Already in the first days of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin was said to make a catastrophic mistake that would cost Russia very dearly. More than a year into the war, the world has managed to make sure of that.
In his historic speech at the Royal Castle in the centre of Warsaw on 26 March 2022, U.S. President Biden said that Russia had already lost strategically and that it would never win in Ukraine. “In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.” The U.S. president allowed himself an emotion that became decisive in this confrontation: “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.”
If we recall the Russian ultimatum, which was put forward before the war and succinctly stated by Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Riabkov: “NATO must pack its things up and go to the 1997 borders”, the invasion of Ukraine should have put the West before the fact of overwhelming force. Russia wanted to be reckoned with, to dramatically expand its sphere of influence, relying on military power and a willingness to break the rules, defiantly using this power. Putin did not see a worthy adversary either in very old Biden or in the European leaders shackled by energy dependence on Russia, not to mention Volodymyr Zelensky, an inexperienced politician at the head of the “non-existent” Ukraine. Fabulously high gas and oil prices were winking seductively.
Russia’s actions at the beginning of the war showed, and to many unexpectedly, that Russia has very serious problems with strategic planning, intelligence, and military implementation of plans. Power turned out to be largely illusory, political prudence and subtle cunning fictional. Events are developing in the exact opposite direction than the Kremlin expected.
The attack on Ukraine really revealed significant problems of the West which was unable to prevent the war, did not assess the potential of the Ukrainian resistance correctly, and overestimated the capabilities of the aggressor. The decision to support Ukraine, the amount and nomenclature of aid significantly lagged behind the actual needs. In the process, it turned out that the countries are not always able to meet these needs: a large, long-term war with a front of 1,500 km did not exist as an option in military and political doctrines. But, on the other hand, Russian aggression forced the countries of the West and their partners to unite, coordinate joint actions, and quickly step up efforts to repel the aggressor. This institutional machinery is gaining momentum and, obviously, will reach its peak when the potential for structural mobilisation in Russia begins to decline significantly.
A vivid example of the failure of Putin’s threats to oppose the expansion of NATO was the accelerated Euro-Atlantic integration of seemingly lifelong neutrals – Sweden and Finland – while the innovative format of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group in Ramstein format allowed the creation of the coalition of 54 states, including representatives of Africa and Latin America. On 15 March, the 10th Ramstein format meeting took place. With the active help of the coalition, Ukraine is qualitatively changing its weaponry, increasingly switching to NATO standards in combat practice. Instead of a submissive vassal country, Russia received in the person of Ukraine a sworn enemy for many years, highly motivated, with experience of successful fight and military potential, which qualitatively increases during the war. Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic prospects are also seen quite confidently. Remembering the Kremlin’s official intentions to “demilitarise” Ukraine, one can only shrug. While arming Ukraine, Western countries themselves adopted ambitious armament plans worth billions of euros and dollars.
The economic and socio-cultural “achievements” of Russia should be mentioned separately. Having found itself under severe international sanctions, of which only the European Union has imposed ten packages so far, the Russian Federation has lost the opportunity for economic development for many years and decades. After emerging from the 2009 crisis, the Russian economy practically stopped growing in 2011-2012. The sanctions of 2014 and 2019-2020 COVID years worsened the situation. Currently, the Russian Federation holds the record for the number and scale of sanctions, and the decisions of private companies to leave the Russian market have been added to the restrictions imposed by states and international organizations. A prominent role was played by Putin’s decision to sharply reduce the gas supply to European consumers.
As a result, Russia almost completely lost its strategic advantage, which was considered unshakable, namely the European gas market, without the possibility of compensatory diversification. The EU stopped taking Russian oil, coal, and oil products. The oil price cap of $60 per barrel was set for other buyers, and the possibility of lowering it is already being considered. Suppliers have big problems with logistics, ship freight, and insurance. The results are clear: according to the estimates of the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation, the federal budget for January was implemented with a deficit of RUB 1.76 trillion. Revenues decreased by 35% compared to the previous year. Oil and gas revenues fell by 46%, others by 28% compared to January 2022. This is despite the fact that 2022 became a record year for revenues from oil, oil products, and gas: extremely high prices played their role.
Actually, the cushion accumulated by those revenues allowed the Russian economy to survive last year, but, as experts emphasise, it did not solve, but only postponed the difficult problems that Russia will have to deal with. The most important ones are outdated production, insurmountable scientific and technological lag, and total dependence on China, which will buy Russian raw materials too cheaply, and sell its goods to Russia at a high price. Vladimir Putin is very fond of talking about the exclusive sovereignty of Russia in contrast to other weak and dependent countries. In Beijing, they only smile condescendingly.
At the same time, it should be remembered that sanctions measures do not stop, they are reviewed, improved, and new ones are imposed. In particular, the West’s efforts are now focused on blocking the possibility of circumventing sanctions with the help of third countries. And even if the war ends in the near future, the lifting of sanctions will continue for years, ultimately denying Russia the opportunity to catch up with world leaders.
There is one more important aspect of Russian aggression, which is becoming more and more pronounced as the war progresses, perhaps the most important for Russia itself and its prospects. Numerous war crimes in the occupied territory and during the shelling of Ukrainian villages and cities, massive involvement of the criminal element in military operations, support for the war by the majority of the population and a significant part of the creative intellectuals, the death of tens of thousands at the front, the absence of demarches as a sign of protest by representatives of the ruling circles, increasing repression against dissidents, the escape of hundreds of thousands of educated and critical people from the country – all this allows us to characterise the situation as an anthropological catastrophe.
People who used to consider themselves “great” turned out to be terribly “low”. The process of sinking to an even deeper bottom continues with each new day of the war. No one knows how to stop and reverse this process. Evidently, Russian society was not accidentally prone to anti-Western, anti-liberal ideas, amoralism, and violent practices, and the change of power in the Kremlin will not eliminate this problem. Putin will leave, and Russia poisoned by Putinism will remain The deputinisation of Russia is the most serious challenge to the world community since the denazification of Germany. But until then, it is necessary to convincingly deputinise the occupied Ukrainian territories, inflict a military defeat on the aggressor, which will turn into a strategic defeat for Russia. The efforts of all the forces of good should be focused on this.