Vladimir Putin’s Ever-Darkening Room

“A man who starts a war enters a dark room.” I sent out this quote in a tweet a few weeks before the start of the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I pointed out that though the words were those of Adolf Hitler whom I would normally quote only to condemn, he had nonetheless established an impressive reputation as an expert on war. And I added: Vladimir Putin, take note.

Apparently, my influence doesn’t extend to the upper reaches of the Kremlin. On February 24 Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine and entered a much darker room than both he and his enemies expected. He is thought to have foreseen a lightning advance on Kiev that would last three days, be welcomed by the Ukrainian population (garlands, confetti, kisses), and climax in a victory parade for which Russian soldiers had already packed their dress uniforms. Most Western experts then forecast a longer campaign and a less welcoming victory—but a victory nonetheless.

PODCAST: John O’Sullivan and Nick Cater discuss Putin’s Ukraine war

Almost three weeks later (at the time of writing), those predictions look absurd. The latest estimates of deaths, refugees and destruction of property (gleaned from several sources) in the war are roughly 6000 to 12,000 Russian soldiers killed, 4000 to 6000 Ukrainians killed, 2.7 million refugees, and $119 billion worth of property damage.

Those estimates are already out of date as I write. His blitzkrieg having failed, Putin has now changed his strategy to a more traditional Russian one of pulverising Ukraine’s cities and their civilian inhabitants as much as their defence forces by heavy missile and artillery bombardment. Deaths, casualties and destruction are therefore rising fast and likely to get far worse.

And yet, still in mid-March, Putin was far from ending the war, let alone being able to claim a victory. Indeed, when commentators write that Putin has already lost, what they mean is that even if he eventually conquers Ukraine by bulldozer tactics, he has lost most of the aims he hoped to achieve at the outset. The important exceptions still are improving Russia’s geo-strategic position around the Black Sea and making Ukraine a landlocked and failed state. Even those objectives, however, are still up for grabs.   

What, then, are the tentative lessons of this unfinished war?

The first lesson is one old soldiers never forget. It is that a day of reconnaissance is worth a month of fighting. When on the eve of attacking Budapest Stalin asked a general how long it would take to capture the city, he was told “a week if I have a day of reconnaissance but a month if not”. Stalin demanded an immediate attack. The siege then lasted two months at an enormous cost in death and destruction, including 80,000 Soviet casualties.

Applying that lesson here, Putin failed to get proper reconnaissance of the Ukrainian forces likely to resist his invasion, or to investigate the state of the Russian army that would prosecute it, or probably both. The nervous reluctance of his intelligence chief at Putin’s war council to support the “special operation” with the proper enthusiasm certainly suggests so.  

So do the two plainest facts about war so far: first, the Ukrainians have proved well trained, better equipped than the Russians expected, encouraged by both their political leaders and the civilian population, and as a result brave and effective in fighting; and second the Russians have been slow-footed, caught by surprise too often, damaged by low morale, seemingly either ignorant or misled about their mission, and overall unable to attain their objectives in a timely fashion or at all.

Politicians and commentators (though not the intelligence services) in the West have been repeatedly, if pleasantly, surprised by the performance of both armies. We are therefore less frightened of Russia’s conventional armed forces than we were before February 28. Our logic is that if Ukraine’s forces can hold them at bay so well, NATO’s larger and more sophisticated forces have little to fear from them.

Putin may think so as well. If so, he must also be nervous that cities like Kiev might not fall to Russia’s pulverising tactics without the kind of losses that the Red Army sustained in the urban warfare of Berlin and Budapest. For he doesn’t seem to have the reserves of manpower needed to replace such losses in fighting such a war. That’s why he’s calling in all manner of revolutionary and jihadist riff-raff from around the world to employ in Kiev the tactics they’ve made famous in Syria and Libya.

His image as a conservative and Christian defender of Europe’s traditional religious values has taken quite a knock. One wonders what his Orthodox priest will say to him in Confession.

