Why Putin has achieved none of his strategic aims during the invasion

 Why Putin has achieved none of his strategic aims during the invasion

There are various explanations relating to institutional weaknesses, but Russian observers are also pointing to an even more obvious explanation – many planes are not operable because of the theft of fuel, electronics and other valuables, while pilots are generally very poorly trained, in part, again because of theft: fictitious flying hours allow fuel to be sold through the back door.

Continued reliance on Soviet command structures but without the Soviet means of terror: Outside a very small contingent of elite troops, the Russian army does not allow or rely on initiative, with soldiers given very specific orders and not informed about tactical or strategic objectives.

As a result, as the situation on the ground changes, the inability to adjust to the tactical situation leads to blunders. The Russian column heading to Kyiv from the north is a prime example. One Russian observer describes it as the world’s first and largest self-managed POW camp. In essence, the column is following a plan that relied on assumptions which quickly proved to be wrong.

But the officers and soldiers on the ground were not empowered to respond to the change in circumstances, leading to the column running out of food and fuel and congesting itself to a stand-still. In Soviet times, such institutional weaknesses were overcome in two ways: willingness to throw more and more bodies into the meat grinder, and the use of terror on anyone retreating or surrendering.

However, although Putin has recreated much of the Soviet security state, he is clearly still operating under greater societal constraints than the Soviet leaders.

Lack of understanding of Ukraine: One of my great personal joys has been to observe a complete cultural transformation of Ukraine over the last 30 years into a genuinely open and free society. When we lived in Kyiv in the early 1990s, even though I could speak the languages, I felt completely alien.

Now, the way that Ukrainian society works makes perfect sense. They have lots of problems, but these are the kinds of problems free societies deal with, and they deal with them in the same way as any Western society would – through endless debate, criticism, annoying parliamentary maneuvering and so on.

Destroyed apartments in Kharkiv, after being shelled by invading Russian forces. AP

This matters not just in terms of the Ukrainian motivation to fight, but what it takes to seize the country. The Kremlin has planned its takeover of Ukraine in the same way one would take over Russia – capturing the main administrative buildings. Russians clearly continue to believe that Ukraine functions in the same centralized way as its invaders, and do not understand just how decentralized and bottom-up Ukrainian society has become.

As a result, even in areas where Russians have substantially penetrated Ukrainian territory, they only have minimal control. Kherson is a good example. Russians proclaimed that they had captured Kherson because they had control of the city’s administration buildings.

However, effectively, Russian troops are confined to those buildings with limited control over the city. This is amply illustrated by the footage of a major demonstration in Kherson, where crowds marched with Ukrainian flags while Russians soldiers in the city administration building fired in the air.

Russian attempts to assassinate Zelensky fall into the same basket: if Putin were killed, Russia would be transformed; if it were to be Zelensky, Ukraine’s systems would continue functioning. Zelensky’s success has come from giving a public focus to the self-organization of Ukrainian society, not from issuing great orders.

Money: Although Russia’s per capita GDP is higher than Ukraine’s, the extreme concentration of wealth in Russia and the theft of budget resources means that the average Russian (especially outside the glitter of Moscow) is a bit poorer than the average Ukrainian.

With Russia’s economy shrinking under sanctions and its target receiving a lot of aid, Ukraine simply has more financial resources to mobilize its population. Ukrainians involved in the conflict are better paid, which also leads to more motivation and better ability to look after their families.

A Russian professional soldier earns 62,000 rubles a month. This was $ US900 before the war and is now about $ US500 (and falling). The Ukrainian army is now paying $ US3000 a month to all active-duty personnel. Despite being under attack, Ukraine’s economy is less stressed than Russia’s.

Of course, there are two alternative scenarios. One is that Putin escalates the situation, possibly into a nuclear confrontation. In fact, if Putin does escalate, it almost has to be into a nuclear confrontation as Russia is rapidly exhausting its conventional resources. This is mind-boggling. We can only hope that there are limits to the orders that the Russian soldiers will follow.

Alex Sundakov is the executive director of Castalia Advisors. He is a former IMF resident representative in Ukraine and a frequent visitor to Ukraine. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in Pearls and Irritations.

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