Why has Russia already lost?
The start of the war in Ukraine saw Russian propaganda promote the idea of a quick and inevitable victory. However, the numerous long-term problems faced by the Russian state and society have ultimately doomed it to defeat in the country.
In any war, there is an interval between the moment when one of the competitors loses the chance to win and the moment when the other wins. Between these two points, there are no victors. In any war there always is a loser, but sometimes there can also be no winner, since in some wars everyone involved loses.
The Russo-Ukrainian War is now between these two points. I believe in Ukraine’s victory but it has not been achieved yet. At the same time, Russia definitely has already lost its chance to win. Russia can still make everyone, even the entire world, lose. But it cannot win, and this fact has already been realised by Ukrainians and is now being recognised by elites in both East and West. Many western military experts have stated the same but there is currently a lack of analysis that goes deeper than the obvious military level. That is why western non-military elites, including political, business, and civil society leaders, are yet unable to comprehend Russia’s defeat.
It is time to examine why Russia has lost this war. Such an analysis will be useful outside of historical studies, since it will bring peace closer and help prevent further wars.
War is an extremely complex and multilevel process in which battles are fought not only by armies and state systems, but by whole societies as well. Therefore, victory and defeat have many facets and factors. Let us try to get to the bottom of this.
The war for the past and the war for the future
The main, fundamental reason for Russia’s defeat is that Moscow is waging a war for the past while Ukraine is waging a war for the future.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe began to rapidly modernise. This process is perhaps best described in Anders Åslund and Simeon Djankov’s book The Great Rebirth: Lessons from the Victory of Capitalism over Communism. The new states formed on the territory of the former USSR took different paths. The Baltic countries rapidly modernised, while the countries of Central Asia fell into authoritarianism. Ukraine was stuck in uncertainty with a multi-vector policy, a post-Soviet oligarchic-feudal economy, and a fragile balance of regional elites. The Russian Federation of Yeltsin’s time faced similar issues.
In the early 2000s, it became clear that the paths of Ukraine and Russia had started to diverge. Ukraine gradually began to follow the path of modernisation, while Russia started looking for a way to heal the social trauma of the 1990s by going back in time. The Putin regime became an embodiment of this desire for certainty and stability, while oil and gas money provided its financial basis. Having gained strength, the regime attacked Ukraine. The ties between one country that is going forward and another country that is sliding back have ultimately resulted in blood.
The events of 2014 were a shock for Ukraine. They encouraged the country to start modernisation reforms immediately at an unprecedented pace (albeit these were still insufficient according to the country’s civil society). These reforms became an additional incentive for Russia to finally attack Ukraine in order to enforce a “solution to the Ukrainian question”. This rhetoric is just one of the many parallels between the Putin and Hitler regimes.
Ukraine is fighting for its future and waging a war of independence. Meanwhile, Russia is fighting for its past, for the restoration of the empire and a seat in the club of great powers that it forever lost long ago.
Any student of strategy knows that it is impossible to win the war for the past. You can only win the war for the present or the future. This is the root cause of Russia’s defeat.
This also leads us to a number of secondary reasons for this outcome.
One important reason for Ukraine’s success and Russia’s failure is the fundamental difference between their societies. This is a consequence of their different vectors of development.
Whilst Moscow enforces a Soviet-style hierarchical and centralised society governed by an omnipotent system based on fear and subservience, Kyiv has promoted a modern network society of free citizens accustomed to the values of freedom, dignity, self-sufficiency and mutual assistance. It should be noted that Ukrainian society has not yet wholly transitioned to this stage. However, there is a critical mass of people in the country who have embraced these values. More importantly, the war is quickly increasing the size of this group.
Putin thought that the Russian army would meet a much weaker Ukrainian military. This is because Russia’s military budget is several times greater and the country has been using this to acquire more modern weapons. However, the Russian army is facing the whole Ukrainian society and not just its army. Of course, it is impossible to defeat a whole society.
This phenomenon is exemplified by the huge queues of volunteers at military enlistment centres and the rapid deployment of territorial defence forces across the country. A widescale civil movement is now focused on supplying the army and volunteers are rescuing civilians and assisting internally displaced persons. The Ukrainian diaspora around the world is offering its full support and all sections of society remain motivated in the face of aggression. A society that acts like this cannot be defeated, even if a million-strong army occupies the country’s entire territory. The Russian invasion force became stuck not only because it met military resistance on the frontline, but also because it had to spend resources to protect its troubled rear.