The second lesson: expect the law of unintended consequences to frustrate and even reverse your objectives once the balloon goes up. In addition to turning Ukraine into a buffer state between NATO and Russia, Putin’s war aims included dividing NATO in three ways: keeping Germany a semi-pacifist, energy-hungry, near-ally of Russia, splitting the US from Europe, and ensuring that countries such as Sweden and Finland abandon all hope of entering NATO. He would have accepted that their first reaction to his blitzkrieg would be hostile, but that its early success would ensure that any hostility would fade away when it seemed pointless, as before over Georgia and Crimea.

Instead, Putin is bogged down in a major war against an opponent formidable enough to inflict serious losses on his forces and to prevent Russia winning outright. Not winning, however, is the least of his worries. Unfortunately for him, the whole world is watching as he demonstrates the terrible reality of a ruthless war waged by criminal tactics in a modern European country to advance an illegal policy. It’s not a sight that modern public opinion will easily forget.

As a result, NATO and the EU have both unified around policies of increasing defence spending, reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy, defending democracy, and in general seeking to revive the reality of “the West”. Germany has reversed the Merkel-era policies that benefited Russia on a range of issues. Countries that had been almost frightened to think of joining NATO such as Sweden, Finland and Moldova have now been frightened into announcing that they will probably apply to do (and getting hostile Russian reactions). Even the Biden administration has committed itself to re-constructing a strong Atlantic alliance—as it is wise to do in a world in which an increasingly powerful China wonders whether its friendship with Moscow was mistaken as well as ill-timed.

Does China benefit more by having a weakened Russia as its junior partner in geopolitics than it loses by taking its side against a reviving Western alliance that has shown its formidable financial power in sanctions policy? That’s the choice for Beijing. And it’s a nice question—unless, of course, you happen to be Vladimir Putin.  

The third lesson is that the West’s doctrine of nuclear deterrence needs re-thinking and re-stating. Partly because of the poor performance of the Russian army, Putin has made vague threats of a nuclear response to any Western intervention in the war such as a “no fly zone” to help Ukraine. It’s almost certainly an empty threat because a nuclear attack from Russia would get a devastating nuclear response from NATO. But it must be taken seriously because Russian war-fighting doctrine holds that tactical nuclear weapons should be used in order to avoid an existential defeat—something that Putin might interpret broadly.  

Because President Biden, NATO and most Western governments have decided that this risk means we cannot go beyond supplying military equipment and training to help Ukraine, we must re-think deterrence. The West’s old doctrine was that a country with nuclear weapons could not be attacked because that might lead to a nuclear war. Our current stance is that a country with nuclear weapons cannot be resisted if it attacks others because that might lead to a nuclear war. Unless we alter that stance, we will make the world safe for conventional armed aggression—namely, what we see today courtesy of Putin.

Re-stating a doctrine of nuclear deterrence needs to be done, but it can’t happen in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Until it does happen, however, and maybe afterwards too, NATO countries—especially those member-states next to Russia—and new applicants such as Sweden will have to greatly strengthen their conventional armed forces and their alliance co-operation in order to deter Russia solely by conventional weapons.

That’s likely to prove expensive and to require firm public support across NATO. Thanks to the evidence that this war has given us of Russia’s real military capacities, however, it’s a more realistic policy than it might have seemed a month ago.

That brings us to the final lesson of this unfinished war: wars matter to the locals more than to anyone else. It’s the successful resistance of Ukrainians from the heroic President Zelenskyy to the newest raw recruit in Kiev that has made the choices discussed here realistic and not merely theoretical ones.

How will and should the war end? The ends on offer apparently include a Russian defeat, a negotiated settlement of some kind, and a Ukrainian military defeat followed by a long guerrilla resistance that certainly weakens Russia and probably restores a sovereign Ukraine. All these are realistic possibilities.

Only the first raises no major moral questions. We should all welcome it—including, one hopes, eventually the Russian people. A negotiated settlement, whatever its weaknesses, would at least end the killing. If it would also restore Ukrainian sovereignty and show clearly that Putin’s adventurism has failed, it would be the best possible outcome. A Ukrainian defeat would plainly be a tragedy—one made more tragic by a guerrilla resistance with all its pains and ambiguities but perhaps also a tragedy redeemed by eventual success. 

