The Coup in the Kremlin
How Putin and the Security Services Captured the Russian State
One month into the Ukraine war, a broad consensus has formed among American commentators about why Russia has failed to achieve its goals. Trapped in an emotional and ideological bubble, the argument runs, Russian President Vladimir Putin made several basic strategic blunders. He convinced himself the war would be quick and easy, that foreign troops would be welcomed as liberators, that he could shock or crush any resistance, and that he would be able install a friendly local government to protect his interests once the fighting stopped. Soon after the invasion began, however, these fantasies ran into reality. Ukrainian forces stood up and Russian forces bogged down. And now an angry, wounded bear is stuck in a quagmire, lashing out in frustration instead of rationally reversing course.
The analysis appears sound, but the irony is rich—for the description of Putin’s mistakes is a decent summary of not just the earlier Soviet experience in Afghanistan but also much of U.S. national security policy over the last several decades, including the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Washington has repeatedly launched military interventions with extravagantly unrealistic expectations, overestimated its own capabilities and underestimated its opponents, believed it would be loved rather than hated, and thought it could put its favorites into office and then get away easily. And time and again, after running up against the same harsh realities as Putin, it has tried to bull its way forward before ultimately deciding to reverse course and withdraw.
Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.
The United States is used to thinking of itself as the alpha military power, attacking and conquering and controlling the action. In the Ukraine war, however, it’s on the other side, trying to stymie and counterpunch and wear down the alpha until exhaustion sets in. Playing defense is easier and cheaper than playing offense, but it takes more time and requires a different mindset. In this context, the United States’ failure to conquer several countries recently is helpful. Washington can just switch playbooks and use the strategies and tactics that gave it the most trouble. Among other things, that means winning ugly: planting endless improvised explosive devices, neutralizing collaborators, and frustrating not just the invasion but any hopes of stable occupation.
If Washington should think of the Ukrainians as playing the part of Vietnamese communists, the Taliban, and Iraqi militias, then it should also recognize that Moscow is now starring in Washington’s old role. This parallel should make it easier for American policymakers to empathize and approach negotiations sensibly. The war might be existential for Ukraine, but it’s optional for Russia. Putin did indeed miscalculate and now finds himself in a nasty place with few good options—just like the United States eventually did in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Defeat or stalemate on the battlefield is a necessary condition for Russian withdrawal, but as Americans have learned, it can take a long time for a great power to go through the stages of grief and accept such an outcome. And humiliation makes exit harder to stomach, not easier. So instead of cutting off ties and publicly rubbing Moscow’s nose in its troubles—let alone fantasizing about regime change—Washington should maintain contact and allow others to propose face-saving exit strategies that allow Putin to backtrack while preserving as much dignity as possible.
At the start of the war, many questioned Putin’s sanity. Now it seems he was just given to wishful thinking—about everything. Here again, experience should help U.S. policymakers empathize and remain vigilant about falling into the same trap themselves yet again, in Ukraine or anywhere else.
In April 2003, for example, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice succinctly captured the George W. Bush administration’s take on postwar Iraq: “We fundamentally believe that when the grip of terror that Saddam Hussein’s regime has wreaked on its own people is finally broken and Iraqis have an opportunity to build a better future, that you are going to see people who want to build a better future—not blow it up.” Civilian leaders in the Pentagon, meanwhile, convinced themselves that their special military operation could be wrapped up quickly and cheaply. “The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark,” testified Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a few weeks before the invasion. “To assume we’re going to pay for it all is just wrong,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz chimed in.
One of the fascinating and refreshing aspects of the Ukraine war is the way the Biden administration has weaponized truth, releasing accurate intelligence and garnering the U.S. government a strange new respect for its honesty. When Washington was in the role of attacker, things were a bit different. Official briefings on Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq invariably portrayed things as going well, with victory always just around the corner—up until the day the helicopters came to lift people off the roof. It would be nice if the turn toward official American credibility were to stick, because there could hardly be a better or cheaper way to win friends and influence people around the globe. One can always hope.
A shocking aspect of the Ukraine war, everybody agrees, is how stupid it is. What kind of idiot invades a country without a plan for how it all ends? This lesson might be the cringiest of all for Washington to learn, however, because entering wars without plans for ending them is an American national pastime.
The original war termination plans for Vietnam amounted to “pound the enemy harder and hope he gives up.” In the Gulf War, the plan for postwar Iraq amounted to “hope Saddam is toppled in a military coup.” Postwar planning for the invasion of Iraq was so risible it occasioned then-Major General David Petraeus’s now-famous lament: “Tell me how this ends.”
A shocking aspect of the Ukraine war, everybody agrees, is how stupid it is.
This problem, at least, has a simple solution—begin war planning with a plausible vision of a stable postwar situation and reverse engineer a strategy to get there. Make the war’s end your intellectual starting point, in other words, so there’s no way you can avoid thinking about it or having it drive everything else. In 2003, the Bush administration considered postwar Iraq to be “Phase IV” of the conflict. Is anybody surprised its harried policymakers never got to the fourth item on their to-do list?
A final lesson is one Americans used to understand well, having won an anticolonial war themselves back in the day: don’t bet against nationalism. People fighting foreigners on their own turf are highly motivated, as the impassioned Ukrainian defenders holding off lackluster Russian attackers have shown yet again. Whatever the war’s endgame, it will not yield a loyal new province for Moscow.
The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, “The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.” It might not be incompatible, but in practice, the combination is pretty rare. The biggest takeaway from all these cases is simple. If you can’t tell a persuasive story about how a war is going to end well, don’t begin it in the first place.
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