Putin’s miscalculation

Putin’s miscalculation

Zoya Sheftalovich writes:

Watching Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine play out, it seems the Russian president has vastly underestimated and misunderstood Ukrainians and their president.

Putin, a one-time KGB operative who in 2004 said “there is no such thing as a former KGB man,” has made clear that he lives in a world of the past. The world that existed before the end of the Cold War, a world in which the territories of the former Soviet Union, potentially even the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, are run out of Moscow. A world he is trying to rebuild today.

But the USSR is not Russia, and when you live in the past, you lose touch with the present.

Putin has lost touch with ordinary Russians, despite exercising immense control over what they watch, listen to and read. But to an even greater degree, Putin has lost touch with what Ukrainians think.

It’s the classic mistake of every tyrant: Surround yourself only with sycophants, suck-ups and yes-men, and you never get a reality check in your echo chamber. Eliminate dissenting politicians, and you assume that means you’ve eliminated dissent.

The decisive moment that sealed Ukraine’s fate may well have been the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan — a country closely watched by the Kremlin, given its key role in the downfall of the USSR, after the Soviets attempted to invade in 1979, and spent almost a decade fighting a losing battle.

When the West left Afghanistan last year, the speed and success of the Taliban takeover of the country would have delighted Putin. The capitulation of the U.S., the impotence of Europe, and the relative ease with which the militants took control of the Afghan capital within days of the Western retreat made Ukraine seem a tantalizing prospect.

Perhaps Putin thought he’d roll into Kyiv the way the Taliban rolled into Kabul, meeting scant resistance from Ukrainians. He seems to have expected to be welcomed in by Russian-speaking Ukrainians as nostalgic for the Soviet heydays as he is. It seems Putin expected Ukrainians to lay down their arms, and for their pro-Western and NATO President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to flee, making space for one of Moscow’s allies. The Kremlin could roll its tanks back to Russia, taking a sizeable chunk of Ukraine with them, and Putin could declare his bogus “peacekeeping” mission over after a few days. He would take some limited casualties, some painful but not devastating sanctions, and then it would be back to business as usual.

And perhaps if Putin had tried this maneuver during the Ukrainian presidencies of his ally Viktor Yanukovych, or of “chocolate king” billionaire Petro Poroshenko, he might have been able to roll into Kyiv the way the Taliban took Kabul last year.

But Putin underestimated Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

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