Vladimir Putin had a problem with Ukraine. It was gradually moving into the Western orbit — expanding trade, building democratic institutions and aspiring to join the European Union and NATO. He saw this course as detrimental to Russian interests and Russian security, and he wasn’t wrong.
But one of the pitfalls of leadership is trying to solve a problem that has no solution.
Sometimes such difficulties need to be treated more like tornadoes in Oklahoma. You can’t prevent them, so you need to find ways to minimize the damage they do.
Putin, however, was not about to settle for adapting to the inconveniences of reality. He strove mightily to pressure, isolate and dominate Ukraine — but the more he tried, the more it resisted. He finally played what he thought was his trump card: embarking on a military conquest that would cement his control over the country once and for all.
He’s now found that the Ukraine problem resembles the Hydra in Greek mythology — a nine-headed creature that grows back two heads when one is cut off. Putin has turned an uncomfortable situation into a full-fledged disaster.
He shouldn’t have been surprised. The history of our time is littered with cases of major powers embarking on needless wars that backfire.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to rescue a communist regime from losing a civil war — and, after nine bloody years, had to admit defeat and leave. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the goal of replacing a hostile regime with a friendly one, but found itself bogged down in a conflict that ended dismally 18 years later.
In 2003, George W. Bush launched an invasion of Iraq, confident of an easy victory and a rapid exit. We spent eight years fighting a vicious insurgency, at a cost of more than 4,400 American lives and trillions of dollars.
Great powers often succumb to the temptation of overestimating their power. Putin, however, failed to learn from these experiences.
Maybe that was because he had succeeded in crushing his enemies when Russia went to war in Chechnya in 1999 and Georgia in 2008. He made the same mistake as George W. Bush, who assumed that because the U.S. had easily defeated Serbia in 1999 and toppled the Taliban in 2001, it could win any war.
Putin poses as a champion of Christian civilization. But he overlooked the Bible verse that warns, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The Russian president clearly misjudged the strength of Ukraine’s resistance. Chechnya and Georgia are small entities with just 5 million people between them. Ukraine is nearly as big as Texas, with a population of 44 million and a longstanding preference for being part of Europe, not a vassal of Russia.
Having seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 with minimal resistance and no real penalty from the West, Putin apparently figured he could get away with a more ambitious attack.
But the scale of this outrage made it impossible for the world to do nothing. Images of Russian tanks rolling over the borders instantly turned Putin’s government into an international pariah, even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s brave leadership turned him into an overnight hero.
Putin envisioned making Ukraine a sturdy buffer against NATO, which he sees, not without reason, as a military threat to Russia. But the invasion stands to make Russia less secure by miring its army in a nasty war against a popular insurgency. It has also galvanized NATO into greater unity and resolve against Russia than it has ever shown before.
Putin can probably impose his will on Ukraine if he is willing to unleash overwhelming force and slaughter large numbers of civilians. But what’s the value of ruling over a wrecked nation whose people hate you? And how much opposition will the war create among Russians?
Putin plainly thought the fallout from his assault — at home, in Ukraine and in the rest of the world — would be minimal and short-lived. It has been heavy, and it’s likely to last a long time. His military, his economy and his people are already significantly worse off than before, and their troubles have only begun.
The invasion came as a surprise because it was so obviously not in Putin’s interest to follow through on his threats against Ukraine. He may come to realize his error, if he hasn’t already. But as the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, “Hell is truth seen too late.”