One idea that is deeply embedded in the mainstream Western conversation on the Ukraine war is that Putin made a “mistake” in launching his full-scale invasion in February 2022. Observers also tend to add, by logical extension, that the Kremlin tyrant must be “regretting” his decision.
Whether this assumption is correct or very wrong matters greatly. It colours much of the thinking that underlies Western policy, and therefore how this war will play out. But more importantly, it bears on the long-range strategic decisions required of Western leaders as world stability teeters on the brink of chaos.
The notion that the assault on Ukraine was a mistake from Putin’s viewpoint, assumes that Putin perceived he had a choice. That is an odd thing to believe about an autocrat who has been constantly clear for many years about his absolute red line: no further eastward expansion of NATO or the EU into Russia’s “backyard”.
He attacked Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 to prevent this from happening. Why would things be different in 2022? There is nothing in Putin’s record that suggests a bluffer’s mindset, and everything about it suggests a deep – even paranoid – obsession with NATO.
From Putin’s point of view, the real mistake would have been to hold off from acting on a clear and present danger. He said so himself in his February 24 speech, when he drew a parallel with Stalin’s error in 1940 and 1941 of going to “great lengths to prevent war … until the very end”.
In Putin’s telling, the Soviet Union failed to make “the most urgent and obvious preparations … to defend itself from an imminent attack”. “We will not make this mistake a second time,” Putin vowed as his tanks rolled into Ukraine.
There can be no doubt that Putin, at least, was absolutely convinced of the military threat he saw building up in Ukraine as Kyiv drew closer to NATO. It is all laid out in his notoriously long address on February 21 2022. The ability of Ukraine to “acquire tactical nuclear weapons” relatively easily; Ukrainian airfields upgraded “with US help” that can transfer army units in “a very short time”; Ukraine’s command-and-control system already “integrated into NATO”; or Western weapons being “pumped” into Ukraine “ostentatiously”.
Putin’s apparent sense that Ukraine’s defences were improving rapidly explains why he attacked that February, even though Ukraine was not actually about to join the Alliance. Given how the war has gone so far, with Russian armies beaten back from Kyiv and the Ukrainians fighting so competently, he was right to worry.
While a Ukraine that was becoming stronger militarily may account for why Putin could not wait any longer, it doesn’t tell us why he waited until February 2022 and didn’t strike sooner.
Three other points are relevant here. The first is that Russia undertook a significant military campaign in Syria from 2015 to 2020 when the battle for Idlib concluded with a Putin-Erdogan deal (some Russian forces still remain in the country); it would have been the height of folly to start a second war while engaged in another.
Secondly, Donald Trump’s presidency appeared – for a while at least – to offer the promise of a US-Russia political accommodation on terms acceptable to Moscow if Trump had won re-election; for Putin, it was worth waiting to see how that played out.
Thirdly, Russia clearly expected to see Minsk II implemented. This 2015 ceasefire accord included a promise of autonomy for the Donbas “rebel” territories while keeping them within Ukraine, effectively giving Russia a veto on Kyiv’s accession to NATO. Ukraine had signed it at gunpoint in 2015, but the deal was also counter-signed by France and Germany and endorsed by a UN Security Council Resolution.
Having the standing of international law, Minsk II was – at least on the face of it – Putin’s best bet for achieving his strategic goals via a political route, until relatively late in the game before the invasion-point of 2022.
But Mr Zelensky, elected in 2019 on a platform of settling the original 2014 conflict with Moscow, realised in due course the need to take a firm position on Minsk II – with Western support – because of Russian intransigence, and it became clear to everyone that this process would not move forward.
With these three important factors out of the frame as events rolled on, and with a window of military opportunity closing as Ukraine grew stronger, it is not hard to see why, from Putin’s perspective – and as Western intelligence warned – now was the time to move towards a full-scale invasion.
Not doing anything was not an option from his point of view: down that road lay NATO membership for Ukraine, as indeed signaled as far back as the Bucharest summit in 2008.
And once Ukraine joined NATO – a clear prospect from Putin’s perspective, and not even up for discussion by the Allies – its “tactical aviation” based there could strike Russian targets as far as Kazan, according to him. But the ultimate nightmare, in his words, was “the risk of a sudden strike” on Russia: “hypersonic assault weapons” deployed in Ukraine would take only four minutes to reach Moscow. “It’s like a knife to the throat”.
Whatever we might think, Putin certainly felt – as he explicitly repeated several times in his war speech – that a future foreign military presence in Ukraine that advanced NATO hardware roughly 1,000 kilometres eastwards was “totally unacceptable” and even “a matter of life and death” for Russia. He could and would not be the Kremlin leader that lost Ukraine to NATO.
All the evidence thus points to the fact that in Putin’s own mind the invasion was a last resort once he concluded there was no other way to secure what he saw as a vital Russian interest, and that time was running out.
If this interpretation is correct, then Putin will never see the war as a mistake no matter how high the costs: he will have already convinced himself, and perhaps others in his regime, that any other course of action would have been worse for Russia – indeed, irresponsible – certainly in the longer term.
This might be entirely “mad” from our perspective, but that’s irrelevant here. What matters is how Putin views his own bottom-line because – assuming he remains in power – this will determine his cost-benefit calculation in continuing this war as well as his real interest in any serious peace negotiations.
