Putin’s plans, pretext for war obliterated
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Matthew P. Beevers, acting Adjutant General of the California National Guard and senior leadership show support at the 365-days of Ukrainian Bravery rally in Sacramento, Calif., Feb. 24, 2023. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Amanda H. Johnson)

Putin’s plans, pretext for war obliterated

A year after Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian strongman’s pretext for war, basic premise of the war, and plans for how the war would progress have been exposed as false and deeply flawed. The primary reason for this welcome turn of events is the courage of the Ukrainian people, who are teaching Putin a lesson about the power of free men and women fighting for a just cause.

Putin’s views on Ukraine’s legitimacy and sovereignty

In his major public statements (here, here and here) about the war he unleashed against Ukraine, Putin made it clear that he rejected Ukraine’s independence and had contempt for the very notion of Ukraine as a historical entity.

According to Putin, “Ukraine is not a real country” and “never had stable traditions of real statehood.” He called Ukraine “an inalienable part of our own history.” He claimed, “Since time immemorial, the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.” He said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia.”

All this was part of a campaign to delegitimize and ultimately erase Ukraine.

One way – the bloodiest, costliest way – to prove that a nation-state is sovereign, durable and viable is to attack it. If the nation-state collapses, divides or turns against itself – as Putin expected of Ukraine – it’s not much of a nation-state. But if its people unite and fight back, it’s not only viable and durable, it likely will be stronger as a result. That’s what has transpired in Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022. As they sacrifice and die for their country, Ukrainians are laying bare the very premise of Putin’s war of war crimes.

Worse for Putin: Even as his invasion supercharged the Ukrainian people’s sense of nationhood, it has exposed a dearth of support among Russians for his war and his neo-czarist vision. Just consider how the Russian people have responded to this war. When Putin ordered 300,000 retired and reserve military personnel back into service, 200,000 Russians fled to Kazakhstan, 70,000 fled to Georgia, 66,000 fled to European Union countries, and thousands more to Turkey and Mongolia. Authorities in Argentina have uncovered a scheme in recent months that has transported more than 5,000 pregnant Russian women to the South American nation to give birth in hopes of obtaining Argentine citizenship. All told, more than 4 million Russians have fled their homeland since the start of Putin’s war.

In addition, Russian men are now fighting in Ukraine against Russia as part of the Free Russia Legion. Their short-term goal is to reverse Russia’s invasion; their ultimate goal is “to liberate our home – Russia – in order to destroy the Putin regime and establish a new free country in Russia.”

Putin’s views on Ukraine’s government

Putin has propagandized his subjects and soldiers into hating the Ukrainian people not just by pushing the lie that Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia,” but by claiming that Ukraine is governed by “a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”

What Putin won’t tell his subjects is that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. Zelensky’s grandfather fought the Nazi invasion of Ukraine. The deeper irony – obvious to everyone outside the Putin propagandists defending a war of extermination – is that by concocting phantom enemies, by rewriting history, by trying to rebuild a dead empire, by waging a war of aggression, by engaging in genocide, Putin is the one who’s imitating the Nazis.

Putin’s views on America and the free world

Putin believed America and its free world allies to be decadent, weak, tired and divided. The free world’s shrugging response to his 2014 annexation of Crimea, use of chemical weapons to assassinate political enemies on foreign soil, arms-treaty violations and cyberattacks fed his beliefs, as did the 2020 riots, January 6 chaos and Afghanistan pullout.

All the while, Putin viewed his brand of business-suit autocracy as strong, dynamic, internally cohesive, inevitable. This is best captured in the joint statement Putin and PRC strongman Xi Jinping issued just days ahead of the Ukraine invasion. The declaration heaped criticism on NATO in Europe and “opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region,” boasted about “the establishment of a new kind of relationship between world powers,” and described the “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order” away from one led by the free world.

The free world’s response in Ukraine has proven Putin wrong.

Putin thought he held all the energy cards – and that his winning hand would force Europe to fold over Ukraine. But Europe – once Russia’s main energy customer – has banned Russian oil and coal imports. European countries have shifted to dependable natural-gas producers in North America and the Middle East. Germany is receiving LNG deliveries from the United States via new terminals built at light speed.

The European Union and the United States are delivering billions in economic aid to Kiev to sustain the Ukrainian government. NATO members, the EU, Japan and other partners disconnected Russian banks from the system that enables financial transfers among 11,000 banks in 200 countries. More than 1,000 multinational firms and organizations have pulled out of, ceased operations in or curtailed operations in Putin’s Russia. NATO, allied governments, American universities, rock stars, actors and multinational businesses have taken up Ukraine’s cause with benefit concerts, apparel, advertisements and guerrilla QR codes. Facebook, Apple, Roku and DirecTV de-platformed purveyors of Kremlin propaganda.

France’s finance minister aptly calls this barrage of financial and cultural counterstrikes “all-out economic and financial war on Russia.” It has left Moscow far more isolated than the USSR – with its satellites, Cominform and bloc of partners – ever was.

The free world’s financial salvos against Putin have been eclipsed by its military support for Ukraine. Led by the United States and NATO, 50 nations are sending aid to Ukraine. In the first six days of the war, NATO members rushed 17,000 antitank weapons to Ukraine. That was literally just the tip of a massive iceberg that has capsized Putin’s military. The United States has appropriated more than $100 billion for Ukraine-related military assistance and replenishment. America is sending everything from small-arms ammunition, anti-drone systems and artillery shells, to Patriot missile-defense batteries and M1A2 Abrams tanks. Plus, the United States has shared vast amounts of intelligence with Kiev and conducted high-level joint wargaming. The Pentagon is training Ukrainian combat units. Britain, France, Poland, Australia, Germany and scores of other allies are following suit.

