Russian President Vladimir Putin is often conceived in the Western popular imagination as a geopolitical “chess player,” reading the board, understanding his opponent’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and clairvoyantly planning three or four steps ahead. Putin’s willingness to take risks to seize emerging opportunities has fed this characterization. Propelled by rising oil prices, Putin managed a significant modernization of the Russian military, employing these rejuvenated capabilities to achieve successes in Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015, which partially restored the sense that Russia was a great power.
But Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine should permanently lay this “chess master” trope to rest. It is hard to overstate the degree to which the ex-KGB agent appears to have misread the political factors surrounding the invasion, resulting in a severe underestimation of the likely military and economic repercussions. While he may still achieve a tactical military victory over Ukraine, Putin has miscalculated, and the long-term consequences of his war of choice could be devastating for Russia.
Putin’s cultivation of an ultra-personalist regime has severely distorted the information ecosystem surrounding him. Two years of COVID distancing has likely only accelerated the inevitable isolation—both literally and figuratively—of a two-decade ruler that is entering his elderly years, seeing popular uprisings in his neighborhood, and who has killed challengers. In a system where good relations with Putin are essential to one’s power, wealth, and even physical safety, it is difficult to imagine that the Kremlin leader has anyone around him willing to challenge his fundamental beliefs seriously. Moreover, Putin’s previous successes, in Crimea and Syria, for example, likely inflated the sense of his capabilities.
There is perhaps not a better representation of the decay of the information environment around Putin than his exchange with Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, just days before the invasion was launched. Tasked with delivering his opinion on recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions, Naryshkin appeared visibly nervous and stuttered as Putin admonished him to “speak plainly!” The message was unmistakable: power in Russia rests solely with Putin.
These factors make Putin’s statements regarding Ukraine and the West’s supposed influence over Kyiv all the more concerning. Putin’s war appears grounded in a genuine belief that Ukrainians held considerable amounts of pro-Russian sentiment, only suppressed by what he called a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” occupying Kyiv that the West uses as a “tool” to contain Russia. Bizarrely, Putin even appealed directly to Ukrainian soldiers to “take power into your own hands” and overthrow the Zelensky administration. These misconceptions ignore Ukraine’s strong national identity and desire for closer integration with Europe, evidenced by the 2014 Maidan Revolution and numerous polls, like one in March 2021 that found that 59% of Ukrainians favored joining the European Union. Of course, Putin’s war has remarkably backfired —only furthering Ukrainian desire for closer integration with the West.
Putin’s distorted political assumptions seem to have dictated unrealistic Russian military goals and played a prominent role in their early struggles. As military analysts have noted, Russian forces attempted to quickly capture Kyiv, rapidly topple the Zelensky administration, and likely establish a pro-Russian regime. Uncharacteristically, in the early days of the war, the Russian military was relatively careful to avoid civilian casualties. However, Russia’s desire for a rapid operation would only be sensible if Putin believed Russia would face little resistance from the Ukrainian military and citizens—an evident miscalculation based on the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people. Even if Russia could impose its will over the Ukrainian army and topple the Zelensky administration, a pro-Russian regime in Kyiv would struggle to survive if Ukrainians decided to mount an insurgency against it. To prevent this, Russian troops would likely have to occupy Ukraine for the long term—at a high cost—to stamp out resistance.
Furthermore, the Kremlin’s domestic propaganda efforts suggest that Putin believed the conflict would be over quickly without turning into a long-term, bloody, and unpopular occupation. As others have noted, Russian state media did relatively little to prepare citizens for the war by providing plausible justifications. Russian officials have also consistently referred to the war as a “special military operation” and have taken steps to censor any media outlets that use the terms “war” or “invasion.” Perhaps most tellingly, an article, apparently published in error by Russian state-owned outlet RIA Novosti just two days after the start of the conflict, claimed that Putin had “solved the Ukrainian question forever” (the article has since been deleted). In combination, these factors suggest that Putin believed the war would be over in a few days, likely before Russian citizens realized the extent of the operation, and with relatively few Russian casualties that would make the war unpopular.
Putin’s misjudgments have also extended beyond Ukraine, underestimating the severity of the international response. This oversight is perhaps understandable, given the West’s reluctance to impose severe costs on Putin for his long list of violations of international laws and norms since taking office. However, the Biden administration devoted considerable effort to rallying European allies to warn Putin of severe sanctions. While there were uncertainties, like backsliding on cutting Russian banks out of SWIFT and Germany’s reluctance to definitively state the end to Nord Stream 2 (both of which have since occurred), the United States and its allies appeared well-united and have followed through. Putin’s apparent lack of concern for these sanctions that have already severely weakened the Russian economy was a considerable oversight.
More perplexing is that Putin seems to have failed to foresee that a large-scale war on NATO’s borders would only increase the alliance’s influence—directly the opposite of his stated goals. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in NATO being more united against Russian aggression than at any time since the Cold War. Already, the United States has deployed additional forces to Europe, and Finland has raised the prospects of joining NATO. Putin’s ability to break the alliance will only diminish if Russia continues to escalate.
Given how reckless Russia’s war in Ukraine appears to be from the outside, it is hard to fault those, including Ukrainian officials, who could not see how Putin could follow through with it. It is difficult to understand the information Putin is receiving and the cost-benefit calculations he is making in a Kremlin that has always been opaque but has become even more challenging to read as he has consolidated his power vertical. However, recognizing that Putin is not a geopolitical “chess player” but an authoritarian with few constraints should not comfort the world. Perhaps Ukraine is a unique and highly emotional case for Putin, but what may seem unrealistic or near impossible to outside analysts may seem perfectly rational to the man at the top of the Kremlin.
Charles McEnany is a National Security Analyst at a non-profit in Northern Virginia. He holds a Master’s in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University.