The present war in Ukraine has offered many surprises, much of which has come to the frustration of Russia’s President as his attempt to play “Hitler” continues to be bogged down in the mud. It’s clear now that things have gone wrong for the Russian invasion and has baffled experts… see: Russian Invasion Baffles Experts - CNBC. It’s added to a crippling of the Russian economy under ever growing sanctions from the West, Economic Sanctions Crippling Russia - CNBC, and by this point these links aren’t necessarily new information. But they do paint a fairly clear picture that in his political calculus, Putin had to have gotten a lot wrong.
Some may say that it’s because he’s stupid. Some may say that he’s “mad” in the same way that Hitler is often remembered as “mad” given his handling of German affairs in World War 2. However, in looking over things… I wouldn’t say it’s stupidity or madness. For just as Hitler eyed Poland in 1939, there were various things that Putin likely saw that had to provide confidence that he could invade Ukraine and get away with it… or at least avoid major issues that would create the sort of “backfire” we’re seeing now. And in this, I’d want to lay out what I think gave Putin the reason to believe he could succeed as well as what he missed.
What Gave Putin Confidence…
One: History: The present war in the Ukraine is not the start of the conflict between the two countries, and it isn’t even the first time Putin has used the sorts of tactics he’s been using lately to pound the Ukraine. As such, a lot of this brutality is not new. It has happened before and the fighting
in Chechnya in the 1990s and the early 2000s would be a good example of this. The Russians, particularly after Yeltsin stepped down and Putin took over, had little concern with pounding civilian targets. And what was the result of these sorts of attacks on Chechnyan civilians? Not much, Clinton and W. Bush gave their protests and there was talk of potential sanctions against Russian action, but on a large scale… NONE of this ever materialized. At least not in any way that would truly hurt Russia
And this path continued when Putin took Russia on its next adventure in taking the Crimea in 2014. People complained and protested, see: International Response to the Invasion of the Crimea, 2014 - Euromaidan Press. This time sanctions were imposed on Russia, and to a degree they hurt Russia, but they were limited and uncoordinated. Countries like Switzerland were not involved in these sanctions. Thus, Russia hurt a little, but found the means to avoid the worst of it, or at least pass the blame from Putin to the West. And within Russia, there was support for taking the Crimea, see: How Russia Took Over Crimea, and Crimea Took Over Putin - The Moscow Times. And note that the success of the Crimean annexation urged Putin on into the following conflict over the eastern parts of Ukraine.
Thus, if we look back over the timeline of events going back to when Putin became President in Russia, there wasn’t much to see reason to believe things would backfire. Even when the West had opposed him… even when it had more Western style leaders in Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama, Putin had been able to bluff his way through actions they didn’t like and ultimately get away with it. The West never truly “isolated him” and the Russians seemed to support the moves he made. Thus come 2022, Putin really had little reason to think that anything close to what has happened would happen. As nothing like what is happening now has happened before. Which mirrors how Hitler looked onto Poland in 1939… after years of appeasement, he had no reason to believe any serious opposition would even happen.
Two: Western Disunity: This is something that is ultimately more a product of the Trump years in Washington. For Trump made it abundantly clear that he was supportive of Putin and the sort of power that Putin held in Russia and critical of what was there in the West to oppose Putin, and things like Trump’s war with NATO seemed to fall in line with that and served to create worries early in the Trump Presidency. See: PRESIDENT TRUMP’S VIEW ON NATO: A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY? - Diplomatic Courier. And ultimately, there is the reporting that had Trump won a second term he would have withdrawn the US from NATO completely, see: Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. From NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia - NY Times and Bolton says Trump might have pulled the U.S. out of NATO if he had been reelected - Washington Post.
All of this presented a major threat to Europe in that many NATO countries have largely come to expect and trust that the US would be there to support them. Trump’s war with NATO, however, presented an image that they couldn’t trust. And while Trump may claim he got the NATO members to spend more, this has more to do with their fear that he would abandon them than anything else, and it would in turn also mean that had a real conflict come in which Trump would have wanted their help, it’s quite possible that they wouldn’t help him because of those actions and games Trump played. This plays into opinions that go beyond just Trump’s war with NATO. See: How the US is seen around the world (2020) - Pew Research. Note that while a lot of the general opinion of the US isn’t bad… the opinion of Trump across the board is, and those isolated spots of support for Trump are coming from those already on the Right and even then, the support wasn’t overwhelming.
But this kind of division, even if Trump were to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would not mean unity. For he’d spent four years burning bridges across the board, and while he did lose in 2020, as Putin looked on the west… he’d see a US tearing itself apart in the wake of a contested election and a Western alliance that wouldn’t have any reason to unify behind the US under Biden… at least not to the degree that they have or in the immediate future, likely for fear that Biden will lose in 2024 and Trump would come back and put the same policies that the West has disliked back in place and taking them new extremes. This shows the kind of damage that four years of Trump did.
