Putin’s mistake in Ukraine was to compress steps that usually take a year into just 24 hours, and it’s unclear what prompted him to behave in such an unusual way, writes Evgenii Dainov.
Evgenii Dainov is a Bulgarian scholar, author and political commentator.
I have published two books in which Vladimir Putin features heavily: one in 2008, the other in 2020. I have researched him extensively and have wondered, for a month now, why this cautious man and cunning made such a huge – indeed, terminal – strategic blunder, by starting his Ukraine War. Had he continued as before, patiently and shrewdly, he would have continued to accumulate real power and influence in the geopolitical arena. Instead, he banked it all on a headlong rush – and crashed spectacularly.
Have you ever watched a snake swallow a frog? Initially, the snake, having sneaked up behind the frog, bites her on the back and holds her. The frog wiggles a bit then stops. The assailant and the victim lie there, frozen, for what seems like an eternity. The frog is obviously trying to adapt to this new situation. Then, in a split second, the snake suddenly pulls its bite back, about a centimeter. Then – another period of complete inaction. After several more maneuvers like this, the frog finally disappears into the snake’s mouth.
This is what Putin did to us, “the West”, for two decades.
He snuck up on us in the late 20th century, assuring us of his liberal, modern credentials, while blowing up apartment buildings in Russia in order to blame Chechens for the explosions and trigger the Second Chechen War. The West, in its own words, “got a little agitated and then calmed down”. Then he undertook to stifle all opposition and all freedom of thought at home. The West “got a little agitated”, but was dismissed by the assertion that Russia was a separate and superior civilization, which should not be judged by Western standards of democracy and human rights. ‘man.
After killing a few journalists and when the economy was not in its best shape, Putin in 2008 waged a blitzkrieg in Georgia to rally support at home. The West got a bit restless, missing a much more important strategic picture: Putin’s preparations to penetrate Europe via what he then considered “the Orthodox Crescent”. The idea was to subjugate Orthodox members and potential members of the EU and NATO, finding themselves on the Hungarian border.
During the sovereign debt crisis, he unsuccessfully tried to secure Cyprus and Greece with financial bribes; in 2016, a failed putsch attempt made him lose in Montenegro. This nonetheless left Serbia and North Macedonia as potential client states. In 2019, a new pipeline, Turk Stream, was built through Bulgaria to Serbia and Hungary to bring EU and NATO member Bulgaria into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. At that time, of course, Turkey, Bulgaria and Hungary were ruled by Putin-friendly autocrats.
Also at that time, using an accompanying ideological maneuver, Putin had encouraged the West to descend into exhausting and destabilizing culture wars. As the West began to question what he really believed in, Putin repositioned himself as a Christian conservative and traditionalist, opposing a pernicious “liberal ideology” that went against the tide of human nature. In 2019, it was widely expected that “traditionalists” like him, with his active support, would dominate a Europe he had already subjugated with gas and oil pipelines. In the White House, of course, he had a natural ally in President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, in 2014-2015, Putin had bitten off Ukrainian territories and absorbed Crimea into Russia. The West has become a little more restless than usual. But in the words of Alexander Dugin, Putin’s ideological guru at the time and an avowed fascist, “they (the West) will come crawling back – they need gas and oil”. Immediately, the phrase “they’ll crawl” became the lens through which the Kremlin looked at the West, while appointing its former senior politicians to the boards of its gas, oil and nuclear companies.
Unfortunately for Putin, the project of a takeover of Europe by his “traditionalist” allies did not materialize. Time and time again, starting in 2017, European demos pushed back against his allies in election after election. The ideological climate was changing, with prevailing winds blowing left-green-liberal. It set a bad example at home and Putin tightened the screws again, becoming a dictator in his own right.
Having lost the battle of ideas, Putin has seen his soft power erode. With no economy worth bragging about, in 2020 Putin has had to fall back on hard power to continue expanding his influence in the geopolitical arena. In the Russian context, “hard power” has always meant one thing: using war as a continuation of politics.
The obvious way forward for him was to continue with the “snake-eat-frog” strategy: bite, wait for the West to stop beating, then bite again. In Ukraine, that would have meant a series of tactical maneuvers spanning at least a year.
First, during the winter of 2022, recognizing the independence of the “people’s republics” of Lugansk and Donetsk and “responding favorably” to their requests to position Russian troops on their territory in order to defend them from “the Ukrainian aggression”.
Second, once the West has stopped fussing, supporting these “republics” in their claim that the “Ukrainian occupiers” should be driven out of the entire territory of the Donbass and Lugansk regions (the “republics only occupy a third of these administrative regions). districts). The Russian military would support the “republics” in eliminating the “Ukrainian occupiers”, taking Harkiv and Mariupol in the process. The West, it was assumed, would become terribly restless this time, but in a few months, as the winter of 2023 approached, it would be “crawling back” for gas.
And third, the masterstroke: During that winter, Putin declared what was left of Ukraine to be an unstable rump state run by a band of Nazis and therefore a security risk to the entire region. . It would have to be swallowed up, by Russia, to prevent it from destabilizing all its neighbors. This argument has an impeccable historical pedigree, being the excuse Hitler used to swallow the remnants of Czechoslovakia after biting into the Sudetenland; and the excuse Stalin used to seize Poland’s eastern territories after Hitler took the western half.
The West, in Putin’s battle plan, would get really agitated this time around and impose some really painful sanctions. There would be a few difficult months. But, as Dmitry Medvedev pointed out at the now famously televised session of the Security Council at the start of the war, the West would inevitably “turn back the clock, bring us whatever we want, as it did before.” .
By the start of winter 2024, everything would be back to normal for everyone except Ukraine, which would no longer exist. Then Putin would have a few years off, during which he would prepare for the takeover of Moldova, Georgia and at least one Baltic state. In the meantime, he would rapidly destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina, separating the Serbian component and joining it with Serbia, then turning that country into a military outpost and subjugating neighboring North Macedonia and Bulgaria – the resurgent “Orthodox Crescent” from its ashes.
In the 30th year of his election to the presidency, Putin would have subjugated and divided Europe and exerted intolerable pressure on NATO. A renewed Russian Empire would become a superpower on the model of the former USSR.
It was the plan that became blindingly obvious to anyone who followed Putin’s evolution, at least since the summer of 2021. And it might have worked, had Putin continued his patient “snake-eat-frog” strategy. .
But what actually happened was something completely different. It compressed stages one through three into 24 hours. This headlong rush united the West and, by repackaging Putin as an international gangster, made the establishment of the “Orthodox crescent” and the rise of the new Empire impossible.
Rushing things suddenly was a catastrophic strategic error comparable to Napoleon’s rush into Russia two centuries earlier. Not only did Putin lose everything he had painstakingly built over two decades, but he also ended his own rule and raised the specter of Russia fragmenting into dozens of republics, principalities, etc. Instead of taking over Europe and becoming the world’s most feared leader, Putin is ending six centuries of Russian expansion.
It will be interesting, for future historians, to try to discover the “why” of this strategic blunder. Was Putin getting too old or sick to continue playing long strategic games? Was he fearing that with his soft power eroding and his economy left behind by the West’s entry into a new technological era, the time would soon come when his last remaining weapon, the military , would become irrelevant? Or was it something else entirely?
These questions will be studied in the decades to come. For now, we can only state the obvious: Putin suddenly decided to bet everything on a headlong rush – and lost.