Three Months Ago Putin Tried to Turn the Clocks Back 30 Years. He Failed

The Russian president despises the Soviet leaders for their weakness in giving up on the empire and system of repression they inherited from Joseph Stalin – yet he has repeated their mistakes in Ukraine

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
A fighter in Ukraine's territorial defense unit in Kyiv last week, with a poster of Vladimir Putin behind him.
A fighter in Ukraine's territorial defense unit in Kyiv last week, with a poster of Vladimir Putin behind him.Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY - AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On February 2, 1992, President Boris Yeltsin arrived at Camp David to meet his American counterpart, George H.W. Bush. There, the two presidents jointly announced the end of the Cold War.

Five weeks earlier, the red hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin and replaced by that of the Russian Federation. The Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Its 15 republics had already announced their independence.

In those days, Vladimir Putin was a mid-level official at Saint Petersburg City Hall, finding his way in a new and troubling environment. His previous employer, the KGB, had been disbanded a few months earlier following its failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Years later, in 2005, Putin would say that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

On February 24, 2022, Putin – by then Russia’s president for over two decades – sent his army to invade Ukraine and capture its capital, Kyiv, in an attempt to turn back time by 30 years. Not to communism – Putin is no Marxist – but to a world where Russia dominated militarily, politically and, no less important, culturally all the territories from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean.

The timing chosen by Putin may be connected to his reported medical condition and the fact that he spent most of the two years leading up to the invasion isolated from the world for fear of catching COVID-19. But without a doubt, he chose the timing based on a woefully misguided assessment of the social atmosphere inside Ukraine.

Now that three months of warfare in Ukraine have passed, Russia has been forced to accept, though it won’t officially acknowledge, that it is not about to topple Ukraine. It has been forced to withdraw all its forces from around Kyiv and now also from the second-largest city, Kharkiv. In retreat, the Russians left behind thousands of dead soldiers, as well as many hundreds of burned and abandoned tanks, plus other military vehicles and equipment. The Russian units that still have fighting capabilities are now deployed in eastern Ukraine, where their gains have been relatively limited as well.

Putin has spent the past 30 years studying the failure of the last leaders of the Soviet Union. He despises them for what he sees as their weakness in giving up on the empire and system of repression they inherited from Joseph Stalin. Ultimately, though, he has repeated their mistakes.

    Just like his Soviet predecessors, Putin is incapable of comprehending the limitations of a regime based on fear, fraudulent propaganda and a supreme leader who buys his inner circle’s loyalty at the expense of national resources. Putin’s lock on the levers of power and the nationalist popularity he manufactured around his own image don’t translate into a modern and combat-effective army or intelligence services that will supply him with trustworthy assessments.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow earlier this week.Credit: MIKHAIL METZEL - AFP

    Putin’s kleptocracy, built on a creaking economy fueled by hydrocarbon exports, poured billions into “modernizing” the Russian military. That bought enough shiny new tanks for Victory Day parades in Red Square, but much of the money was diverted to the pockets of defense officials and officers instead of being spent on renewing and replenishing stores of ammunition and equipment in dilapidated and looted depots. To say nothing of updating Red Army warfare doctrines.

    When the Russian army embarked on its first full-scale war since Afghanistan in the 1980s, it turned out that the tires of its supply convoys were worn and couldn’t make it through the Ukrainian mud. If they had made it through, the soldiers’ low morale would have taken a further nosedive at the sight of the rotting combat rations, years past their expiration date.

    Russia’s intelligence agencies – the KGB’s successors, just with different acronyms – were no more fit for purpose, filled with careerist yes-men supplying the leader with assessments confirming his own deep biases. Putin’s daily presidential briefings told him the story he wanted to hear: Ukraine’s government was deeply unpopular, its army on the brink of mutiny and most of the population just waiting to greet their Russian “liberators” with open arms.

    Putin is no different to the Soviet leaders who couldn’t accept that the dozens of national groups forming the U.S.S.R. and its vassal states would not necessarily want to live in Moscow’s shadow. Just like them, Putin believed the delusion that all it would take was a firm hand to bring the wayward children back into Mother Russia’s embrace.

    The war in Ukraine is far from over, but it is already clear that Putin’s desire to set back the geopolitical clock has failed. The slogans concocted by his propagandists – like “We can do it again,” referring to a Russia returning to the heroic glory of victory over Nazi Germany – have proved hollow. The Russian reality behind the slogans is not that of the Great Patriotic War but the ’80s: a society decaying from the dysfunction and corruption of a leadership blinded by its own propaganda.

    A Russian supporter of Vladimir Putin walking through Saint Petersburg last week.Credit: ANTON VAGANOV/REUTERS

    On the other side, Ukraine’s leadership is made up of men and women old enough to remember the true Soviet reality, and young enough to succeed in a different one. Free from delusional nostalgia, open to the West and having learned the lessons from the humiliation of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas as the Ukrainian army stood by, they were prepared and ready – militarily, economically and socially – for the real war that came. Even most of the Ukrainian citizens whose mother tongue and culture is Russian were determined not to go back in time, certainly not to the dystopian Russia Putin offered them.

    Ukraine suffers from corruption and nationalism as well, just like most of the post-Soviet countries (with the exception, perhaps, of the Baltic states). But it is trying hard not to live in the past and to create an independent existence for this century. That is why it has managed to withstand the Russian invasion to a degree that no one predicted.

    Some Western leaders, including in Israel, are still stuck somewhere between the illusions at the end of the Cold War and the exaggerated assessments of Putin’s power and strategic vision. That is why they’re quietly urging Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to provide Putin with an “off-ramp” and “respectable” way out of the war, which will give Russia at least some of the Ukrainian territory it currently occupies.

    These politicians can’t come to terms with the fact that Putin still yearns for another century, one in which it doesn’t matter if Russia sacrifices tens of thousands of its young lives on the battlefield or causes a global food crisis by preventing Ukraine from exporting grain.

    Three months of war, and they still haven’t fully grasped what Putin has failed and yet is still trying to do.

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