Three: Biden: Repairing the damage done to the West by Trump, was going to be perceived by many to require someone of strong vision and leadership. Someone who could carry something that would present “confidence” in the sorts of things that America has traditionally stood by when it’s come to things like democracy and “freedom.” There would also be the sense of having ideas on policy that would be desired to be put in place. Is the candidate running on foreign policy experience or domestic policy experience? Biden really didn’t have any of that going into the 2020 election, and in fact his entire campaign was built around his being the most electable… something that many did agree with, even if they didn’t want the Democrats to nominate Biden. See: Biden is electable, but not the 1st choice - 538.
And a lot of Biden’s argument for electability centered around his ability to work across the aisle and compromise when needed to get things done. And in a normal political environment that would work out, but going back to the 1980s, American politics have gradually been changing. Republican politicians have embraced a view politics that was not only linear but designed to only have Right wing figures being “good.” For if “liberty” is only on the Right, the Right, therefore, has NO reason to
compromise with those on the Left. Democrats and liberals are placed closer to “tyranny” on the model. This then serves to drive Republicans further and further to extremes in their actions and beliefs. For, extreme “liberty” can’t be a bad thing.
And as Republicans won races through the 1980s and into the 2000s with only their side being good… the more we’ve seen opposition to almost everything and filibustering almost everything. Democrats have won elections after the 1980s, but it needs to be noted that none of these elections came against a unified Republican Party and at a time when the economy was doing well. When Clinton won his first term, the economy wasn’t doing well AND the Republican vote was split with Perot running as a third-party candidate. When Clinton ran for reelection, the Republican vote was again split by Perot running as a third-party candidate. Obama in 2008 thanks to the economic collapse at the end of the W. Bush years and held on for reelection in 2012 more due to charisma that Romney lacked. And Republicans have served to grow more extreme in their policies and arguments through the same period with W. Bush further to the Right than Reagan and Trump further to the Right than W. Bush.
Which in turn served to irritate and worry more liberal Democrats in that they tried to compromise and reach across the aisle, and for 8 years under Obama, had the Republicans toss their bipartisanship back at them and then blame the Democrats for the partisan divide. There was a lot of concern and worry that if elected, Biden would lead to another 4 years of minority rule with the most powerful man in Washington being Mitch McConnell. But in many ways, the 2020 election revolved more around electability, and probably because of the surprise that Trump pulled in 2016. And while Sanders had far more passion than Biden and Warren had more policy ideas, Biden proved to be held as the most electable candidate who would be able to get enough of the Right-Wing votes from Republicans dissatisfied with Trump’s four years of stupidity as President. And that was seen as enough. Sure, Biden has had a history with a stutter… sure… his favoring of compromise wasn’t likely going to gain support once in office, but it would, at least, get Trump OUT of office.
And that ultimately worked as the Covid 19 Pandemic and Trump’s mistakes in handling it helped secure Biden’s election. See: Trump's poor handling of Covid cost him the 2020 election, campaign autopsy finds - Washington Post. Yet, from the moment it appeared that the votes would turn out in Biden’s favor, Trump began a campaign of misinformation that claimed that Trump had won the election only to have it stolen by voter fraud that would ultimately culminate in the January 6 insurrection… This represented a massive internal issue in the US, that Biden would HAVE to focus on, and Putin had to be aware of this. As if Biden were to turn hard on Putin just to show he wasn’t Trump, all he would appear to do is try to shift attention away from internal division to something else, and through 2021, Biden did try to focus on domestic policy.
Here, while Biden would present some far more progressive ideas than was expected during the 2020 campaign, he has also fallen into the same trap that Republicans used to obstruct Obama with. He’s gained some small victories here and there, but a lot of this has gotten little done and allowed Republicans to use things like inflation to their advantage. See: Republicans plan to use inflation to attack Biden's plans - Bloomberg Quint. And this plan has worked out well for Republicans seeing Biden’s approval drop from above 50% when inaugurated to closer to 38% by the 2022 State of the Union.
For Putin watching all of this… Biden has appeared to be the “sleepy Joe” that Trump called him, who wouldn’t be able to manage governing his own country let alone unite a West that had been fractured by Trump on the international stage.
But Then Came the Invasion and Things Backfired…
Prior to the invasion, Putin had plenty of reason to believe he could get away with it. He’d gotten away with things like this in the past. The west was divided and frustrated after four years of Trump, and Biden was struggling to govern the US and was really in no position to try to deal with Putin. Thus, not unlike a German dictator in 1939, Putin had every reason to be confident of gaining what he wanted, as things had largely gone his way. Thus, he went ahead with it, and in a way… just like with that German dictator, things backfired. The Russian army has advanced, but the world has largely united against Russia, and faster than expected. This has led to far harsher sanctions than Russia has faced in the past and have gone in a way that has expanded beyond those that Putin could have expected to sanction Russia. And Biden has played some role in drawing many of these things together, as others soon joined in, such as Switzerland.
What Putin Missed…
Much like Hitler’s mistakes leading into World War 2, Putin has to have missed things in developing his plans, and it would be the things he’s missed that’s caused the plan to backfire. And much like Hitler… what Putin has missed is not limited to one small thing.
One: History: It is true that a lot of the history in Putin’s games have indicated that he could get away with it, but that same history would also present a warning on these actions. And some of this even plays into what is known on history before Putin, which has led to the comparisons of Putin to Hitler, and I’m not alone in this. See: Hitler and Putin - Public Orthodoxy. This all shows that the world does remember the past events and can and will draw similarities to those events. Putin’s demands of Ukraine, going back even to the seizing of the Crimea in 2014, mirrors Hitler’s rantings about how the Versailles Treaty was harsh to Germany and that Germany deserved to expand.
In the 1930s, the British and the French appeased Hitler because they’d come to feel that they had done wrong at Versailles and essentially accepted at least parts of Hitler’s grievances at face value. The theory behind appeasement was that eventually Hitler would be sated and there would be no war, even if Chamberlain and Daladier didn’t fully recognize that Hitler was operating under a racial/political worldview that required war and a set of economic policies that drove the timing of German expansion in the 1930s. It was only after Hitler violated the Munich Agreement in 1939 with the seizing of the rest of Czechoslovakia and then making demands of Poland that finally got the French and British to a point where they couldn’t trust Hitler’s promises anymore, and thus why they finally drew a line in the sand over Poland in 1939, though beating Hitler would take 6 years and millions of lives.
And the horrors of World War 2 spurred a lot of the efforts to try and avoid the rise of such a conflict again, at least within Europe… and once the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb, avoiding direct conflict between the major powers was add to it for fear of MAD. But the recognition of aggression and attempts to oppose it remained, and while agencies like the UN have had their issues in terms of practically handling these issues, that doesn’t mean that the world forgot the problems that appeasement in the 30s caused later. And that includes the buildup to the present conflict in Ukraine.
Putin may have gotten away with it in the past, particularly when looking at regions like the Crimea that did seem to be rather supportive of joining Russia. But that doesn’t mean that that would apply everywhere and pushing further could prove to be like Hitler’s seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia and being a case of going too far. And to a degree, some of Biden’s handling of the intelligence surrounding Russia’s invasion likely served as a reminder to this. See: Biden's Victory Lap on Ukraine Intelligence - Washington Post. One may argue that this was risky, but ultimately Putin attacked in much the way Biden revealed to the world before the invasion, and essentially let Biden play Churchill to Putin’s Hitler. And once the invasion came, history would play against Putin.
Two: “Disunity” in the West Does Not Mean Russian Support: It is true that Trump put a lot of strain on the West during his four years in the White House, and that kind of fragmentation would leave negative impacts. But a lot of what Putin likely expected that there would be greater support going TO Russia within the West, and that really isn’t the case. And this is where some of those other surprises have come in. See: Putin loses Hungarian "Ally" - CNBC. The article would make it seem as though Hungary’s Prime Minister, Orban’s actions is a shocking and surprising 180. That really isn’t the case, for go back to the Euromaidan Press article and note the Hungarian response…
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 19 March 2014
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, confirming its position concerning the referendum held in Crimea on March 16, regards the changing of the legal status of Crimea as illegitimate and unlawful.”
“The Russian Federation, with signing the March 18 agreement with the Crimean Autonomous Republic and Sevastopol on their joining the Russian Federation, violated international legal norms and deepened the conflict with Ukraine.”
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterates that it remains committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.” — International Response to the Invasion of Crimea - Euromaidan Press
And note the date and remember when Orban returned to office in Hungary… 4 years prior to the seizure of the Crimea. And given some of Orban’s activities in Hungary, a lot of which has come out of his second term, one would think that if he were backing Russian actions for being “pro-Russia,” he wouldn’t be allowing his Foreign Affairs Ministry to declare that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea was “illegitimate” in 2014. And the Pew Research article also shows more on this in that while most opinions on Trump were low, that didn’t mean the opinion on America was low.
Which shows that a lot of the “disunity” was likely more a product of Trump’s antics rather than a true disagreement among the European powers and leaders. And while of course there can be complications in this, as some of the supposed “alliance” between Putin and Orban could indicate, but a lot of that may relate more to economic needs and concerns than true “agreement,” and this could all go back before the rise of Putin. See: Beyond Co-Dependency: European Reliance on Russian Energy - Brookings, and this goes back to 2005. And this sort of energy dependence has continued into the present day where many European countries lack the sort of economic resources that Russia has, and so long as Putin has been able to sell them… there is some reason to want to buy so long as no other market is competitive for them. But this also doesn’t mean “Russian support.”
