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Putin’s Dream of Rebuilding the Russian Empire Died in Ukraine

Ukraine T-14
Russian Armata T-14 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian President Putin’s attempts to recreate the Russian empire have failed in Ukraine. Russia’s full-scale invasion dealt a serious blow to Russia’s global standing, leaving it weakened economically, isolated politically, and broken militarily while consolidating democracies and strengthening the collective West. In the span of a month, Putin’s strategic blunder and Ukrainian fierce resistance have conspired to reverse the gains that Russia had made over the much of the past three decades.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine accomplished exactly the opposite Moscow had intended. It strengthened Ukrainian identity, consolidated NATO, unified the EU, and united all democracies worldwide to stand up to Russian aggression. The international community must use all the tools at its disposal to defend Ukraine, strengthen European democracies and liberate Russian citizens from Putin’s brutal and oppressive regime.

A World Uniting Against Russia 

Moscow lost its close relationship with Kyiv when it annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine in 2022 only strengthened Ukrainian identity and consolidated the sense of Ukrainian statehood while pushing Kyiv closer to the West.

Instead of rolling back and being divided, as Putin demanded, Russia’s military adventurism in Ukraine has united the transatlantic community, making it stronger and more attractive than ever. The imminent common insecurity not only forced NATO to beef up its military infrastructure and fighting force on its eastern flank but led the major foreign policy shifts for the militarily non-aligned Nordic states as most Finns and Swedes are becoming increasingly inclined to join the alliance.

Russia’s unprecedented aggression revitalized the European Union and brought it together in ways not seen in decades. While before the war, Brussels had ignored power politics and focused largely on economic and trade issues, the Russia-Ukraine war turned the EU into geopolitical power. The EU not only imposed crippling sanctions on Russia and increased military spending, but it has also sent military, economic, and financial aid to Ukraine while taking concrete steps to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels.

Russia’s blatant act of war against Ukraine has strengthened loose alliance and coordination among democracies across the world, isolating Russia and punishing it for its misdeeds. In the span of days and weeks, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan, along with the G7- Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK, and the United States-isolated and sanctioned Russia while providing a wide range of political, military, economic, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Not Just Nations: A World Wide Effort to Make Russia Pay

In the same vein, international organizations, multinational corporations, sports, and cultural associations followed suit. While the Council of Europe (CoE) expelled Russia from its human rights body and the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) suspended Russia’s membership, the ExxonMobil, Mercedes, Macdonald’s, FIFA, Formula One, the Met Opera, the Cannes Film festival and others banned, stopped or suspended their partnerships with or operations in Russia, even the International Cats Federation banned Russian cats from the international competitions.

The Western sanctions crippled Russia’s access to financial instruments and resources and its trade and investments around the world, wiping out the decades of Russia’s economic development. Consequently, the Russian economy is facing a contraction unlike any it has ever seen before.  According to IIF, Russia’s gross domestic product will shrink by 15 percent only this year, while Capital Economics and Raymond James estimate inflation rise in Russia by a staggering 20 percent. Moody’s on the other hand, expects Russia soon to default on its foreign bonds for the first time in the last hundred years. These figures are set to rise dramatically as the war continues and the western sanctions take a more severe toll on the Russian people. ​

The Russian Military, Exposed

The Ukrainians destroyed the myth of Russian invincibility. The war laid bare the deep structural deficiencies in Russian command, control, and communication systems and the gaps in its logistics. Russia’s centralized command and control system proved ineffective against Western-trained Ukrainians who have been operating with more flexible rules of engagement, encouraging junior officers to make decisions on the spot, in the heat of the moment.

Instead of disabling the cell service in Ukraine and using their own tactical communication networks, Russians have relied heavily on local mobile networks, making them easy prey to interception and geolocation. Hence, the lack of an effective communication system has led to the unprecedented destruction of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, and military personnel. In a little over a month, according to NATO’s estimates, Russia lost up to 15.000 troops, a greater number than the soviets lost during their 9 years of war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The logistics have proved to be the Achilles heel for the Russians as they often struggled at setting up and sustaining supply lines. Ukrainians drew the Russian forces deeper into the country, stretched their supply lines, and heat their transportation infrastructure-trucks, railroad bridges, and supply lines- while attacking from the rear, delaying food, fuel, and ammunition for days and leaving the Russian army spearhead with limited mobility.

