Putin’s war is shattering views of Russia and Ukraine
Russians, Americans and Europeans are rarely of one mind about anything, but there’s one thing they all agreed on in early 2022: that the Ukrainians wouldn’t fight and the Russian armed forces would control Ukraine in a few days or weeks. Everyone knew that the Ukrainian army was a joke and the Russian army was superb.
For the military and intelligence establishments of so many highly developed countries to have been so wrong is surely remarkable. Not unprecedented, of course, but simply remarkable. Everyone thought World War I would be over in a few months. Almost everyone figured the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the American invasion of Iraq would succeed. In these cases, as in so many others where one side grossly miscalculates its chances of success, some form of ignorance — usually in combination with hubris — is at work.
The recently published Washington Post story about the prelude to the Russo-Ukrainian War shows that Washington possessed detailed intelligence about Russia’s plans for aggression months before the attack. The Kremlin spent billions of dollars on trying to establish a fifth column in Ukraine and had routinely penetrated Ukrainian military and intelligence institutions since 1991. The British, French and Germans possess serious intelligence agencies with long records of keeping tabs on the Russians. Despite all this talent, no one foresaw Ukrainian resilience and competence and Russian boneheadedness and incompetence.
Clearly, the inability of Russians, Americans and Europeans to imagine a successful Ukrainian resistance and — worse still — any kind of sustained Ukrainian resistance bespeaks jaw-dropping ignorance of Ukraine and Russia. After three decades of independence, after three decades of Ukraine enthusiasm alternating with Ukraine fatigue, neither the West nor the Russians knew Ukraine. And after more than two decades of Vladimir Putin and his rabid pursuit of empire and fascism, neither the United States nor Europe knew Russia. Only the Ukrainians knew they would fight, even though many, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, believed that war was highly unlikely.
Such systemic ignorance cannot be explained by someone’s statistical miscalculations or factual mistakes. The fact that everybody who had a stake in Russo-Ukrainian relations couldn’t imagine the Russians doing so poorly and the Ukrainians doing so well indicates a deeper source of ignorance, one that goes beyond facts and addresses their interpretation. In other words, the problem concerns our mental mapping — the assumptions, values and predilections — that framed our understanding of Ukraine and Russia.
Mappings aren’t just an academic concern. They matter because they tell us how to view things and how to gauge their importance. If we think of Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a grandmaster at chess, whereas he may in fact be a poor player, we will inevitably misinterpret his moves and make the wrong decisions. If we think of Zelensky as a comedian, we will fall into the same trap.
These two examples nicely illustrate the larger and deeper problem. Until their valiant resistance to Putin’s genocidal war, Ukrainians, like Zelensky himself, weren’t taken seriously by America, Russia and Europe. In contrast, Russia, like Putin, was taken very seriously. Now, some of this obviously has to do with size and resources: Russia is huge and powerful by any measure, while Ukraine is a middle power at best.
But there’s more to it than that.
It is only now, as a direct result of the war, that the world is discovering Ukrainian culture, history and language. Mirabile dictu, they actually exist. The culture is rich and dynamic, the history goes back at least a millennium, and the language is different from Russian. In fact, Ukrainians aren’t really Russian, after all.
The two things about Ukraine we all knew were that the country is irredeemably corrupt and therefore couldn’t get any reforms right and that it is irrevocably divided between a pro-Ukrainian west and a pro-Russian east. As the war has amply shown, there’s much more to Ukrainian elites than corruption; they can and do get many things done — such as stopping the world’s second largest army — and the question of identity is far more complex than simplistic notions of a warring east and west would suggest. In fact, most of the soldiers fighting on Ukraine’s fronts usually speak Russian with one another.
Is it any wonder that a corruptible nation without much of a culture, history or language was expected to fold in a few days?
By the same token, we take Russia and all it stands for with the utmost seriousness. Its leader may be a thug, but he’s supposedly a grandmaster at chess, able to outwit and outfox any checkers-playing American, European or Ukrainian. Russian culture, history and language are the stuff of legend, naturally, and Russian identity is rock solid — despite the fact that Russians aren’t sure about what to do with their minorities and whether they are a European nation or a Eurasian empire, or neither or both.
The operative term for Russia in the Western and Russian imagination is “great.” Since everything about the place is great, every other country is necessarily less than great.
Is it any wonder that such a great country couldn’t be imagined to lose a war, or even a battle, to the risible Ukrainians — when in fact Putin’s aggression must count as one of history’s greatest strategic blunders and the equivalent of sacrificing a queen for a pawn after five moves?
The good news is that we now know these mental mappings are inaccurate, even though it has taken thousands of dead Ukrainians and scores of devastated cities to bring that point across. The bad news is that these images have survived 30 years of Russian and Ukrainian independence. It will take time for these stereotypes finally and fully to be expunged.
The best news is that nothing would shatter these delusional views like a decisive Ukrainian victory and a humiliating Russian defeat — outcomes that look increasingly more likely as Putin continues to demonstrate that he’s a lousy chess player.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”
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