Russia may have proven itself to be less of a great power and more of a loose cannon.
Six weeks into Moscow‘s invasion of Ukraine and on the heels of a stunning loss in the battle for Kyiv, the overall competency of Russia‘s military is suddenly in doubt. And its perceived spot near the top of the 21st-century global pecking order is being reassessed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin faces even deeper, more fundamental questions as well, including doubts about whether his country’s hybrid war doctrine and vaunted disinformation campaigns are as devastating as the West feared, and whether the apparent lack of morale among his troops will dramatically limit any Russian effort to project military power beyond its borders in the future.
Unable to capture Ukraine‘s capital and having failed spectacularly in its mission to psychologically break the Ukrainian people, Moscow has resorted to the apparent murder of civilians and the destruction of cities.
Mr. Putin and his deputies also have made thinly veiled references to the nation’s nuclear stockpile, which is the largest on Earth and a key factor in the U.S. and its NATO allies opting against direct intervention.
But Russia‘s failures in traditional wartime domains, combined with its scorched-earth tactics and nuclear saber-rattling, may have revealed a country that is even more dangerous than previously thought.
Western defense and national security specialists are grappling with whether Russian leadership, having already abandoned its goal of capturing Kyiv, could take more drastic action, including the possible use of a tactical nuclear bomb or a strike on NATO territory.
Mr. Putin‘s apparent disregard for the lives of civilians adds even more urgency to those questions, which are especially prevalent in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Inside Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, longstanding fears about a Russian attack haven’t melted away simply because of Ukraine‘s unexpected success in fending off the invaders.
“They’ve got a bear that is out of control and could come lumbering into the backyard any day. And he [Mr. Putin] will be a problem if he comes lumbering in,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
“I think we were all surprised that they didn’t do as well as everyone initially thought they would,” Mr. Townsend said of Russia‘s troops. “But you don’t just assume then that they’re 4 feet tall. … I think you get more concerned. You get concerned because Putin is very unpredictable and very aggressive. He‘s now been confronted with some disappointment that makes him even more aggressive. He might feel cornered. He might feel surrounded. He might feel humiliated. We don’t know. He might lash out. And if you’re one of the Baltics, you don’t know what he‘ll do.”
Indeed, there is little doubt that Russia‘s pullback from northern Ukraine has been a deep humiliation for Mr. Putin and Russia‘s military leadership. In the early days of the invasion, Western analysts generally agreed that Kyiv was likely to fall within days.
Instead, Russian forces never seemed particularly close to capturing the city. Russian tanks became sitting ducks for anti-tank weapons because they weren’t properly camouflaged, sparking mockery across social media. Entire Russian convoys sat on open roads for days because they ran out of fuel. Russian radar-jamming technology utterly failed to detect and disable Ukrainian drones, which wreaked havoc on enemy ground vehicles.
Reevaluating Russia‘s power
Such mistakes have been surprising to Western military analysts. For the past five years, Pentagon strategy documents and U.S. national security assessments have routinely placed America, China and Russia together in discussions about the “great power competition” that is expected to define the next century.
Even before its invasion of Ukraine, Russia‘s inclusion among the great powers of the world rested much more on its military might than the strength of its economy. That differentiates the country from China, which has created its own powerful military machine but also has built itself into an economic powerhouse with deep investment roots around the world.
Russia‘s economic power, meanwhile, keeps shrinking in the face of unprecedented sanctions, the closure of major Western businesses, and a growing European move to end imports of Russian gas and oil, which are the lifeblood of Mr. Putin‘s economy.
Despite major losses in its Ukrainian campaign, Russia still has a massive personnel edge over virtually any other country in the world other than the U.S. or China. It still has a major arsenal of tanks, planes and other weapons.
By those traditional metrics, Moscow remains one of the world’s most formidable forces.
The combination of that military might with 21st-century disinformation tools was expected to give Russia an edge.
Analysts feared that the type of social media warfare and narrative-molding that Moscow used in its 2016 U.S. election interference and in other campaigns would be brought to bear in Ukraine to undermine the government in Kyiv and create a relatively friendly environment for Russian troops. That disinformation warfare was expected to be combined with cyberattacks on Ukrainian agencies and businesses.
“At this stage, we might consider an alternative explanation: that Russia’s failures reflect a series of long-standing erroneous assumptions about modern warfare that are held by wide segments of the military,” Sam Cranny-Evans and Sidharth Kaushal, researchers with the British think tank Royal United Services Institute, wrote in a recent analysis. “If this is the case, senior members of the uniformed military may not have had to hold their tongues and subscribe to a war plan they did not believe in; rather, the war plan might be a reflection of what Russian officers have been writing and saying about modern war for years.”
“Non-military tools and military ones need not complement each other, and may actually have contradictory effects. For example, efforts to cultivate friendly or apathetic elements in a foreign society may be entirely undone by an assault that has a unifying effort on an opposing society,” Mr. Cranny-Evans and Mr. Kaushal wrote. “In this context, previously sympathetic or neutral elements may alter their loyalties or at least avoid acting in support of an invading force. Rather than complementing each other in an additive fashion, then, subversion and direct assault may be contradictory.”