Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin strutted like the Colossus who bestrode the world. After weeks of anticipation, he unleashed his fury on neighboring Ukraine, deploying massive force to destroy the former Soviet republic’s defense capabilities, occupy its major cities and depose its government.
Ukraine, Putin declared, was to be demilitarized and "de-Nazified." Anyone who interfered would suffer "such consequences as you have never experienced in your history."
No one appeared ready to stand in his way.
President Biden had already stated that the U.S. would take no action against a limited incursion. Leaders across the Atlantic could only talk about sanctions, which few believed would have any significant effect or deterrent value.
Ukraine pleaded for help. Millions of civilians took shelter or fled as Russian missiles fell around them.
The international commentariat brooded that Ukraine was doomed, that European security was haphazard, and that American resolve was lost.
What a difference a weekend can make!
By Sunday, Putin was little more than an easily confounded comic book villain, reportedly hiding in a mountain fortress in the Urals while his henchmen tried to do his evil bidding.
Russia’s invasion had sputtered, having achieved almost none of its objectives. Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, second-largest city Kharkiv, and major port Odessa all remain in government hands, while Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a one-time television comedian, donned combat fatigues to defend his country.
The Ukrainian military, expanded from just 6,000 effective troops when Russia last invaded in 2014 to 160,000 at the beginning of this year, offered spirited resistance. It was helped by several hundred million dollars of U.S. military assistance, including lethal Javelin anti-tank missiles, supplied, as very few care to admit, by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
According to intelligence reports and witnesses on the ground, Russia’s invasion force suffered from major deficiencies in intelligence, reconnaissance, logistics, supply-line management, interservice coordination and command-and-control.
All these problems were apparent in Russia’s five-day campaign against Georgia in 2008 and prompted a scathing post-operational defense review whose recommendations have been only sparingly implemented.
Captured Russian prisoners and equipment are in poor condition. Anecdotal reports suggest that some Russian soldiers are refusing to fight.
Some 25% percent of the Russian Army still consists of conscripts — mainly young men unfortunate enough not to have been able to bribe their way out of the draft. Legally, they cannot be deployed in combat unless they have agreed to become contract soldiers, but this provision appears to have been widely ignored.
Russia’s battlefield vehicles are almost entirely of early-1960s Soviet vintage and vulnerable to mechanical failures, breakdowns and other maintenance issues, in addition to enemy fire.
The most advanced Russian combat aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-57 fighter, is plagued by technological problems and has only four units in active service. The Sukhoi Su-35, was developed in the 1990s; about one-third of the units produced were exported.
The Russian navy’s flagship, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, was launched 37 years ago and has been out of commission since 2018, after a long career of accidents, malfunctions, fires and other major service interruptions.
Russian tactical doctrine limits command directives to an extremely limited need-to-know basis that keeps lower-level officers in the dark about larger strategic objectives. Their orders often amount to little more than hasty notations scribbled on local maps.
An internet video that immediately became iconic shows a Ukrainian motorist offering to tow a column of Russian vehicles that ran out of gas back across the border.
Ukrainian spirits are ebullient. Nearly half of Ukrainians said they would actively fight against the invasion, while some 70% believe they will win the war.
Men of military age are forbidden to leave the country. Small arms have been distributed to urban populations.
In addition to Zelenskyy, now a world hero with a 91% domestic approval rating, the ranks of those ready to fight include former President Petro Poroshenko, the wife of Ukraine’s vice president, the mayor of Kyiv, Miss Ukraine and the entire Kyiv Dynamo soccer team.
Even as the Russian Foreign Ministry has agreed to peace negotiations at a neutral location, Putin is said to be furious about his military’s massive failure.
He may resent having fallen victim to a blind spot common to dictators, whose supine military chieftains rarely risk contradicting them about preparedness for war or dare tell them anything other than what they want to hear about the state of the armed forces.
Internationally, Putin’s credibility is in free fall.
The Atlantic Alliance has become stronger in the past four days than it has been in the last 20 years.
Germany, its weakest link, has overcome hesitation to shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and unexpectedly announced a rapid acceleration in its defense budget.
The European Union has pledged $500 million in military assistance to Ukraine and is developing plans to include Ukraine as a member-state.
After decades of neutrality, Sweden and Finland seem likely to join NATO, with Russian threats of "serious military-political consequences" now meaningless.
China, which recently signed an alliance with Russia that Moscow describes as "unprecedented," is notably cool toward Putin’s adventure in Ukraine and instead defends the territorial integrity of all nations.
Across the global South, anti-American actors who are often culturally conditioned to admire strongmen may no longer see Putin as a particularly strong man. Those who believe his propaganda that Ukraine is an American puppet will be forced to conclude that the might of Russia has been stopped in its tracks by that puppet.
In Iran, which has grown closer to Russia in recent years, protesters have reportedly chanted "Death to Putin" outside the Russian embassy.
At home, demonstrations have erupted in more than 60 Russian cities, leading to thousands of arrests. In Moscow, the protests are concentrated around the bridge where liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015.
Leading figures in Russian politics, civil society and cultural life — including many who supported the 2014 invasions of Ukraine — are now actively speaking out despite potentially serious consequences.
Nearly a million Russians have signed an online petition condemning the invasion.
On the first day of the attack, Russia’s stock market fell by more than 30% and is now closed, while a wide range of personal and corporate assets abroad were frozen.
The ruble has fallen to a historic low against the dollar, prompting runs on Russian banks.
Many international institutions have severed ties with Russian counterparts, announced boycotts of Russian products, and blocked Russian access to the international financial system.
Putin can fume in his mountain hideaway, where he has now placed defense systems that include nuclearized components on high alert.
But with an economy smaller than South Korea’s and a population outnumbered by Bangladesh’s, he may realize that his dreams of world power are over. So, too, might the people who suffer under his misrule.
The fault is not in the stars; it is in him.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University. Read more — Here.
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