Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

What Putin Got Right

| Feb. 15, 2023

The Russian president got many things wrong about invading Ukraine—but not everything.

Russian President Vladimir Putin got many things wrong when he decided to invade Ukraine. He exaggerated his army's military prowess. He underestimated the power of Ukrainian nationalism and the ability of its outmanned armed forces to defend their home soil. He appears to have misjudged Western unity, the speed with which NATO and others would come to Ukraine's aid, and the willingness and ability of energy-importing countries to impose sanctions on Russia and wean themselves off its energy exports. He may also have overestimated China's willingness to back him up: Beijing is buying lots of Russian oil and gas, but it is not providing Moscow with vocal diplomatic support or valuable military aid. Put all these errors together, and the result is a decision with negative consequences for Russia that will linger long after Putin has left the stage. No matter how the war turns out, Russia is going to be weaker and less influential than it would have been had he chosen a different path.

But if we are honest with ourselves—and being ruthlessly honest is essential in wartime—we should acknowledge that Russia's president got some things right, too. None of them justify his decision to start the war or the way Russia has waged it; they merely identify aspects of the conflict where his judgments have been borne out thus far. To ignore these elements is to make the same mistakes that he did: that of underestimating one's opponent and misreading key elements of the situation.

What did he get right?

The Biden administration hoped that the threat of "unprecedented sanctions" would deter Putin from invading and then hoped that imposing these sanctions would strangle his war machine, trigger popular discontent, and force him to reverse course. Putin went to war convinced that Russia could ride out any sanctions we might impose, and he's been proved right up till now. There is still sufficient appetite for Russian raw materials (including energy) to keep its economy going with only a slight decline in GDP. The long-term consequences may be more severe, but he was right to assume that sanctions alone would not determine the outcome of the conflict for quite a while.

Second, Putin correctly judged that the Russian people would tolerate high costs and that military setbacks were not going to lead to his ouster. He may have begun the war hoping it would be quick and cheap, but his decision to keep going after the initial setbacks—and eventually to mobilize reserves and fight on—reflected his belief that the bulk of the Russian people would go along with his decision and that he could suppress any opposition that did emerge. The mobilization of additional troops may have been shambolic by our standards, but Russia has been able to keep large forces in the field despite enormous losses and without jeopardizing Putin's hold on power. That could change, of course, but so far, he's been proved right on this issue, too....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“What Putin Got Right.” Foreign Policy, February 15, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt