Vladimir Putin was not the only one who got it wrong. The Russian leader’s assumption that his armies would vanquish Ukraine within days was widely shared. The same western intelligence agencies that correctly predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine also believed that Putin would probably win a swift victory.
But almost three months into the war, Moscow’s military is bogged down and has taken heavy losses. Russia’s international isolation is getting worse, with the confirmation that Finland and Sweden are planning to join Nato.
There is now much talk about the incompetence of the Russian military. But perhaps no special explanation is required for its problems. In modern times, when major powers invade smaller countries they usually end up losing. America failed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — and also beat humiliating retreats after smaller military interventions in Somalia and Lebanon. The Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan; and Russia is now failing in Ukraine.
As the Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta observes: “It is one of the great mysteries of international politics that despite their terrible record at winning asymmetric wars, powerful countries continue to think they can win.”
One powerful country that has resisted the temptation to wage war over the past 40 years is China. The Chinese got a bloody nose when they invaded Vietnam in 1979. Since then Beijing has wisely steered clear of war. By concentrating on economic development, China has transformed its economy and society and become the world’s most powerful country after the US.
In recent years, however, the Chinese government and people have displayed a certain yearning for the battlefield. China has poured money into its military. Threatening military exercises near Taiwan have been stepped up. War films have soared in popularity at the box office.
Russia’s experiences in Ukraine, however, suggest that it would be a disastrous error for China to succumb to the temptation to fight a short, glorious war. Once the shooting starts, things rarely go according to plan. Historian Adam Tooze points out: “Other than wars of national liberation, one is hard pressed to name a single war of aggression since 1914 that has yielded clearly positive results for the first mover.”
People and nations that are defending their homes are usually much better motivated than an invading army. Russia’s reputation for military might was forged in defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler. But now Russia is the aggressor — and it is the Ukrainians who are cast in the role of heroic defenders of the motherland, played by the Russians in 1812 and 1942.
As a country fighting for its life, Ukraine has been able to insist that all adult men stay in the country and fight. Russia is still having to pretend to its own people that it is engaged in a “special military operation” that does not require mass mobilisation.
The longer a war drags on, the harder it gets for an invading army. Even if you occupy the capital city — as the Americans did in Iraq and Afghanistan — you are likely to face a draining insurgency, which will be gleefully supported by outside powers.
A losing war also has corrosive domestic effects. Over 15,000 American troops and contractors died in the Afghan and Iraq wars and twice that number later died by suicide. Hundreds of thousands were wounded, with the effects rippling out through society and politics.
The few exceptions to the rule that great powers lose small wars seem to occur when the fighting and objective are clearly limited. If the conflict is genuinely a “special military operation” (to use Putin’s disingenuous term for the invasion of Ukraine), then success is possible. In the 1991 Gulf war, the US-led coalition restricted its goals to expelling Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from Kuwait. When the US attempted to go much further in the second Gulf war of 2003 — overthrowing Saddam and occupying Iraq — the plan unravelled. Nato’s successful intervention in Kosovo in 1999 was based on air power, in support of the Kosovans.
Changes in military technology may now be further stacking the odds against an invading army, as Max Boot recently pointed out in the Washington Post. Information technology and drones can pinpoint the movements of an attacking force; precision-guided missiles can then pick them off. That shift in technology may partly account for Russia’s heavy losses in the battles for Kyiv and the Donbas region.
As Russia is discovering, even a war against a smaller, weaker neighbour can go badly wrong. Larger conflicts invite disaster. Even nominal victory can leave your economy and society in a ruinous condition. Britain emerged victorious in the second world war, but never recovered its great power status. As the historian AJP Taylor later concluded: “Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.”
That paradox is now being played out in full in Ukraine. Putin presided over a decade-long military build-up and then launched a war to reassert Russia’s status as a great power. Instead, Russia is likely to emerge from the war in Ukraine poorer, weaker and greatly diminished. Putin’s war is not just a crime. It is also a mistake.