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State of War

How Russia Got the Ukraine War Wrong

Centuries of history fed into Putin’s disastrous decision to go to war.

Contributor/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the second Eurasian Economic Forum in Moscow, on May 25

In August 1991, President George Bush delivered the most infamous address of his one-term presidency. Speaking to the legislature of Ukraine, then still part of the Soviet Union, Bush expressed concerns about the country’s potential push for complete sovereignty. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism,” he said. “They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” 

Bush’s speech has gotten an unfairly bad rap. His administration reasonably feared that the USSR’s disintegration would mimic Yugoslavia’s descent into devastating ethnic conflicts but with the added catastrophic danger of nuclear weapons. The relatively peaceful demise of the Soviet Union looks inevitable only with hindsight’s benefit; the process could have been much bloodier, as the current Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrates.

The address is striking now for its suggestion that Ukrainian independence would be an act of self-destruction, however. Russia’s invasion in early 2022 showed that Ukrainian nationalism was more powerful, cohesive, and widely shared than anyone knew. Before the war, few would have predicted that this small, newly independent, ethnically and linguistically divided country led by a former comedian would successfully resist the former empire boasting the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal.

Two new books by veteran experts in the region help explain this puzzle. Owen Matthews is a longtime foreign correspondent in Moscow, whose book Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine focuses on decision-making within Moscow circles. Serhii Plokhy is a Harvard University historian, whose book The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History presents the centuries of complicated history between the two countries and surveys Russian myths about Ukraine. Plokhy shows how Russian leaders used these precedents and legends to justify invasion, while Matthews focuses on how Putin exploited the intellectual currents flowing through post–Cold War Russia as a way to keep Ukraine in his country’s orbit. Together, these books help us understand how Russia decided to try to conquer Ukraine—and how Ukraine managed to shock the world with its astonishingly strong resistance.

Both Overreach and The Russo-Ukrainian War devote significant chunks—about half of each book—to the longer history leading up to the war. Plokhy emphasizes that Ukraine had an even more difficult time during the 1990s than Russia did, as its economy cratered, regions splintered, and politicians plundered the country’s resources. In the twenty-first century, however, the country gradually coalesced around a democratic ethos. Meanwhile, President Boris Yeltsin failed either to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit or resign his countrymen to the loss of their former empire—and fatefully, he handpicked Putin as his successor.

Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine
by Owen Matthews
Mudlark, 448 pp., $21.99
The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History
by Serhii Plokhy
W.W. Norton & Company, 400 pp., $30.00

“Yeltsin placed Putin in charge of waging war against Chechen rebels” when he became prime minister, Plokhy writes. “Putin took control of the war effort in the most public way possible, appearing on television again and again to threaten the rebels and demonstrate his and Russia’s resolve to defeat the insurrection.” Within a few months, he was the most popular politician in the country, with a reputation for effectiveness, patriotism, and ruthlessness. This reputation lasted for more than two decades, until he ordered the Russian military to occupy all of Ukraine in early 2022.

Matthews and Plokhy spend time plumbing the depths of Putin’s psyche, but they arrive at different conclusions. Matthews believes the Russian leader is simpler than the genius strategist that he was often portrayed as in Western media. “He is a smarter, fitter, and more sober version of the Russian everyman,” Matthews writes. Quiet, hypermasculine, humiliated by Russia’s global weakness, prone to corruption and anti-Western sentiment—this explains the president’s decisions, according to Matthews. In trying to subjugate Ukraine, Putin was acting on instinct and grievance as much as on careful strategic calculation. 

For Plokhy, Putin is more of an intellectual, interested in the ideas of anti-Communist dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was passionately committed to the notion of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians as part of the same nation, if not a single state. Putin has promoted the cryptic philosopher Alexander Dugin, who fashioned the idea of Eurasianism, which suggests that lands in the former Soviet empire belong to Russia for historical and cultural reasons (Dugin’s daughter was killed by a car bomb in Moscow last summer). Plokhy’s portrayal of a deliberate, cunning Putin is broader and explains his popularity better than Matthews’s emotional, impulsive version.

