History will eventually judge how the West and Russian President Putin have each managed the Ukraine invasion. However, we can already draw some conclusions early in the war.
When Putin decided to invade and embark on his quest for conquest, he appears to have greatly miscalculated his victim.
First, rather than cut and run, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena have stayed to fight. Zelensky is acting like a true leader, this after having received much criticism in the past for being an actor and comedian who many felt to be unsuited for the presidency.
Zelensky’s decision to allow Russian prisoners of war to phone their families in Russia is a masterstroke in getting the truth to Russian audiences and in dividing the Russian people. Moreover, Putin didn’t count on social media that he doesn’t control and its role in getting information to the Russian people, circumventing the state’s propaganda machine. Indeed, the mass demonstrations across Russia against the war speaks volumes to the challenges faced by dictators who aim to control their people.
Putin’s second miscalculation was the ferocity with which the Ukrainian military and people are fighting his invading force. Originally thought to last only a day or so, the Ukrainian defense forces have held back the Russian troops and continue to hold the capital and key cities. Putin’s generals must be recalling the debacle of their invasion of Afghanistan in the nineteen eighties and must be questioning Putin’s political wisdom and military acumen.
Putin’s third mistake was to miscalculate the reaction of the West. The German government went against past policies and froze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, accepting the economic and social costs of this key source of revenue for Putin’s government. Chancellor Scholz also announced a reversal to traditional German military policy by saying that he will send military equipment to Ukraine and will hereafter increase the military budget to 2% of GDP.
The West has also attacked Putin’s wealth and that of the oligarchy that supports him, which may cause them to reconsider their support and perhaps consider removing him from office in exchange for the restoration of their wealth.
Putin’s fourth miscalculation was his belief that he had permanently divided NATO and the European Union that had already been weakened significantly by both the Trump administration’s policies as well as the ongoing Hungarian challenges to EU objectives and his support for Putin.
On the contrary, NATO appears to be stronger than ever. Hungary’s Orban and Turkey’s Erdogan came out strongly against the Russian invasion and now neutral countries like Sweden and Finland are now reportedly seeking membership.
There are a number of caveats however that the West would be wise to recognize and address.
First of all, sanctions, even of this magnitude, might take time to take hold and to have an impact meaning that the Russians might still prevail militarily. Western governments must sensitize their citizens to the fact that while economic repercussions will soon impact the Russian resolve, possibly the government and Putin himself, they might also impact our daily lives especially given European dependance on Russian oils and gas. Reminding citizens of the sacrifices and bravery of Ukrainians fighting in the streets for their freedom will be helpful in this regard.
Secondly, divisions caused by uncontrolled social media, the rise of populist politicians and the managing of COVID 19 have lowered the confidence many feel in their own governments. Western leaders must find a way to revitalize public confidence in their own democratic institutions and in their political systems.
Putin may have previously concluded that the West is divided and weak but events have shown that, given an enemy that is brutal and callous, people will rally unite around the cause of national self-determination and freedom.
We are in a period of media and social media manipulation and political “spin” where truth may appear to shift as each side promotes its message to influence the public. Already we have seen how a number of senior Republicans in the U.S. have come out in support for Putin or put the blame for the invasion on the current U.S. administration of all things.
But we also have seen how strong and decisive leadership based on values and courage can produce positive results.
Putin now threatens the world with nuclear attacks.
This is a possibility given Putin’s apparent state of mind at present.
It remains to be seen how the endgame plays out.
But it is apparent that Putin’s miscalculations may lead to a public embarrassment for both he and Russia. One would hope that this possibility will not lead Putin into taking action that could be catastrophic for all of us.
Eduardo is a former deputy spokesperson for Ban Ki-Moon.
He is an expert in public diplomacy.
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