Surprisingly, Russians have also failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine. The Ukrainian defense systems not only have remained operational and effective in engaging and denying Russian Fighter Jets but proved exceptionally effective offensively at sea as they sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet-Moskva, dealing a devastating blow to Moscow militarily, politically, and symbolically.

Ukraine

TOS-1 rocket launcher. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Notwithstanding major military setbacks around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other major city centers, Russia managed to make some headways in the country’s South and Southeastern fronts. The Russians seized Kherson and encircled Mariupol. By taking the city of Mariupol, Russian forces will cut off Ukrainian access to the Azov Sea, link the Crimean Peninsula to the land, and lay the groundwork for the expected attack on Odesa-a major Ukrainian port city. With Odessa in Russian hands, Moscow will cut off both Ukraine’s main economic artery and Kyiv’s access to the Black Sea, establishing a land corridor from the Donbas all the way to Moldova, where Russians claim to be facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population, laying the foundation for an attack on Moldova.

Ukraine Needs the World’s Help

Ukrainians can’t be expected to hold out for very much longer, without greatly increased, all-around assistance. While the US and the NATO allies have provided a sizable economic, financial and military assistance to Kyiv, and the military aid package (somewhere around $6.5 billion since 2021) may be sufficient enough for Ukraine to repel the invading forces, they certainly aren’t enough to defeat the Russians. For instance, American military assistance to Ukraine pales in comparison to what the US has spent in its post-9/11 wars in the Middle East. The US spent $686 billion for Operation Enduring Freedom for Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban while allocated $815 billion for Operation Iraqi Freedom to topple Saddam Hussain’s regime. With adequate military support, Ukraine can defeat Russia.

Hence, the United States must take lead over its NATO allies and flood Ukraine with a wide range of the US-built-heavy weapons including and not limited to the long-range artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, Humvees, tanks, armored vehicles, air-defense systems, helicopters, drones, and fighter jets while restocking and encouraging the western allies to do the same. In this regard, Washington’s recent moves to form the Ukraine Contact Group-consists of 40 allied and partner nations- and to revive the world war two-era “Land-Lease “program for Ukraine are the steps in the right direction.

In parallel, the West must develop an information warfare strategy-both covert and overt-retool its media outlets and push its narrative deeper into Russia. The combination of the Cold-War technics and high-tech tactics could very well play into the hands of the collective West to penetrate Russia’s increasingly isolated information ecosystem while enabling the Russian public to leap over the internet firewall erected by Putin. The Voice of America and the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty-at the time the most effective media outlets-broke down the walls of the Soviet Union’s propaganda bubbles in the late 1980s, playing a significant role in the collapse of communism and the fall of the Soviet empire.

Moreover, Washington should utilize the millions of Ukrainians living in Russia and the hundreds of thousands of Russian talents trying to escape Putin’s regime in support of the U.S. policy towards Russia. While adopting proactive and offensive information campaigns, the US should fund demonstrations, rallies, protests, press op-eds, conferences, panel discussions, and educational and cultural events to reinforce the Russian public’s pro-western orientation and to encourage liberal values to take root in the country. Reagan’s National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs) and his overall response to the Soviet’s offensive policies offer useful policy solutions to rely on. By pushing in uncensored information and funding a wide range of unconventional programs President Reagan gave voice to dissidents and bolstered opposition movements in the Warsaw pact countries while undermining the faith in communism and shaking the foundations of the socialist regimes from within.

Ukraine

Russian T-72 tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As Russians and Ukrainians dig in for the long haul and gird for the war of attrition, the extent and the sophistication of Western support for Ukraine will define the outcome of the conflict. While isolating and sanctioning the Kremlin cripples Moscow politically, economically, and financially and supplying the western-built weapons to Kyiv breaks Russia militarily, the flooding Russian public with uncensored and unfiltered information will be the key ingredient that will break Putin’s regime eventually. Winning the hearts and minds of the Soviet citizens helped the West defeat the Soviets in the Cold War and winning the hearts and minds of the Russian public will end Putin’s imperial project.