With moral clarity, Plokhy and Matthews both identify Putin as the primary culprit in the war, and Russia as the sole aggressor. They rightly have no time for those who believe Russia was somehow forced or manipulated into invading Ukraine, or that Ukraine is acting as a puppet of the warmongering West rather than fighting for its own freedom. Matthews is more sensitive to how the United States was playing a “double game” in reassuring Russians during the 1990s that NATO expansion wasn’t directed at weakening Russian’s influence or intended to provoke a response from Russia. Plokhy identifies NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia as a moment that further damaged relations between the West and Russia—which vehemently opposed the action—demonstrating how little Russia’s views and declared national interests mattered without power commensurate to back up its protests. But this historical background never distracts them from charging Putin with trying to destroy his neighboring country.

Overreach and The Russo-Ukrainian War agree in seeing the war as the delayed effect of the Soviet Union’s crack-up. “Putin’s botched invasion of Ukraine could prove to be the last convulsion of expansive imperialism in European history and mark the final death of the age of empires in the West,” Matthews writes. Unlike with East Germany, Poland, and the Baltic States, the Russian elite (and perhaps the general population) was unwilling to let Ukraine leave the Russian orbit. They made this clear for decades, but Ukrainians wanted to determine their own destiny as part of the West, and the West was willing to encourage them recklessly. Both books recall the late Arizona Senator John McCain’s grandstanding trips to Ukraine amid the Maidan uprising of 2013, declaring that the U.S. was supportive of the protesters in their rebellion, which both over-promised what we would do and taunted the Russians unnecessarily.

Matthews is more attuned to Putin’s thinking immediately preceding the war. He cites three reasons for the choice to invade Ukraine in early 2022. First, Western influence was growing too powerful in a country vital to Russian influence, and, crucially, the efforts to manipulate Ukraine’s politics in a pro-Russian direction were failing. (Neither book states it, but this failure should have tipped off Kremlin policymakers that Ukrainians were committed to their independence from Russian control.) Second, Russia had built a sizable war chest, and Putin was convinced that the country was immune from whatever sanctions the West would level at it if it declared war. This dramatically underestimated the scale of outrage in the developed world to Putin’s actions, anger that combined with fear to inspire a consensus oriented around arming Ukraine to resist Russia and isolating Russia economically. Finally, there was the sheer opportunity. The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the weakness of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy seemed to augur well for Russia’s action. Putin misperceived these developments as favorable to him when they were actually short-term conditions that belied hidden reservoirs of strength across Ukraine, Germany, and the U.S.

Despite their differences in approach, Overreach and The Russo-Ukrainian War share the understanding that Ukraine’s resilience has shocked everyone, including Ukrainians. Right before Russia invaded, Western leaders advised Zelenskiy at a Munich security conference to avoid returning to Ukraine, lest he be assassinated. “I had breakfast in Ukraine this morning, and I will have dinner in Ukraine,” the Ukrainian leader responded.

Once the war commenced, Zelenskiy’s courage, competence, and determination shocked Kremlin leaders, who expected Ukrainian government officials to flee or surrender. With a worldview warped by faulty intelligence, hubris, and shoddy intellectuals, Russian leader Vladimir Putin anticipated ordinary people welcoming the Russian military as liberators (his delusions and insularity read strikingly here like those of George W. Bush’s administration before the Iraq War). Zelenskiy’s actions equally astonished Western leaders, who didn’t imagine the ex-actor with little political experience being anything more than yet another corrupt, cowardly official. Neither book here offers much insight into the sources of Zelenskiy’s strengths, except to note that his entertainment experience gained him formidable communication powers and led others to underestimate him (much like Ronald Reagan, less the racism and union-busting).  

Zelenskiy had company in his fortitude. The president’s decision to remain in Kyiv led other government personnel to do the same, although they had been planning to leave. “Not only Zelensky but, with very few exceptions, heads of local administration did not flee and stood with their people,” Plokhy writes. For years, Russia had demanded that Ukraine’s federal government delegate powers to municipalities, but those reforms inadvertently solidified the country since citizens developed more trust in their local and state institutions. Ukraine’s government has been rife with corruption since its independence, but that didn’t translate into widespread cowardice when wartime arrived. Local and national leaders ensured their constituents saw them walking and visiting neighborhoods, despite the dangers.

The Ukrainian public displayed similarly astonishing levels of defiance and bravery. So many men volunteered to enlist in military service that some were turned away. Citizens marched with national flags and contributed whatever they could to defying the nuclear-armed occupiers in their communities. Russia had been consistently coercing Ukraine in one form or another since 2014, unintentionally stiffening a local nationalism. “A country divided by issues of history, culture, and identity when the Crimea was annexed [in 2014] was now united by the desire to defend its sovereignty, democratic order, and way of life at almost any price,” Plokhy writes.