Another important feature of such a society is the density of the “social fabric”, which ensures resilience. Do you remember the “six handshakes rule”? The distance between people in a horizontal network society is much smaller, and it allows you to get information faster, check fake news, spread truth and coordinate better.
A society of free people always wins over a society of slaves. This is not only because a free person is better educated and motivated but also because free people are able to create more efficient systems.
It is impossible to guide a country into the past and prevent its degradation at the same time. If the political leadership systemically offers a picture of the past to restore instead of a picture of the future to reach, then it is no wonder that people turn into savages. Archaic political, cultural and religious practices all influence Russia’s inability to build a proper army management system and observe the rules of war. As a result, issues such as the deaths of civilians have become a key topic of debate surrounding the invasion. In the recently liberated suburbs of my city of Kyiv, journalists and lawyers are documenting mass shootings, mass rapes, countless cases of looting, torture out of boredom, bodies left right on the streets, bodies dumped in pits, bodies stuffed into wells, half-burned bodies of naked girls… It takes three generations to make a civilized person out of a savage, but several years are enough to turn a person back into a savage.
The quality of those soldiers storming Ukrainian cities and ransacking Ukrainian shops and homes is one thing. Another is the quality of command and control. According to military analysts, this is very low in the Russian army. There are no operational headquarters, no group coordination, no centralised logistics management, no communications, the list goes on. Low and mid-ranking commanders are incompetent and incapable of making decisions. That is why so many senior officers and generals are on the battlefield and end up dying there.
As a result, the degradation of Russia’s systems, caused by the country’s descent back into the past, has progressed much further than everyone previously thought.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army, which has engineers, software developers, MBA graduates and experienced veterans of 2014-21, demonstrates high-quality strategic planning, tactical skills and clear coordination.
Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership have fallen victim to their own myth. They have been saying for so long that the Ukrainian nation does not exist and was artificially invented by the West that they themselves actually started to believe this idea. They themselves believe that the Ukrainian people are just a detached fragment of the Russian people (that speaks either Russian or an artificially created dialect of it), a fragment supposedly taken hostage by a small number of nationalist forces. As a result, they were sure that in almost all regions of Ukraine the Russian “liberators” would be greeted with flowers. The level of real knowledge regarding Ukrainian issues among the Russian leadership is incredibly low. This situation was actively supported by those people who stole money allocated for the “Ukrainian issue”.
Since there is no Ukrainian nation, there can be no Ukrainian state. It is supposedly a failed state that no one will defend, a state where the government is being criticised all the time. It should be noted that Russian leaders do not understand the essence of democracy. They thought that Zelenskyy’s low ratings before February 24th would simply allow them to replace him with a more pro-Russian politician. They also do not understand that the range of potential actions taken by the head of state and his team is limited by public opinion.
Another consequence of this mistake is the underestimation of the Ukrainian army and more specifically its level of training and motivation. The Russian leadership expected the Ukrainian army to abandon its weapons and disperse, much like how the Afghan army did when the Taliban approached Kabul. Indeed, it should be noted that many western leaders thought the same.
Of course, the Kremlin underestimated Ukrainian society’s degree of cohesion and the level of popular support for the army. The country also didn’t provide enough quislings to manage occupied territories and showed a tremendous ability to put aside any internal quarrels during the invasion.
Underestimating the West
Another major geopolitical mistake is Russia’s underestimation of the West. Putin saw all western leaders as weak in his mission to denounce and humiliate democracy and liberalism. He believes that western states are essentially slow bureaucracies incapable of effective decision-making and that the West as a whole is greedy and incapable of cohesion. Former (and sometimes acting) western politicians, journalists, and intellectuals, paid by Moscow, supported this narrative.
The Russian leadership was shocked to see the West’s rapid, tough and strong united position at a critical juncture. This did not fit their worldview. It turns out that free world values still generally prevail over individual interests. Moreover, in today’s world, betraying proclaimed values can cost a lot of money. Almost all western leaders understand how important it is to uphold a global system based on values and principles. The alternative is not worth thinking about.
The Kremlin has underestimated not only western political elites but also western societies. The level of support for Ukraine and pressure put on politicians from tens of millions of western citizens is impressive. The values that Ukrainians are now defending resonate with people in different parts of the world and they are inspired by the resilience of the Ukrainian people. One of the most important consequences of this conflict is the recognition that Ukraine is now part of the West, both at the societal and political level.