Miro Popkhadze is a Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He was Georgian Ministry of Defense Representative to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019. Prior to this assignment, he served as the Assistant Defense Attaché at the Embassy of Georgia to the United States in Washington, DC. Popkhadze was a non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Georgia in Tbilisi. His research areas include Russian foreign policy, Eurasia security issues, and geopolitics of the Black Sea/ Caucasus region. Mr. Popkhadze holds a  Master of International Policy and Practice (MIPP) from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He holds an MSc in Political Science from Suffolk University and a BA in International Relations from Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University in Georgia.

Written By

Miro Popkhadze is a Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. CK

    May 6, 2022 at 7:43 pm

    Something like 200-400 Russians have died alone in the last few days at the Battle for Donbas seemingly runs out of gas for them.

    This is it. They are finished. Only through full mobilisation and/or getting Belarus involved will they find more men to throw into the grinder, and then what? How will they be equipped? How will their logistics situation improve, seeing as they can’t support the current army they have?

    Nothing has worked, not Wagner, not the (rumored) 20K Syrians they imported from Assad, Russia is fast on track to have 25K KIA. Their only advantage so far with artillery is about to evaporate now that NATO drones and artillery and other armoured vehicles start piling up.

    Already in Kharkhiv and (now) Izium, the Ukrainians are pushing back. Kherson will be next, and then – who knows? Marioupol? Crimea? Donbas and Luhansk?

    Putin drank from his own cool-aid. He brought his own propaganda, and fell for his own rehearsals every 9th of May. His generals lied to him. Their majors lied to them. The lieutenants lied before them, and the Seargeants before that.

    You live in a society of theft and lies, and eventually, reality comes knocking, sooner or later. Every lie you tell incurs a debt to the truth.

    Now, the truth is rather unpalatable for so many Russians. You have no one to blame but yourselves.

    • Ezir Paiva

      May 7, 2022 at 7:06 am

      Greatest and wisest review on the rather disastrous and destructive outcome of a bad and evil False President Ambition W Putin must rot in a retired jail or similar for extreme squadron vile serial Killer commander.Who is going to repair all those tragic assault traumas each humble Families Ukraine and good Russians have suffered ?

    • Fluffy Dog

      May 7, 2022 at 7:33 am

      Everything you said is true, and some reports put KIA at 25000, which is more than they lost in Afghanistan in 10 years.
      Yet, they almost succeeded. Their military is designed for an attack, not defense, and that was the plan: fast overwhelming assault. And in the first 5 days, Ukrainians barely survived due to the overwhelming numbers of Russians. The accounts of their resistance will be told later; it was mass resistance, and much of it was Territorial Forces. After that, the supplies from the West turned the war into a stalemate.

  2. Him

    May 7, 2022 at 9:00 am

    Alex, the difficulty in persuading people like Alex that Putin’s attack of a peaceful nation is wrong – is the same difficulty, back in WW2, in persuading the masses of German young people who wore brown shirts, black shirts with red armbands.

    In every era, when madmen attack the world, there are masses of people in their country who follow and cheer for these dictators.

    I am going to help you identify if you are one of these people, as follows:

    The common characteristic of these people, who support dictators, is that their thinking process does not SEEK TO FIND WHAT IS RIGHTEOUS. Instead, the thinking is focused on what makes their country strong and victorious. That way, if their country uses evil to be victorious, these type of people are happy.

    The only way they can have a change of heart is to realise that, one day, they will stand before the judgment throne of God, Jesus Christ, and their heart will be judged for what they have done.

  3. Don T

    May 7, 2022 at 10:26 am

    These hate Russia articles all start out declaring a successful Ukraine and an incompetent Russia that has failed. Then they switch to Ukraine needs money and weapons if they hope to survive. I don’t believe Ukraine should be allowed to continue the genocide they were doing in the Donbas. This was a Ukraine civil war that started around 2012 and Russia just joined the 2 republics claiming secession from Ukraine. Russia has said from the start that they do not want Ukraine.

  4. Alex

    May 7, 2022 at 10:30 am

    German journalist Thomas Röper: Ukrainians are very afraid that the Russians will leave.
    The journalist spoke about the distortion of facts in the Western media:

    “I was three times in the south (Ukraine). The first trip was also to Melitopol. And so, on this trip, I was most impressed by the fact, or the fear that you see there in the eyes of people. And not among those who do not agree with the military operation, and according to my estimates, this is a minority. It is they who swear, the camera writes, and they will say how much they disagree. And those who agree are the majority.

