A Year of Putin’s Wartime Lies
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, ordered the invasion of Ukraine, unleashing the full force of his military on an unthreatening neighbor, and the full force of his propagandists on his own population. He had little doubt about his prospects. For years, he had been regarded in the world press as a singularly cunning strategist; at the same time, he methodically crushed civil society in his country and sidelined any dissenting voices in the Kremlin.
So who was going to stop him on the road to Kyiv? Hadn’t Donald Trump, during his Presidency, exposed and deepened the fissures in the nato alliance? Under Joe Biden, the United States seemed finished with foreign adventures—humiliated by its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and distracted by its internal divisions. And what of Ukraine itself? It was a pseudo-nation, hopelessly corrupt and led by Volodymyr Zelensky, a former sitcom actor with an approval rating south of thirty per cent. Putin’s serene presumption was that, within a week, his forces would overrun Kyiv, arrest Zelensky and his advisers, and install a cast of collaborators. Putin was counting on historians to celebrate his rightful restoration of Imperial Russia.
A year later, the ramifications of his delusions are enormous and bloody. We do not know the precise number of dead and wounded, though it is certainly more than a quarter of a million. Unmoved by the losses on his own side, much less on Ukraine’s, Putin has sent his minions to the provinces to scoop up more human material for the meat grinder of his war. And what of his strategic mastery? For years, the Kremlin leadership advertised the modernization of its post-Soviet military, the sophistication of its “asymmetric” fighting doctrine. But every credible analyst of the invasion has been stunned by the scale of Putin’s folly—the miserable planning and poor intelligence, the lack of training and logistics, the lawlessness of his officer corps. His strategy, it turned out, was of the most primitive and criminal variety: the deliberate targeting of civilian structures—schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, power plants, bridges. In Bucha, Kherson, Izyum, and elsewhere, Russian forces and mercenaries have carried out acts of torture, which have been well documented by journalists and human-rights organizations.
In a year’s time, what has Putin achieved? To set the stage for this full-scale invasion—it should be recalled that the first act of aggression came in 2014, when Russian soldiers took Crimea and infiltrated the Donbas––he issued a long, historically perverse manifesto that asserted what he had been telling foreign leaders for years: that there is no such thing as Ukrainian nationhood. But by invading Ukraine, and doing so with such brutality, he has unified Ukrainians in their hatred of Russia and in their resolve to create a future as a free, independent, and European nation.
Russian propagandists (much like the propagandists of the G.O.P.) refer to President Biden as a doddering hack, incapable of making it through a coherent sentence, let alone putting up an effective resistance to the Russian armed forces. Yet, in the past year, Biden has conducted a foreign policy of competence and moral clarity, skillfully balancing strength, diplomacy, and restraint. After having publicly predicted Putin’s intention to invade, Biden won congressional support to send nearly thirty billion dollars in assistance to Ukraine, supplying its armed forces with crucial air-defense systems, mobile multiple-rocket launchers, and, most recently, M1 Abrams tanks. Biden has recognized and advertised the immense stakes of the conflict, but he has taken pains not to provoke a direct conflict with Russia. The Europeans have acted with similar determination. The opposition in Congress to supporting the Ukrainian cause has so far been limited mainly to the right wing of the Republican Party, with an assist from its attendant media outlets.
Putin’s failure extends well beyond the battlefield. He has isolated Russia from much of the world, undermining its reputation, its economy, and its prospects. Hundreds of thousands of Russians—often the best and the brightest in tech, academia, and the arts—have left the country. With Putin’s most compelling political opponent, Alexey Navalny, languishing in a prison camp, and independent media outlets shuttered, it may seem that Putin has secured the bovine indifference of all his subjects. And yet there are signs of disaffection: protests, individual acts of defiance reported on Telegram and other social media. One of the top-selling books of the past year in Russia has been George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Not long after the invasion, police in the city of Ivanovo arrested two people who were handing out free copies on the street. Sales are so high, and the implications so obvious, that Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the foreign ministry, felt compelled to reject the notion that the novel resembles Putin’s rule in any way. “In school, we were drilled that Orwell was describing the horrors of totalitarianism,” she said. “This is one of those global fakes.” Instead, the novel “depicted how liberalism would lead humanity to a dead end.”
Although the anniversary of Putin’s invasion is a moment to pay solemn tribute to the dead and to celebrate the astonishing resilience of Ukraine, it cannot be one of heedless overconfidence. This is a war that could go on for a very long time. As Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military, writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Russian armed forces are not wholly incompetent or incapable of learning.” Her article deftly anatomizes Russia’s failures, but also goes into alarming depth about how the military leadership can call on hundreds of thousands of recruits, and better exploit the resources of a vast country to inflict greater pain on Ukraine. Crucially, Putin seems not to care about casualties in his ranks. Just recently, hundreds of his soldiers were, according to a leading Russian officer, killed “like turkeys at a shooting range” in the town of Vuhledar, in eastern Ukraine. Putin responded laconically to the debacle. His 155th Marine Brigade, he said, was “performing as it should.”
One of the many gifts that Zelensky and the Ukrainian people have provided in the past year is the example of their valor and their sanity. In the most heroic terms, they have drawn the line against delusion. Putin told Ukraine that it is not a nation. Ukraine has given its response. As Orwell wrote in his novel, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”/The New Yorker/