Putin May Have Played Himself. Will We?
Reports suggest Putin tried to outsmart even his own troops, and checkmated himself instead.
Farida Rustamova of the BBC’s Russian service, in a piece written for Substack, described the demeanor of Putin’s closest advisors days before the invasion:
As a former security officer, [Putin] always wants to take everyone by surprise… We saw this during an emergency extended meeting of the Security Council three days before the war. The stammering of Foreign Intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin, the disorientation of the deputy head of the Kremlin administration, Dmitry Kozak, and the anxious face of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, were more than eloquent.
The most influential people in Russia sat in front of Putin like schoolchildren before a teacher who suddenly announced a test. And this meeting this meeting after all wasn’t even about the war, they discussed only the recognition of the self-proclaimed DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LPR [Luhansk People’s Republic].
Rustamova went on to quote a source close to the discussions describing the reaction among the officials: “They carefully pronounced ‘p——ts.” The missing word is pizdets, not an easy word to translate — like a more profane and dire version of clusterfuck. She noted that “according to him, the mood in the corridors of power is altogether not rosy, many are in a state of stupor.” Another source told her, “Nobody is thrilled, many understand that this is a mistake, but out of duty they come up with rationalizations for themselves in order to make it work in their heads.”
Though there’s little meaningful in-country criticism of Putin — “Only those who shout, Hooray! Hooray! have access to public space” is how one former Russian colleague of mine put it this week — there’s a significant bylined Russian diaspora around the world that’s been watching Putin for decades, most operating under the same assumption. Even Putin’s fiercest critics have always seen him as cold, calculating, and pragmatic. That changed after last week. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, a former Moscow Times co-worker, tweeted:
Elena Chernenko of Kommersant replied, “Same here.”
Michael Kofman at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) said, “What I’ve seen so far suggests that Russian troops were unaware they would be ordered to invade, and appear reluctant to prosecute this war.” Bershidsky added to this, saying Western military analysts who correctly predicted an invasion but incorrectly imagined quick results were assuming a rational plan. “As troops are massed on a border for months, they are prepared for an invasion, pepped up, told clearly what their tasks are,” he wrote. “But this clearly didn’t happen.”
The war overall is starting to resemble the first Russian invasion of Chechnya. Once upon a time, Boris Yeltsin’s Defense Minister Pavel Grachev predicted he’d take Grozny in two hours with a single unit, and ended up having to vaporize virtually the whole city after taking heavy losses following a disastrous New Year’s Eve assault. The interviews of the captured Russian soldiers involved with this action eerily recall that war.
In the first Chechen affair we heard accounts of young Russian boys, fresh out of the army’s sexually abusive dedovschina hazing hell, sent into combat against some of the toughest fighters in the world without either basic information about their mission or proper supplies, to the point where they sold rifles to the enemy for things like socks. Though these Russians are better-equipped (although there are consistent reports even from Russian sources of baffling supply and communications breakdowns), there’s a lot pointing to a similar dynamic.
In video after video of POWs in Ukraine (YouTube is full of them, but only a few have been proven authentic, so I’m not linking yet), you see Russian soldiers, some too young to shave, insisting they had no idea what the mission was, or that they were expecting a 3-5 day training mission. Obviously some are reading off a script — in some cases their own, in other cases reading words handed by captors — but the consistency of the reactions is striking. Along with bizarre scenes like a widely publicized video of Russian tank operators stopped by the side of the road saying they have no idea where they’re going, it all points to a Russian mission that was poorly planned, if the bulk of the soldiers were trained at all.
This cluelessness is not necessarily good news for Ukrainians, because there are signs that now that the dream of quick victory is over the Russians are reorganizing, adopting a more brutal strategy, with more air power and missile bombardment. As was the case in Chechnya, more lives will be lost, more critical infrastructure destroyed, more refugees created. It will just take longer, and cost more in lives, to get to the same place.