Putin’s Invasion Was Immoral but Not Irrational

With the evident failure of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many experts have jumped to explain why Putin’s invasion was doomed to fail. This is classic Monday morning quarterbacking. Evaluating Putin’s decision requires capturing what was known at the time, not what became evident later. Putin’s decision was rational, though risky, like all judgments to go to war. He gambled and lost, but that did not make him irrational.

Why assess Putin’s decision?

The point of assessing Putin’s decision is not to make him feel better about his political and military failures, but to make analysts better at thinking about why adversaries make unexpected choices. Until just before the actual invasion, few experts predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine. Saying that Putin’s decision was bad strategy and a mistake might make analysts feel better about being surprised, but it doesn’t help to avoid surprise the next time. Surprise happens; there will be a next time.

In making such an assessment, it is important to recognize that explanation is not justification. Putin’s decision to attack a neighbor and inflict terrible suffering on its citizens was deeply immoral. The citizens of Ukraine had freely chosen independence and their government. Putin had no right to override that choice, regardless of his reading of history. His justification, freeing the country from neo-Nazis, was incredible. Because Putin’s decision might have been rational does not mean it was moral. Hell no doubt operates on the most rational principles.

That said, here are five key assumptions behind the Russian invasion the proved wrong but were based on solid prewar data.

Assumption #1: Ukraine was deeply divided and would not provide a unified or effective response.

Independent polling and demographics before the invasion showed that Ukrainian society was deeply divided. About a quarter of the country were Russian speakers who were Greek Orthodox and attuned to Russian culture. Two-thirds of the country were Ukrainian speakers, Catholic, and more attuned to the West. (The remaining 9 percent were various small minorities.) The total population was in a steep decline, having gone down by 16 percent since peaking in 1991. Economically, Ukraine was the second poorest in Europe. The majority of Ukrainians (67 percent versus 22 percent) believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction. The government was regarded as highly corrupt and unresponsive. A large minority (40 percent) said they would not defend the country if attacked. So, Putin was right to believe that Ukrainians were divided—no amount of polling or assessments would have shown anything different.

One might be tempted to argue that such polling is irrelevant because when invaded, a citizenry will rally to the national defense. However, there are just as many examples where divided countries had large collaborationist elements. Even during the Nazi invasion during the “Great Patriotic War,” as harsh and racist as Nazi Germany was, hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens collaborated as support troops (“Hiwis”) or members of the Russian Liberation Army.

Assumption #2: Zelensky was a weak leader.

President Zelensky was elected in 2019 as a protest against governing elites who were seen as corrupt and ineffective. Zelensky had no political experience of any kind nor any experience running a large organization. He had made a career as a comedian and an actor. Before the war, his government had not been effective in reviving the economy and his approval rating hovered around 31 percent.

Zelensky lacked every attribute of a successful wartime leader like Winston Churchill—a military record, extensive scholarship on political-military affairs, experience the highest levels of government. Therefore, expecting that Zelensky would, like Churchill, rally the country behind him, vow to never surrender, and physically face danger when under attack would have been a huge stretch.

Assumption #3: The Russian armed forces were highly effective.

When Russia invaded the country of Georgia in 2008, it won but won ugly. Operations were poorly coordinated, and the Russians lost many aircraft to fratricide. What should have been a walkover against a small and disorganized foe was harder and took longer than expected.

In response, Russia radically reformed its military. It got rid of excess officers and unneeded headquarters. It increased the number of volunteers (called “contract” soldiers), the intensity of training, and the overall military budget. A 2019 RAND report saw these reforms as effective: “Changes in military personnel policy, among other reforms, enabled the professionalization, increased reliability, and greater readiness of Russia’s rapidly deployable forces. In turn, these forces strengthened Russian military capabilities for the task of regional dominance, as shown by its operations in Ukraine [editor’s note: pre-invasion operations].”

This reformed military performed superbly in the occupation of Crimea in 2014. That operation, whatever the political justification, was conducted rapidly, effectively, and with little bloodshed. Similarly, operations in Syria have been effective, though brutal. Russian air power and special forces have allowed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to gain the upper hand against his enemies. It was not unreasonable to expect that Russian forces would perform similarly in an invasion of Ukraine.

Assumption #4: The Ukrainian military was weak.

The Ukrainian military had performed poorly in 2014 when Russia supported the separatists in the Donbas region but had improved since then. Nevertheless, the military still had many weaknesses. It consisted of short-term conscripts, not long-term professionals. It focused on positional warfare, akin to World War I trench warfare, and lacked skills in maneuver that would be required during an invasion.

Equipment was obsolescent, dating almost entirely from the Soviet era. In virtually every category, Russia had more modernized and capable equipment than Ukraine. For example, where Ukraine had problem-plagued T-64 tanks and a few modernized T-72 tanks, Russia had equipped its forces with modernized T-72s plus newer T-80s and T-90s. Ukraine mostly lacked long-range precision strike missiles and was thus almost completely unable to strike deep into an adversary’s rear. Finally, Ukraine’s navy was nearly nonexistent, leaving the long Ukrainian coastline exposed to the modernized Russian Black Sea fleet.

Assumption #5: The United States and NATO would be slow and limited in supplying weapons to Ukraine.

In Syria, the United States pledged support to the opposition and endeavored to train and arm various groups. The result was a fiasco. Few troops were trained, and the United States had difficulty getting aid to “acceptable” groups and keeping it away from extremist groups. Then, six months before the invasion, the United States let the Afghan government collapse, and the 20-year U.S. training program for Afghan security forces was shown to be ineffective. Expecting aid to Ukraine to be slow and ineffective was not unreasonable given that history.

Preparing for Next Time

None of these five assumptions turned out to be valid once the war began. Thus, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look back on Putin’s decision and dismiss it as obviously flawed. Describing Putin as isolated, deluded, or ill furthers this narrative of folly and irrationality. These characterizations are comforting because they provide an excuse for failing to anticipate the invasion―anticipating the flawed and irrational is difficult, even impossible. However, that is not what happened with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. The analytic community failed to anticipate how Russia might weigh the evidence and that such an assessment might have been based on objective data.

Even when all these assumptions proved wrong, the war was a near-run thing. If Zelensky had taken the U.S. offer to flee, if Russian troops had been able to secure the Hostomel airfield outside Kyiv in the first days of the war, if the United States and NATO had not been so rapid and effective in providing aid, Russia might have succeeded. In the event, Putin failed, but failure was not inevitable.

It is critical to get this right for next time when the stakes might be even higher. Putin or some future Russian leader might make a similar calculation about an invasion of the Baltic states, China about invading Taiwan, North Korea about invading South Korea, or Iran about attacking its neighbors. As Thomas Schelling concluded regarding Pearl Harbor, “The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.”

Postwar assessments must avoid excuses and take a hard look at why Putin―a smart and successful politician―saw opportunity while outsiders, looking at the same data, expected failure.

Mark F. Cancian is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

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