    I see it in the squares, when there are hundreds of people, they walk past the soldiers and say in a whisper: “Thank you guys, don’t leave.” They are very afraid, and they said it directly. They are very afraid that the Russians will leave and there will be reprisals. What, in my understanding, happened in Bucha, by the way.

    And the fact that now, Alina said, from Mariupol is another such example. The woman was afraid to just speak the truth. Afraid that, God forbid, the Russians would leave and there would be reprisals. I don’t want to take too much time now, I just want to give one example, because the West always says it’s Russian propaganda if they say that Azov and other units of the Ukrainian troops use civilians as a “human shield”.

    I write in German, and the other day I read an article in the German magazine Spiegel, which is probably known to many. And there was a very surprising offer. So they wrote… Everything, of course, sounded very positive, but they wrote that in Mariupol… More precisely, they (the newspaper) were told by people in Zaporozhye who had come from Mariupol, telling them that their national battalions held them, “politely of course”, held peaceful residents to the basement, and took positions in the apartments above these basements. It sounds in the Western media as if they are protecting them. Excuse me, what is this? If the fighters take up their combat positions above the basements where civilians are sitting, and how voluntarily they went to this basement.

    Most people know the truth, but the Western media do not need this truth, they have a different manual, you need to do everything the other way around, and if it doesn’t work out the way America wants, you get sanctions, but the EU countries, not Russia, they will die after the first package of sanctions.

  5. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 7, 2022 at 11:52 am

    Now that the Russian offensive is being rolled up from the NE flank.

    Ukraine should try to get close enough to fire on the Logistical choke points into the Crimea, and the ports there.

    Stress the Russians logistics; cut the supply lines, and shoot and scoot counter-battery fires to bait Russian artillery into burning through their ammo supplies, increasing the stress on their supply lines (they can’t fight if there’s no fuel or ammo, and become sitting ducks).

  6. ReadandShare

    May 7, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Glory to Ukraine, for sure!!

    But I think there’s a lot of echo chamber effect in this article. While true that the vast majority of nations condemned Russia’s naked aggression, many major countries disagree with the mostly-western response of cutting Russia off. India, the world’s biggest democracy by far, still does business with Russia. As does another major economy – Indonesia. Within the America’s, Brazil and others are also not onboard. Ditto Africa too.

    Immersed in western government and media rhetoric, one might feel bewildered how any nation can just stand by? But this is the echo chamber effect. Outside of the west, folks see clearly how America and its western allies turn a blind eye toward Saudi Arabia’s devastations on Yemen. Why? Geopolitics.

    As well, outside our own echo chamber, let’s not forget our own foreign misadventures in just the very recent past! What did WE think “regime change” and “nation building” were all about??

  7. aldol11

    May 8, 2022 at 6:23 am

    Putin set back Russia 30 years, it is 1992 all over again

  8. Alex

    May 8, 2022 at 10:48 am

    German journalist Thomas Röper continues to publish his materials with photo and video evidence. The lies of the Bandera Nazis stop working, the CIA specialists cannot even help.

    “When we crossed the border, the Ukrainian border post was pretty much destroyed, but that’s all. There were several cars on the side of the road then, which, as our companion told us, were hastily moved across the road by the Ukrainian army to block the road. But tanks cannot be stopped by several cars .

    In addition, we did not see any damage, except for some damaged safety fences. The Russian army passed there without meeting any resistance, and in all the places where we passed, everything was intact, not a single window was broken. Life also went on as usual, shops and gas stations were open, cars were driving, people were on the streets, and so on. If someone did not know, nothing would indicate that an army had just passed through here.

    Experienced fellow journalists, such as a Dutch journalist with experience in Syria, found this very impressive. She told us that she knows her differently than she knows Syria because when the US Army advances, helicopters fly forward, shooting at anything that moves to prevent ambushes. She told me that even if no civilians were harmed, the devastation where the US Army had advanced was significant.

    This was confirmed by an American among journalists, a former US Marine. By the way, he has an interesting story, because he has been living in Russia for six years and received political asylum because he asked too many critical questions in the United States on a sensitive topic. In the USA, of course, they tell it differently, but that’s another topic.

    What also stood out was the poverty in Ukraine. For those who, like me, still know Russia from the 1990s, there was a feeling that they had traveled back in time to the 90s. Today Russia is a clean country with modern cities where entire districts have been rebuilt. I have linked a video that makes this clear.