As a result, we see bipartisan unity where before it was only a dream. Moreover, opposing political forces in different countries compete in anti-war rhetoric and practice, all in an effort to help Ukraine. Even in countries where neutrality had prevailed for many years, it has been abandoned for the common position of the West.
We know the consequences of these actions. The West has offered unprecedented financial and military support (not only weapons, but also extremely important intelligence data) and unprecedented sanctions against the aggressor.
Just as the Kremlin underestimated the West, it overestimated its allies. After Russia’s first defeats in Ukraine, the countries of the so-called Collective Security Treaty Organisation turned away. Whilst China adjusted its position, even the Belarusian dictator managed to find a way to evade crossing the border with his army.
Overestimating the Russian army and economy
The Russian leadership has underestimated Ukraine and it has also overestimated its own country in at least two important respects.
First, this is clear with regards to the Russian army. The country’s huge military budget and large-scale planned reforms were aimed at strengthening the Russian military, bringing it closer to the standards of the 21st century. However, rampant corruption and the tradition of “Potemkin villages” have turned all investments and government programmes into an ineffective mess. Huge amounts of money have been stolen and did nothing to boost the capacity of the Russian military machine. As aforementioned, command and control has also been heavily influenced by the degradation of human capital. The second largest army in the world was indeed very large but very poorly organised, trained, fed and motivated. Those who wanted to win the “medal for the capture of the city of Washington DC” (as a popular Russian song proclaims) got stuck near the small settlements of Okhtyrka and Bashtanka and died on the runway strips of Hostomel and Chornobayivka.
Second, the Russian economy’s strength was also overestimated. Unlike the USSR, Russia at the beginning of the 21st century was already tied to the global economy through tens of thousands of business connections. Without access to global capital markets and demand, as well as numerous international scientific, business and cultural contacts, the modern economy cannot exist. Russia’s sudden disconnection from basically everything has pushed the country back to the state of the late Soviet Union. Of course, we are only in the early stages of this new economic reality. The self-sufficiency and security of the Russian economy have been overestimated by several orders of magnitude.
An important note about the issue of authoritarianism should be made here. It is often believed that authoritarianism allows states to quickly gather and direct vast resources. At the same time, however, authoritarianism produces decisions of extremely low quality. This is because these decisions are almost always based on inadequate information. No one is telling the truth because they are afraid of being punished. Everyone simply says what the leader wants to hear because it is rewarded. A management culture like this not only cultivates lies, fear and personal loyalty, but also pushes out true professionals. The picture from the autocrat’s shelter is in no way true. The propaganda clichés of the “illegitimate Kyiv junta”, “nationalist battalions”, “humiliation of the Russian language” and other fabrications formed a distorted picture of the world.
The strategic mistake of 2014
Hoping to win back Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity, the Russian leadership made a huge strategic mistake in February 2014. Whilst Moscow was forced to recognise the new Ukrainian government, it could attemp to corrupt Ukrainian elites, flood the country with Russian money and culture and use the prospect of cheap gas as a weapon. Overall, these tried and tested methods of indirect influence and soft power were designed to suffocate Ukraine in ten years and turn it into something like Belarus.
On top of this, however, Putin chose the annexation of Crimea, taking advantage of the moment. This shocked Ukrainian society, triggering mental, cultural, military and institutional modernisation across the country. Perhaps most importantly, this also accelerated the formation of the Ukrainian political nation. The eight years since the annexation have been used well by the army, state and society. This is despite the fact that a lot more could have been accomplished during that time.
The ancient Chinese strategists were right when they said that a temporary benefit can cause a long-lasting weakness.
Is it possible to continue the list of strategic mistakes made by Russia? The answer is yes and this is especially true in hindsight. We can talk about the strategic mistakes of the offensive with long disorganised convoys, an empty rear, poor logistics and so on. But these are consequences of the Russian state’s aforementioned mistakes. These gave the leadership in Moscow a picture of easily conquered Ukrainian cities, where only secret service squads will have to do any work to catch local activists, journalists, priests and intellectuals.
I will repeat once again the remark I made at the beginning. I believe in Ukraine’s victory, but it is not yet secured.
Meanwhile, Russia’s defeat was guaranteed on February 24th and this was clear even before an invasion took place. That is why I assured my colleagues and friends in mid-February that a Russian invasion would not happen. I was wrong.
Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.
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