Happily, all of this has reminded America and its free world allies of the staggering power they wield when they work together.

Putin’s views on NATO and post-Cold War Europe

As Putin positioned his invasion force on Ukraine’s borders in late 2021, he proposed a deal that sounded more like a gun-to-the-head diktat: If America and its NATO allies agreed to prevent further NATO expansion, refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders and withdraw NATO’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997 (before Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic joined NATO), he would graciously not invade a country that had neither threatened nor attacked Russia. If NATO refused, the alliance and Ukraine would “face a military-technical alternative,” his deputy foreign minister warned.

These demands were based on Putin’s fictionalized version of history – namely, that NATO’s post-Cold War growth violated agreements made at the end of the Cold War. No less an authority than Mikhail Gorbachev repeatedly explained, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all” as the Cold War thawed.

Again, Putin’s views and demands were based on a false premise. NATO was born in 1949, in response to a series of aggressive actions on Moscow’s part: the blockade of West Berlin, a coup in Czechoslovakia, efforts to take over Greece, military demands against Turkey. NATO has been growing ever since – not by conquest but by consent, not by the force of arms of its members but by the desire for security of its aspirants.

The reason these sovereign nations sought NATO membership is obvious: They deeply distrust Moscow -- and they recognize that NATO is the only source of security in Europe. From the Baltics and Poland during World War II, to Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, to Georgia and Ukraine today, these fears have been borne out repeatedly. Indeed, history explains why seven of the Warsaw Pact’s eight members chose to join NATO, why three former Soviet republics chose to join NATO and two others (Georgia and Ukraine) want to join NATO, and why two longtime neutrals (Sweden and Finland) are joining NATO.

NATO's growth – indeed its very existence – has never been about one country seeking to control or conquer new territory, but rather about countries seeking security under an umbrella of common defense. Putin, an imperialist at his core, cannot grasp this.

The irony is that Putin’s war has secured the very opposite of the objectives he outlined and demanded before the invasion. In response to Putin’s war:

· NATO is growing. Sweden and Finland are joining the alliance. The Baltic Sea is now ringed by NATO members. And Russia’s border with NATO is 832 miles longer.

· NATO’s military capability and infrastructure are deployed further east than even the most hawkish NATO-phile could have imagined 13 months ago. NATO had four “rotational” battle groups in Eastern Europe before February 2022; today, it has eight battle groups in Eastern Europe that look awfully permanent.

· NATO’s members are closer internally than at any time since 9/11. NATO’s value is recognized across Europe, North America and even the Indo-Pacific more than at any time since the Berlin Wall’s collapse. And NATO’s members are more committed to collective defense than they’ve been since the early 1980s. 

· Ukraine is closer to NATO – militarily, institutionally, politically, operationally, technologically – than ever.

Putin’s views on Russia’s military capabilities

Before the war, Putin boasted that Russia “has certain advantages in a number of the latest types of weapons” and that “the soldiers and officers of the Russian armed forces … will professionally and courageously fulfil their duty.”

Yet after a year of fighting, everything from Russian weapons systems to Russian personnel to Russian training to the Russian way of war has been exposed as broken. Consider the combined-arms ineptitude, the logistics debacles, the abysmal morale, the beastly war crimes, the failure to achieve air superiority (let alone air supremacy), the dead generals, the untrained, unequipped, undisciplined, unmotivated soldiers. Some Russian units don’t have enough water. Some units have been ordered to equip themselves with protective gear and first-aid supplies. Many have been sent into battle on trucks that can’t move due to neglect or lack of fuel. Others have been forced to use 1960s-vintage tanks and rusted rifles. Even a pro-Putin journalist recently concluded that Russian military units have been “abandoned without communication, without the necessary weapons, without medicines, without the support of artillery.”

This explains why thousands of Putin’s “professional and courageous” soldiers refuse to deploy, why some are purposely shooting themselves to be removed from the war zone, why some have killed their commanding officers, why some have turned basic training into fratricidal massacres, why some regiments have rioted or mutinied, and why Russia is sustaining ghastly losses: Russian military units, security forces, intelligence agencies and military contractors have suffered 180,000 casualties (killed or severely wounded) in a year of fighting. At least 29 generals and senior field commanders have been killed. Russia has lost 1,688 tanks, 2,263 trucks/jeeps, 2,797 armored vehicles/infantry fighting vehicles, 497 heavy artillery systems, 172 multiple-launch rocket systems, 71 fixed-wing aircraft, 76 helicopters and 12 ships.

Nor is the Russian military showing any signs of learning from past mistakes. A week ahead of the one-year anniversary of the invasion, Russia was sustaining casualties as high as during the first days of the war, according to the British Ministry of Defense. Russian troops and tanks attempting offensive operations near Vuhledar just days ago “were shot like turkeys at a shooting range,” according to a pro-Russian source.

Putin’s expectations of a short war

Before the war, Putin bragged that he could take Kiev in “two weeks” – or even in just a few days. “Russian invasion plans,” as The New York Times has reported, “show that the military expected to sprint hundreds of miles across Ukraine and triumph within days” – a report underscored by the parade-dress uniforms found among Russian units that tried to seize Kiev. 

Putin expected a quick war; the capture, surrender or assassination of Zelensky; and a swift installation of a puppet regime. None of that came to pass because Ukraine’s leader stayed in Kiev, and Ukraine’s defenders fought back. As Russia invaded, Zelensky was offered a chance to evacuate. His defiant response would send a message to Putin and his henchmen, to Europe and America, and especially to Ukraine: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Ukraine has stood up to Putin – and chewed up his army – because Zelensky stayed with his countrymen. Leadership matters; courage matters. Just compare what happened in Kiev in 2022 and Kabul in 2021.