When it comes to any regrets that Putin might have in relation to his attack on Ukraine, Western assumptions tend to focus on the powerful blowback to Russia.
The catalogue of pains that Putin’s war has brought on his own country ranges from the military to the economic to the diplomatic and indeed social. Moscow’s armies have been mauled by Ukrainian forces while NATO is only growing stronger and more unified in response to the invasion with rearmament underway in key countries including Poland.
On the economic front, the heavy sanctions applied to Russia are effectively disconnecting it from the Western financial and economic system. They have also triggered a strategic Western decoupling from Russian energy supplies. It is costly to the West in the short run but the idea is that eventually this will destroy a large chunk of what remains of Russia’s income.
Many are predicting that the country’s future will resemble that of North Korea: an isolated, autarkic society with an impoverished people run by a brutal dictatorship, cut off from modern Western consumer goods and advanced technology and forced to rely on much inferior, Soviet-style substitutes; a rogue nation, its culture and citizens effectively excluded from the civilised world, viewed with suspicion and made to feel the full responsibility of supporting a murderous Kremlin regime.
For any country and leader, such disastrous – and unanticipated – consequences would surely prompt regret at the fateful decision that led to them. Yet, again, Vladimir Putin likely takes a very different view from the Western analytical consensus because his values, logic and aims are so radically different from ours.
For Putin, this war is about much more than just Ukraine because Russia is not just another power. He sees Russia as a “civilisation-forming state” whose struggle is not simply “geopolitical” but, in a way, civilisational. His responsibility is therefore not just to the Russian Federation as a sovereign country, but to the Russkyi Mir, the “Russian World” whose full meaning and historical importance transcends questions of merely “national” interest or material discomforts.
For Putin, this confrontation is the final and necessary breakpoint with the post-Cold War US-led world system which he first condemned in his notorious 2007 Munich speech. The ultimate goal – which Putin shares with China – is to end Western dominance in global affairs, and especially the dominance of Western values, culture and norms which he simply hates.
In this context Putin might not see the mass exodus from Russia of Western companies and “liberal”, Western-oriented Russians as a loss but as a net gain.
A great, accelerated and self-propelling de-Westernisation has been happening in Russia, combined with a self-purging of Westernised elites which Putin has openly called “traitors” on TV. The era of Western cultural influence in Russia is at an end; the country’s Eurasian future – the vision articulated by Alexander Dugin, Putin’s favourite “philosopher” – is about to begin.
In the meantime, Putin’s prestige among America’s enemies has been strengthened. And they are many, right across the world.
Living in the Western bubble it easy to forget how much hatred, contempt, envy or at the very least indifference there is, out there among the foreign cultures of the “global south”, for liberal values – especially in their distorted postmodern form – and the ideals of democracy and freedom so dear to Europeans and their close overseas cousins and friends. The recent string of coups in Africa is but the latest illustration of this.
The sad reality is that for many people, some of them our compatriots here in the Euro-Atlantic space, Putin is the underdog taking on a bully US empire. By crossing the Rubicon with his strike on Ukraine, Putin has done something far more damaging than starting a bloody war: he has broken the taboo and has shown that the Western order can be challenged.
Hence Boris Johnson’s insistence, from the very first hours of the war, that “Putin must fail”: the former British prime minister understood that anything other than a clear-cut Russian defeat in Ukraine would deal a mortal blow to the vital aura of inevitability of the Western project, as Brexit arguably did to the EU.
Add to all this a massive reported increase in Putin’s popularity in Russia, coupled with a complete destruction of all remaining liberties including a free press, and what is there for Putin to really regret?
And if he doesn’t regret anything, why would he want peace and a “normalisation” of relations with the West – even if that were to ever be on offer – when he has now put in motion such a vast project, long in preparation, to finally lead an international revolt against the Western order?
If Putin doesn’t see the war as a mistake, if he doesn’t have any regrets – but on the contrary, perhaps even welcomes the disconnect from the West – and if he doesn’t think Russia is yet failing militarily in Ukraine, what, then, are the prospects for peace?
On Putin’s part, based on the present analysis, we can only realistically expect the continued prosecution of the war in its current parameters.
All other things being equal – that is, in absence of any further escalation or interventions from external parties – Putin’s armies are likely to press on with the war, throwing ever more human resources and equipment into this conflict, destroying Ukrainian cities, infrastructure, everything with any military value or required by Russian military logic.
As for peace, the internal politics of Ukraine – especially with the mass-arming of the civilian population – mean that from Kyiv’s perspective any direct and formal territorial concessions to Russia, whether in the Donbas or Crimea are out of the question after all these sacrifices and bloodshed. Anyone proposing this, even Mr Zelensky, would be considered a traitor by the war-hardened and well-armed ultranationalist factions; it’s a classic problem in such circumstances, with many historical precedents.
Conversely, Putin cannot accept anything less than a clear-cut deal that can be implemented immediately; the experience of Minsk II will have taught him (given what we know of his mindset) that any agreement that trades current military posture for future promises cannot be trusted.
So he is unlikely to agree to any referendum proposals or other types of deals – certainly not while the Russian army can still fight. And then he’s got nuclear weapons.