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. The country’s troops have resisted hard and have largely held their cities against a Russian attempt at blitzkrieg. Kyiv claims that its experienced, motivated soldiers have killed thousands of Russians, downed enemy planes and destroyed hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks.
Putin also underestimated Zelenskiy.
A former comedian and actor with humble roots, Zelenskiy entered politics in 2019 on an anti-corruption campaign, after playing a history teacher elected as president on an anti-corruption platform in the sitcom “Servant of the People.”
Zelenskiy certainly isn’t perfect, but he’s also not cut from the same fabric of oligarchs who made billions in shady business enterprises. His ascent to the presidency seems to have genuinely been driven by a desire to make things better.
Ukraine now has a leader it can believe in, who is vowing to fight on against a military superpower. He’s a democratically elected president who wasn’t a cynical appointee of some other country, who wasn’t someone seeking the presidency to enrich themselves.
Unlike Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and his government, Zelenskiy didn’t get on the first plane out of Kyiv, despite the clear danger to his life. When Putin talks about decapitating Ukraine’s government, he is not speaking metaphorically. As Zelenskiy himself said in a video posted to social media, the president is Putin’s No. 1 target, and his family the No. 2.
Zelenskiy has stayed in Kyiv, rebuffing reported offers of safety in France and in the U.S. He has donned a khaki T-shirt and jacket.
“We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said in a video published on Telegram Friday night and shot in Kyiv. In the clip, he is surrounded by his Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, along with Mikhail Podolyak, an adviser to the president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, the head of the office of the president, and the head of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction, David Arakhamia.
With that video, Zelenskiy told Ukrainians: We aren’t running, we’re fighting. Ukrainians are fighting.
So, Putin expected Afghanistan in 2021. But he got Afghanistan in 1979. Ukrainians aren’t rolling over or welcoming back an old friend. They, and their president, are digging in for war. Their army is fighting hard. Harsh Western sanctions are targeting Putin and all his oligarch buddies, who were content to keep him in power while it filled their coffers, but who now stand to lose billions.
The Kremlin isn’t orchestrating a relatively bloodless coup in Ukraine any more. It is instead attempting to become an occupying force. And that is a much more difficult proposition for a country, even a large and wealthy one — you don’t need to look much further than Afghanistan to see the problem with external forces (who will, eventually, have to go home), trying to impose ideologies or governments on a people who don’t want them. Add to that those crippling sanctions, and you’re staring down the barrel of a protracted battle that isn’t easily won.
Or, to put it another way: How do you control a country of 44 million Ukrainians who suddenly have something to believe in? And how do you keep your own people on board?
As far as Ukraine goes, it’s clear the Ukrainians will be more resistant than ever to any Kremlin stooge, and would fight back as they did in the Maidan revolution of 2014. Ukrainians don’t have any misty-eyed Soviet nostalgia about what Putin is really offering. They know the model for his reforged USSR is based on oppression, murder and gangsterism.
Russians, doped up as they are on RT and TASS and Rossiya 24, are also suddenly seeing their favorite singers, tennis players and actors speak up about what is now a hot war. They’re seeing photos of bombed apartment blocks, kindergartens, dead children. They’re seeing this isn’t going to be a walkover.
There’s a genuine danger to Putin that he has greatly underestimated the breadth of opposition he could now face with a war against a people whom most Russians don’t see as an enemy. He’s not just facing metropolitan protesters. He’s also humiliated his spy chief in public, lost his oligarchs billions of dollars and could well have to deal with thousands of traumatized mothers. For a paranoid former spy, always alive to risks, he now appears extraordinarily confident that no one from this growing base of foes can threaten him.
A Communist Party member of Russia’s State Duma, Mikhail Matveyev, broke ranks on Saturday. “I believe the war should be stopped immediately,” he tweeted in Russian. “Voting for the recognition of the [breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk republics], I voted for peace, not for war. For Russia to become a shield, so that Donbass is not bombed, not in favor of Kyiv being bombed.”
Soon, ordinary Russians will start to feel the chilling effect of those Western sanctions.
Russians know how to suffer, of course. They are used to it. Famine, war, death — these are not hypothetical, far-away, historical things. Even those born as recently as in the ’80s remember being cold and hungry, remember empty shelves and petrol pumps. But during those Soviet years, Russians were suffering for what many saw as the great good.
Will Russians suffer for Putin and his cronies? Will they suffer for a man who lives in a golden palace, and who hasn’t been seen for days?
How long will Russians continue buying into this war — a war they know Putin started, despite what their TVs might be telling them? How long will they watch videos of Ukrainian soldiers telling Russian warships to go fuck themselves in their common tongue?
Ukrainians, in the meantime, are suffering for freedom. They are suffering for Zelenskiy, the man who stayed in Kyiv to fight alongside them. A man who rejected a U.S. evacuation offer, reportedly saying: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Zoya Sheftalovich is a contributing editor at POLITICO Europe. She was born in Soviet Ukraine, before moving to Australia after the fall of the USSR.