My sense is that these choices will be made by Ukrainians. Whatever assistance they’ve provided, outsiders should not want to fight to the last Ukrainian nor to insist that any negotiated settlement must be tailored to wider international interests. And if we try to determine these things, Ukrainians on this occasion will ignore us and decide for themselves.

They’ve earned that right.

14 thoughts on “Vladimir Putin’s Ever-Darkening Room

  • pgang says:

    I don’t quite understand who is still putting up resistance in the Ukraine. 4000 fatalities (probably exaggerated), must be a sizeable chunk of their defensive capability, particularly when the wounded are taken into account. Australia suffered around 60,000 fatalities in world war 1, which was bordering on catastrophic for a 200,000 strong army over a 3 year period. 20,000 per year, 1,670 per month. After a large battle with a high casualty rate, time was needed to rest and rebuild.
    Then we hear from mercenaries in Ukraine that untrained and virtually unarmed men are being sent into battle by Zelinsky to be slaughtered. If true, then this is probably a war crime. I suspect that this is where Putin’s Nazi reference may have come from, but who knows.
    Perhaps Putin is biding his time to reduce his own casualties. Who knows. Frankly I am not convinced that Russia doesn’t have control of the situation. War is about arithmetic, not heroics.
    It would have been helpful to have been provided references for the claims made in the article. It’s not as if there is any point in going to the legacy media for information.

  • andrew2 says:

    Great post pgang.
    This guy, who is currently in Kharkov is suspecting a chemical weapon false flag is on the way:


    “So if you’re American, you should understand that the media is lying to you. The russians are winning, clearly winning, and I don’t need anybody to report and and tell me that the Russians are winning, I can tell all on my own. You know how? Because every day, I hear the shelling of the Russians and it’s getting closer every day. I’m in the center of Kharkov and I’m telling you every day the Russians are getting closer, so I know that they’re winning….

    Those thugs of the Zelensky regime, they want NATO intervention. They’ve been calling for it from day one and if they figure that doing a chemical attack false flag will get NATO in, they will not hesitate, not for a second. So understand what’s going on. I am here to tell you what is going on. The Zelensky regime and different factions in the United States mean to start a false flag so that they can get involved in this war.”

    Today we here that Zelensky referenced Pearl Harbor and 911. Both were events that disarmed the public against war. So maybe this guy is right.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Leaving negotiations up to the Ukrainians freed from Nato interests looks pretty sound to me.
    But Putin now in his latest seems bound on a terrible ethnic cleansing.
    Humanity calls for a better outside assistance to enable Ukraine to fight back.
    Thanks for the clarity of your analysis about this dreadful war and its possible resolutions.

  • Sindri says:

    You don’t know whether to laugh or cry to see the online site of the magazine founded by Richard Krygier and James McAuley becoming the happy hunting ground of conspiracy theorists and nutters, the word is not inaccurate, like andrew2.

  • Sindri says:

    And thanks Mr O’Sullivan for your article.

  • andrew2 says:

    It is a shame, Sindri, that you appear not to have read or understood Dr Wanda Skowronska’s article on Mass Formation before you decided to label me a conspiracy theorist and nutter. It might have given you the appropriate amount of doubt to pause before you typed. Oh well, there goes the neighbourhood.

  • Sindri says:

    What you suggested, andrew2, was that President Zelensky and the US would not hesitate to carry out a false flag chemical weapons attack on Ukrainians in order to bring nato into the war. For this to appear in Quadrant, one would have to say that the neighborhood is already gone.

  • Sindri says:

    And by the way, what exactly do you mean by saying that Pearl Harbour and 911 “disarmed the public against war”? I understand that nutty people think that 911 was a false flag event, but Pearl Harbour? Was that a false flag event too? Do tell.

  • Claude James says:

    In opining on matters such as what Russia and China are up to, it is essential to comprehend that both Russia and China are teetering on the edge of major internal catastrophes.
    Best look into matters of population trends, the conditions of healthcare and education/training, the basics of physical geography, and in consequence of the many negative factors pertaining, how both Russia and China are severely limited in their abilities to maintain themselves as going concerns.
    Russia and China are big threats to the rest of the world, but not for the reasons and not in the ways that the uniformed imagine.