The flip side of Ukraine’s startling unity and spirit was Russia’s incompetence in the field of battle, of course. Bravado aside, few intelligence agencies, military analysts, or world leaders believed a war would last long if it came. German leaders rejected Zelenskiy’s request for assistance by telling him that “you only have a few hours” until Kyiv was conquered. Putin assumed that he would easily dominate what little Ukrainian resistance existed and proceed to swiftly assert control over the country’s government. Instead, Russia was unable to take Ukraine’s capital city and decapitate its leadership, as Putin had planned. The battle for Hostomel Airport in February proved to be pivotal, as the Russians’ failure to establish early and overwhelming dominance of Ukraine’s airspace meant they couldn’t approach Kyiv.

Matthews provides a particularly vivid account of the battle, illustrating how even a massive military advantage does not translate to victory when an aggressor is plagued by overconfidence, faulty intelligence, and tactical incompetence. Armed with sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons supplied by NATO and intimate local knowledge, the Ukrainians proved adept at curtailing their enemy’s numerical equipment advantages. Matthews briefly profiles a 42-year-old with the unimposing nom de guerre of “Baldie,” who was a crypto dealer and online gamer before he joined up to live on village farms and dodge Russian soldiers. Men like him proved deeply committed to preserving their country’s independence and were resourceful in attacking their occupiers. The airport skirmish was a sign of things to come: Russia consistently underestimated its opponent, and everyday Ukrainians continually surprised everyone but themselves with their adaptability and willingness to self-sacrifice.

For all Ukrainians’ understandable desire to regain all their territory, there is only so much they can do on their own. They depend on weapons and funds from the West, which largely means the United States. President Joe Biden has backed Ukraine but within limits. Perhaps the most original contribution of either book is Matthews’s previously unreported story about back-channel diplomatic talks between the Chinese and Americans through a British think tank, the Institute for East West Strategic Studies. According to Matthews, in the early stage of the war, the Chinese told Institute personnel that they agreed to pressure Putin to stop his nuclear saber-rattling if the U.S. refrained from supplying Ukraine directly with aircraft. The think tank passed on the intel to the Biden administration, which backed off a proposal from Poland to hand off offensive weapons to Ukraine.

This would help explain why President Joe Biden has been so adamant about limiting U.S. involvement in the war at a certain level. Despite the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. has contributed, it has consistently rejected requests for equipment like F-16 fighter jets, battle tanks, and long-range missiles. Plus, the U.S. has reportedly restrained Ukraine from taking the war onto Russian territory.

But it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of this anecdote because Matthews quotes only an anonymous source to support his contention. Throughout the book, in fact, he utilizes such unnamed people as his guides. We frequently hear from people like “a Downing Street aide,” a “former senior official” in Russia, and a “Ukrainian soldier.” Although Matthews is a well-regarded journalist and understandably doesn’t want to compromise the safety of people giving him sensitive information, his book suffers under the weight of so many unidentifiable sources—more than 50 appear in the book. Independent confirmation of his back-channel episode would enhance our understanding of America’s decisions so far. 

The potential outcomes of the war are still far from clear. Events on the battlefields are still fluid, and the war will continue perhaps for years to come. In fighting for its liberty, Ukraine has bravely illustrated the value of democracy and shown the world how a small state can resist a larger aggressor when it is united, brilliantly led, and well armed. Yet even if Ukraine ultimately prevails, the cost will have been incalculable. It will take decades for Ukraine to rebuild, untold lives have been lost, and millions have become refugees.

Further, a wounded Russia that has been humiliated on the battlefield and seen its economy ruined through a self-destructive, voluntary war might be even more prone to extremism, paranoia, and aggression than it was before the war, as Germany was after its defeat in World War I. Reports suggest that a group of hypernationalists in elite Moscow circles believe Putin is too soft on Ukraine, pushing for him to use nuclear weapons in the war. Should a member of this clan gain power following Putin, the results could be devastating. Matthews quotes a former Russian official who worked closely alongside Putin for 15 years. “The West could be careful what it wishes for,” he says, ominously. “Whoever comes after will be far worse.”