Vladimir Putin has had to embark on the five stages of grief about his invasion of Ukraine, and he may yet arrive at the final one: acceptance. On Monday, “Victory Day,” Russians commemorated the triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II. But the president didn’t pretend he could celebrate what has happened in Ukraine.
He even gave signs of recognizing the terrible mistake he made by launching an invasion.
Experts had guessed that Putin would declare Russia to be at war — not merely conducting a “special military operation” — and expand conscription as part of a mass mobilization. He didn’t.
Nor did he vow massive retribution against the NATO allies that have provided so much help to Ukraine. The nuclear threat Putin issued in March was not repeated.
“He has developed a certain sense of what is and is not possible,” his former adviser Gleb O. Pavlovsky told The New York Times. “It could turn out that people are prepared to support the war while sitting at home in front of the TV, as they say, but that they are not at all prepared to go and fight.” Even autocrats can demand only so much of their subjects, and Putin has elected not to push his luck any further.
The mystery is why he thought the invasion would be a cakewalk. One of the most striking facts about the 21st century, after all, is how rarely wars go according to the plans of those who start them.
The United States is the most formidable military power in history, with futuristic weaponry, highly trained personnel and a global reach. As the Peter G. Peterson Foundation reports, we spend “more on national defense than China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia — combined.”
Yet the U.S. hasn’t won a war since the 1990s — and it fared poorly in two major wars since then, in Afghanistan and Iraq. If we could fail against such undersized, outgunned foes, what made Putin think he could easily smash Ukraine?
Instead, he’s found himself mired in a war with no victory in sight and no good way out.
Maybe he will wake up to the simple realization that war is a horrendously destructive, monumentally expensive and usually futile method for solving a nation’s problems.
Other leaders figured that out a long time ago. Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller, author of the 2021 book “The Stupidity of War,” has written: “Developed countries have managed to avoid major conflicts with one another now for 75 years — perhaps the longest such hiatus in history. And in recent decades, less developed countries have followed suit.”
The appalling consequences of two world wars planted the seeds of a new human aversion to industrialized slaughter, and that repugnance has spread far and wide. There have been only three international conflicts since the turn of the century, Mueller notes.
Russians are getting a reminder of why the world has moved away from resolving disputes with bombs and bullets. Whatever the Kremlin thought it could lose from restraint toward Ukraine does not compare with the thousands of Russian casualties. No sensible Kremlin leader would have begun this war had he envisioned a brutal war of attrition.
In almost every way, Putin’s decision has been a self-inflicted debacle. Western sanctions have done serious damage to Putin’s economy and his oligarch buddies. Strategically, Russia is more isolated than ever. Putin has given the West a new impetus to phase out the fossil fuels that are his chief economic asset.
He claimed to act to prevent the U.S. and European countries from forming an alliance with Ukraine by admitting it to NATO — something that was not about to happen. His invasion, however, drove his adversaries into a firm embrace.
A few months ago, Joe Biden would not have dreamed of proposing $33 billion for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, on top of the $3.8 billion it has provided since the war began. But from now on, the aid to Kyiv will be gushing from a fire hose.
In 1783, Benjamin Franklin wrote of his hope that “mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats: for in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace.” It’s not too late for Putin to get on board.