  • andrew2 says:

    Sindri, I did not suggest that they would not hesitate to carry out a false flag, that was what the guy living in Ukraine said in the youtube video, which I quoted. That should be quite evident to you in my proper use of quotation marks. If you don’t know what I meant by mentioning 911 and Pearl Harbour, you should maybe have asked first. I mean what I said, that they were both catastrophic events that turned public opinion in favour of war on both occasions. I have no opinion on whether they were false flags or not. My only opinion is that it would probably take either a major war crime by Russia or a false flag by Ukraine/NATO/USA to bring the help that Zelensky is requesting: for NATO to enforce a no fly zone. I said “so maybe this guy is right” and I see no reason to alter this opinion. The risk of such an event occurring was reinforced by watching an interview with Rep. Maria Salazar (member of the United States House Committee of Foreign Affairs), who has said that enforcement of a no fly zone is “on the table” and also said in an interview “We are also concerned that [Putin] may be throwing a biological weapon against the Ukrainians within the next few hours because he cannot take Kiev, or Kyiv, as he thought he was going to”.
    I don’t know what either side is capable of, what I do know is that most people who hold powerful positions do not let it go unless they are forced to, and will do almost anything to keep it. This happens time and again in the history of war, politics and business. From what I have seen so far from both sides, Zelensky and Putin, I don’t see that either have the necessary concern for human life to make a major human catastrophe unthinkable.
    It’s not a good look that long time readers of Quadrant jump so quickly to derogatory accusations of people.

  • Sindri says:

    1. You posted a preposterous (and in the circumstances, disgraceful and vile) conspiracy theory postulating that President Zelensky and the US might attack Ukrainians with chemical weapons. That is, Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Jew whose relative died in the holocaust, might attack gas his own people. You commented: “maybe this guy is right”.
    Of course you are entitled to make that comment, just as I am entitled to comment that anyone who suggests that such a notion might be “right” is a conspiracy theorist and a nutter.
    2. I asked you what you meant when you said that that Pearl Harbour and 911 “disarmed the public against war”, and whether you thought that they were “false flags”. In response, you said that you had “no opinion on whether they were false flags or not”.
    Really? You have no opinion on whether Pearl Harbour (!) was a false flag? I will give you the benefit of the doubt on that, and assume that’s not what you meant. The only people who think that Pearl Harbour might have been a “false flag” are the people who think that a certain “international conspiracy” – you know the one I mean – was behind the attack on Pearl Harbour, in order to bring the US even more resolutely into the war against Hitler.
    I’m sure you’re not one of those.
    I won’t ask you who you think was responsible for 911. I fear I might find the answer a bit depressing.

  • andrew2 says:

    Despite the inaccuracies in what you have written once again about my opinions, which are no longer worth responding to, I’ll give you one last reply: assuming Zelensky does not have a way to bring NATO into the war he should have surrendered immediately and he would have saved many lives already. He is therefore incompetent and foolish to think that he could begin a war with a weaker armed forces based on his hope that the West would back him up and supply him with what he needed, including air defence. Immediate surrender would have been the heroic in the circumstances. Many kings have weighed up the cost of war and agreed to terms before anyone was killed. Everything I have seen shows that Putin has no intention of backing down until he gets everything he wants. The fact that Russia are hitting targets with cruise missiles and Ukraine seems to have no ability to warn the target is just one example of how mismatched the war is. The one clear thing about war is that the actual events will determine the outcome, not wishful thinking.

  • Brenden T Walters says:

    NATO was formed to resist Russia. It began in the late forties with 12 members, it currently has 30. No wonder Putin was worried. He warned against this Eastern creep by NATO but his ‘red line’ wasn’t taken seriously. The West is now at war with Russia, as it provides the Ukraine with Weapons, Economic sanctions against Russia, and Intelligence. We await Putin’s response.

  • Bruce Parr says:

    Patrick Lancaster seems to be the only Western reporter on the ground in Mariupal. This youtube report of his is confronting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6UzUMrEEXM&t=1s

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