Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine is not going as he planned. As analysts have pointed out, the invasion’s initial conduct suggests that Russian military planners had expected Ukraine’s defensive capacities to swiftly collapse, allowing for a quick and decisive Russian victory.
The Russian government has apparently bought into its own propaganda: that the Ukrainian population is being held hostage by a fascist puppet regime, kept in place solely by the west, and would therefore welcome Russian troops as liberators. It is a vision of victory that seems to recall the US’s toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 or the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan in 2021.
This, however, is not the reality. Contrary to the militaries of Hussein or former president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, instead of surrendering without much resistance, Ukrainian troops have stood their ground, repelling Russia’s initial assaults on Kyiv and elsewhere. What’s more, instead of fleeing the country, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has been utilising his talent as a former actor to put on a masterful show of defiance from the capital, taking to social media to post videos of himself and his war cabinet.
The Ukrainian people have responded by uniting behind him and the war effort, with thousands joining the army and territorial defense forces. Even unarmed civilians have joined the struggle, with videos of people standing in the way of approaching Russian tanks being circulated on social media. Botched logistics and poorly maintained hardware also seem to have hampered the Russian advance.
This is a big problem for Putin, who has very publicly thrown his weight behind the invasion, effectively making himself its figurehead. That his hopes of a quick victory have been so spectacularly dashed means that he will now have to act to prevent dissent from growing out of his disastrous misjudgment; his very survival depends on it. While it is obviously Ukrainians are suffering the most in this war, Russians are by no means exempt. Indeed, as Putin attempts to crush all opposition to the conflict, the people of Russia are set to suffer previously unseen levels of censorship and repression.
Destroying the narrative.
However Putin may have envisioned this war unfolding, it is already becoming reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan, which historians consider to have been a decisive factor in the Soviet Union’s demise. With the conflict barely two weeks in, the Russian military already appears bogged down in a war it is not prepared for. While it is hard to verify information coming out of Ukraine or to judge the extent to which anecdotal evidence is indicative of larger trends, there are signs that Russian troops are already struggling with low morale.
The fact that Putin, for months, had been assuring domestic and foreign audiences that he was not planning an invasion, as his soldiers camped out in often miserable conditions along Ukraine’s borders, certainly did not help to prepare Russian troops for Ukraine’s decisive response.
And while Ukrainian officials obviously cannot be considered an objective source, their claims to have caused their enemy over 11,000 casualties already, are remarkable – even if the figure has been exaggerated. For comparison: the nine-year Soviet-Afghan war resulted in around 15,000 Soviet casualties. Relatives of fallen soldiers are bound to confront decision-makers with questions about the war’s purpose and conduct – something leaked footage reveals is already happening in Russia.
Domestically, Putin’s propaganda apparatus has been stressing for years that Ukrainians are a brotherly people, bound by history to a “Russian world” centered around Moscow, and that, if not all Ukrainians, at least the Russian-speaking ones, would embrace being liberated from the supposedly fascist, Western-backed Kyiv-regime.
The ferocity with which Ukrainians, even in the previously more Russia-friendly eastern and southern parts of the country, are now proving that notion to be false, destroys Putin’s narrative. Footage of devastated Ukrainian cities, including predominantly Russian-speaking ones, like Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia, threatens to undermine support on the Russian homefront, given the many familial and personal ties that exist between the countries. In response, Russian propagandists are finding themselves hard-pressed to explain the realities on the ground with ever more outrageous claims. Russian TV news has suggested, for example, that the damage was being caused by the Ukrainian military itself.
Giving the order for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin may have counted on the type of hooray-patriotism that saw his popularity soar in 2014, following Russia’s almost bloodless annexation of Crimea. However, with Russia now suffering devastating economic repercussions as a result of the West’s unprecedented sanctions – not to mention the significant human losses it is incurring on the battlefield – the odds of Putin’s government receiving a similar wave of support today is much more doubtful.
Putin under threat.
Faltering popular support for a war that is very clearly tied to Putin personally could prove disastrous for his hold on power. In the past, Putin has often tactically distanced himself from risky political decision-making; for example, when the Russian regime raised the retirement age in 2018 – a highly unpopular decision – Putin let his prime minister at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, make the initial announcement.
This time, however, apparently miscalculating the risks involved, Putin very publicly presented himself as the man in charge, giving several lengthy addresses to the nation to announce and justify the so-called special military operation. Anything short of achieving his stated goals to “demilitarise and denazify” – i.e., impose regime change on Ukraine – will be hard to sell as a success. Given Putin’s central role in the war, failure in Ukraine will be hard to present as anything other than a failure of his own making. With neither of his two stated goals for the Ukrainian campaign currently appearing likely in the short term, and with Russia’s economy in freefall, Putin now relies on ever more brute force to maintain stability at home.
Since the start of the invasion, the regime has launched a desperate, iron-fist crackdown to control the narrative. It liquidated the radio station Ekho Moskvy and TV channel Dozhd, two key remaining flagship independent media outlets providing objective coverage, and blocked or banned numerous smaller and foreign ones, including the BBC, as well as Facebook and Twitter. Censorship prohibits the use of the word “war” in coverage of events in Ukraine, forcing the last significant independent paper, Novaya Gazeta, to refer to it as a [“special operation”], even when quoting interviewees who utter the forbidden word. At the same time, the regime has orchestrated and televised mass gatherings of young people demonstrating in favour of the war, waving flags and screaming: “For Russia! For Putin!”
Meanwhile, dissent on the streets has been met with unprecedented repression. Nearly 5,000 people were detained for joining a nationwide day of protest against the invasion on 6 March. Many now face charges on a law rushed through parliament only days before, criminalising “calls against”, or “discrediting” the use of Russian troops to protect the interest of Russia, which carries up to three years in prison; publishing “false information” about the war can lead to 15 years behind bars. For the first time, riot police appeared to systematically force protestors and passers-by to unlock and show them the contents of their phones. With the screws tightening, and rumors circulating about martial law being imposed within the next few days, there has been an exodus of Russians to neighboring countries.
While it is Ukraine that is suffering death and destruction as a result of this war, it is also proving to be a historic catastrophe for Russia. Until fairly recently, Putin’s authoritarianism functioned through a combination of coercion and tolerance of limited oppositional activity. While the space for dissent had been steadily shrinking for some time, it is now being choked out at a rapid pace.
With Putin’s botched war threatening the very existence of his regime, there seems to be little choice for him but to double down on his position. This means the worst may still be yet to come, not just for Ukrainians, whom Putin will have to defeat, whatever the human cost, but also for Russians, who will need to be kept in line, whatever it takes.
Volodya Vagner is a freelance journalist based in Sweden, covering culture and politics.