Thus, if Russia goes “too far,” as the present invasion of Ukraine has done, that could easily raise the willingness in the West to come together and oppose him… as the West was largely against him to begin with, and without Trump as a major disruptor, getting things “united” again may well be far easier than imagined. And that’s something that can be seen in various other NATO countries as well, countries that do not have Orban’s “issues,” as well. Note: Germany Rearms - Christian Science Monitor and find that there is no praise of Biden or personal oath to the American government, but there is a recognition that Russian actions regarding the Ukraine have gone too far, and that the Bundeswehr was in a sorry state and NEEDED attention as a result. And it should be noted that the German Chancellor at present, comes from a party that has worked to get the gas pipeline to come to Germany. And yet, as the Russians do to the Ukraine things no one should… the Germans are not only rearming but questioning over some of their constitutional rules to make sure German arms aren’t used to encourage war and warfare. And at the same time… cancelling the latest gas pipeline was the first thing the Germans did.
So, we can say that Trump shook the west and made existing cracks bigger… but he didn’t suddenly make Europe pro Russia.
Three: Leadership Does Not Mean Domination: This is ultimately a trap that some may fall into, in thinking that a leader is someone who dominates others. That they say something, and others simply follow the command. And to a degree that is how some leaders operate, though, often those that do this are dictators like Putin, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or some other authoritarian figure. The desire to be the center of attention and sole “voice” is critical to them. And to a great degree, Trump also fit into this trap in that he equated power with leadership.
But that isn’t what leadership is, and it isn’t necessarily strong leadership, either. In many ways this kind of leadership can be used to mask genuine weakness. And as I’ve argued here, On Strength and Weakness - Daily Kos, that’s actually something that both Putin and Trump suffer from. They can talk tough or brag on “their” military, but they are ultimately weak where it matters and ae reliant on boasting and hoping that their bluff isn’t called. That isn’t leadership or strength and trying to paint Biden as weak because he isn’t that kind of leader doesn’t work, either, for ultimately, he may do what he does best… work “across the aisle” and coordinate the response rather than dominate it.
And to a degree, that’s what Biden has done. He’s talked, either directly or through other members of his administration to coordinate actions against Russia. And with the intelligence victory that he’s won in “predicting” the Russian invasion and it would operate, it’s also given Biden the room to work with allies in a way that may not have been possible two years ago. For by being proven right on the invasion, there is likely to be some measure of trust in the warning and this in turn opens up the avenue for conversation and coordination between the US and its allies to impose the sanctions that are now crippling Russia. There are some things that Biden has done on his own, but he’s also shown the ability to work and talk with others to assure that there is coordination between the US and the West.
And this, in a way mirrors how the Western Allies put their strategies together in WW2. The war was not fought with either Churchill or FDR dominating the discussions with each other. They may have argued and had their back-and-forth moments during the war, but they did talk and came to general agreements on what to do… Something that Biden sold as part of what would make him electable in 2020. Now, Biden may have been referring more to US domestic policy at the time, where he has had some victories in, even if they aren’t as big as hoped for, but that also doesn’t remove that that same principle can apply to foreign policy as well. And there, among the powers that are working to isolate Russia, Biden enjoyed positive support as he took office, at least when compared to Trump, and made his ability to communicate and coordinate easier.
And ultimately, this not only shows strength on Biden’s part, which was clearly missed, but it helped in the unification of Europe against Putin… and against an invasion that has gone one invasion too far.
And What This Shows and Means…
It ultimately shows what I said in: War Has Returned to Europe... and It's Perpetrator Has Learned Nothing of History - Daily Kos. Not only is Putin the true “Hitler” in his war against Ukraine but that he’s never truly learned the history of the region he wants to conquer or even of the West in general… at least nothing beyond a specific set of lenses that only shows the parts Putin likes. He doesn’t see the history that he disagrees with. He doesn’t want to see the facts that would disagree with what he wants to see, and that has lead to the what has backfired in his face.
But it also means that Putin is essentially a cornered animal with few ways out. He’s not going to change his mind easily, as that would require admitting he’d made a mistake. And the longer the war “backfires” on him, the more he’s going to see himself as being under threat and thus liable to lash out. And with the history of this war still being made… and with the potential for nukes to enter the picture, that only makes Putin all the more dangerous… regardless of what he’s missed.
EDIT: Fixed a few things so that Ukraine is Ukraine, not “the Ukraine” and correcting some things for Yeltsin’s leaving office before he died. Thank you to the commenters who picked up on that for the edit.