    Ukraine still looks the same as the then Russia. Broken roads, dilapidated bus stops, dilapidated, dilapidated houses, a lot of old Soviet cars and so on. Even the joyless clothes of people reminds of the 90s in Russia. It touched me very much because it brought back some memories of that time and the problems of my friends at that time. But this can only be understood by those who have experienced it for themselves.

    I expected that the opponents of the Russian military operation would not talk to us, because they should be afraid of Russian soldiers. However, everything was exactly the opposite. The opponents told the Russian soldiers to their faces that they were not welcome here and that they should go home. They are clearly not at all afraid of Russian soldiers and call them names, sometimes harshly, to which Russian soldiers stoically do not react.

    Those who are afraid, we all quickly noticed, are the supporters of the Russian operation. They walked past the soldiers and unobtrusively whispered words of gratitude and something like “finally!” or “Don’t go again!” them.

    Disgruntled people also grabbed every microphone and stood in front of every camera, expressing their displeasure, while the supporters of the operation were difficult to film and interview the supporters of the operation. One of the few exceptions was an elderly woman who said she was 72 and not afraid. She almost cried with joy in front of the camera and thanked Russia.

    The fear, as I learned from whispering conversations with some of the stakeholders, is that Russia might leave again, and then they will have to expect reprisals and even worse consequences for their propaganda of Russian intervention, as they did after the Maidan. The most famous, but far from the only case was the Odessa tragedy in May 2014, when more than 40 people were burned alive in Odessa by Maidan supporters. This massacre is cynically called “Odessa barbecue” by nationalists in Ukraine and has not yet been disclosed.

    In general, the life of opponents of the authorities in Ukraine after the Maidan was not safe, political assassinations were not uncommon, and the UNHCR also mentioned this more than once in its human rights reports on Ukraine. But it is one thing to know this and read about it, and quite another when you experience this fear so tangibly. Fear was also manifested in the fact that many did not even want to be seen in the background of the picture. Most of them avoided the cameras and always walked behind the cameramen so as not to get into the frame.

    And something else was said in the reaction of people. Due to the fact that we were under the protection of Russian soldiers, people might think that we were pro-Russian. But when they heard that we were from the West, many refused to talk to us at all. Many would probably talk to the Russian media, but almost no one wanted to be in front of a Dutch, Italian or even American camera.

    Один из согласившихся настоял на том, чтобы интервью давали на английском, а не на русском, потому что боялся, что западные СМИ исказят его слова. Это был опыт, которого я не ожидал в Украине. Затем он положительно отозвался о российской военной операции.

    Where we were, life basically went on as usual. What shocked me was the fear of the people who support the Russian side. Seeing this, this anxiety of the people, it was depressing. I was also surprised by the visible poverty in Ukraine. I didn’t expect to see it so clearly. The infrastructure is still from the Soviet Union and since then little has been done, much has fallen into disrepair, especially empty factories and really bad roads stand out.

    I was pleased with the man’s answer to the question of who is more Russian or Ukrainian in the city. His answer was:

    “We don’t make any difference! Besides, so many nations live here; Armenians, Georgians, Greeks, we are all one family!”

    That’s what I wish for Ukraine to return to this: to be one big family, because it was this Maidan government that they wanted to expel from Ukraine, relying on radical nationalism.

    The Ukrainians will be able to defeat the Bandera Nazis in the same way as their ancestors once did.”

  9. Alex

    May 8, 2022 at 1:35 pm

    Scott Ritter:
    “Ukraine is winning the battle on Twitter, but in the real world, Kyiv is losing the battle for Donbass.
    Claims that Ukraine is determined to win are, at best, an invention of Kyiv and Washington.”

  10. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 8, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    Putin is an avid student of Russian history. We should be, also.

    It took around three centuries for the March of Muscovy to conquer Siberia and assemble the Russian Empire. Some years they would bite off a significant chunk of territory from their neighbors, occasionally they would suffer a setback, and there were occasional years of stalemate. Yet, they kept pushing, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and Tsar-after-Tsar. I would bet that Putin understands that he is not going to reassemble the entire Russian Empire on his watch. Clearly, though, he does want to grab as much as he can, while he can. If he can’t get the full loaf right now, he will settle for half a loaf rather than none – and then rebuild and wait for the next opportunity.

    As for being isolated and not the world’s favorite country? Well, that is just par for the course.

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