbable leader than Churchill was in 1940. When Zelensky was elected in a landslide in 2018, the headlines were all about the television comic with no political experience. He had charm but few clear policies, and he was bullied by Trump and by Putin, who continued to support separatists in a grinding conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. On the eve of Putin’s invasion, Zelensky’s approval rating among Ukrainians was abysmal. Yet abilities that he had developed as a comedian—teamwork, communication skills, and, above all, courage—made him the wartime leader that Ukraine needs. Having been an actor, he knows instinctively how to deliver lines well, and how to play to his audiences in Ukraine, Russia, and the world at large. Like Churchill, he leads by example, refusing to leave his country and sharing its travails. Putin, and it must gall him, looks by comparison a frustrated and isolated old man huddled at the end of a ludicrously long table.

Bleeding Chips, Upping the Ante

Putin did not think that it would turn out this way: by all objective measures, Russia was so much stronger than Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership should have conceded or fled as soon as Russian forces moved on Ukrainian soil. And the West, Putin must have assumed, would not have had the time or inclination to do anything. Putin had got away with seizing Crimea, setting up the two breakaway republics in the Donbas, multiple disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, and making trouble around the world for the West. His overconfidence showed in his failure to order his military to prepare for resistance, with the result that Russian logistics were so inadequate that their vehicles were running out of gas after a couple of days. Putin’s gamble has gone badly wrong; good poker players understand that you must know your opponents and be prepared for their unexpected moves.

As a single month of war in Ukraine has already shown, a leader’s personal qualities can often be of far more consequence than any amount of hard military power. And the West ignores those qualities at its peril. Although Putin has concealed his tracks and keeps his private life as secret as possible, much is known about him, his thinking, and his ambitions. He has not concealed his designs on Ukraine: for the past decade, he has been speaking and writing about how it belongs with Russia. Nor has he concealed his resentment at the expansion of NATO or his convictions that the West is divided and decadent, incapable of acting firmly and with unity. So far, Zelensky and his supporters in Europe and the United States have proved Putin wrong.

What happens next will depend on many different things, from the resolution of the Ukrainians themselves to the volume and type of weapons each side will acquire. But it will also depend on the decisions and leadership of the key players. Will Biden manage to keep the Western alliance together and continue to provide firm support to Ukraine in a carefully calibrated response to Russian actions? Will Xi Jinping, as so many have hoped, use his influence to persuade Putin to come to a settlement? What will be acceptable to the Ukrainians? Will Putin even accept a way out in Ukraine, or will he persist? The answers can only be guessed at—and, given Putin’s record, the West may have to prepare for a long and costly effort to contain Putin’s aggression as it did in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now