Editor’s Note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Six months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine, it’s still not clear how this war will end. Ukraine, which has signaled its intent to launch a new counteroffensive, could retake the Russian-occupied city of Kherson and other parts of the south. But it’s also possible that a reinvigorated Russian force will break through to Odesa, closing off Ukraine from the sea. Or the front line might stabilize roughly where it is.
Whatever happens, we can already derive some lessons from the war so far. Its many surprises should force us to question our old assumptions.
One powerful insight from the last half year concerns the importance of individual leaders. The “great man” theory of history is out of fashion these days given the tendency to see human events as the result of deep underlying forces. Those obviously matter. But had Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky run away – as Putin apparently expected or failed to communicate effectively, the Ukrainian resistance might well have been much weaker. Few anticipated that Zelensky, whose ratings had slumped before the Russian invasion, would prove such an inspiring hero.
Similarly, had the Russian President been, say Boris Yeltsin, thousands of victims of the war would almost certainly still be alive. Without Putin, there would be no war. Sure, there are plenty of angry nationalists in Russia. But, outside the President’s narrow circle, only a small minority wanted to absorb Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling research organization. Judging by the shellshocked faces at the Kremlin’s Security Council meeting in February preceding Putin’s attack, even many of his close associates were bewildered by their boss’s decision.
Ukraine’s battlefield prowess also illustrates a second lesson – the underappreciated power of the underdog. Time after time, we assume the militarily stronger party will quickly prevail. But that view neglects the importance of external support and morale.
When the invasion began, almost everyone thought Kyiv would fall in days. And yet, as we’ve seen in wars from Israel to Vietnam and now Ukraine, underdogs have often performed much better than expected.
Oddly enough, Russia, too, enjoys a version of the underdog advantage. Since February, the West has unleashed an unprecedented barrage of sanctions that some thought would crush Russia’s economy. Its medium run prospects do look bleak. But as of now, the ruble has stabilized, the banking system survived, unemployment remains low, and oil revenues are exceeding those of last year. It helps that other countries that also resent Western dominance – from China and India to Turkey and Indonesia – have refused to isolate Putin.
Putin’s actions also remind us of another key point: Unconstrained autocrats make horrendous mistakes. Quite often, they start revisionist wars to redress “historical injustices.” These have a way of going badly – from Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri’s attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from the UK in 1982 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the Greek generals’ attempted coup in Cyprus in 1974. But past failures have not stopped strongmen from repeating such blunders. If there’s anything we can take away from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s that we cannot plan only to defend against attacks that seem rational.
Within Russia, a notable surprise is the apparent success of Kremlin propaganda, even when peddling conspiracy theories about Nazis in Kyiv. From the outside, these seemed too extreme to work, especially given the many personal bonds that linked people on opposite sides of the border. Of course, it’s hard to gauge public opinion in a police state at war. But the reports of Russians believing the TV lies rather than their own relatives in Ukraine have been striking.
The success of Kremlin misinformation reflects years of repetition, which have primed viewers to believe terrible things of their neighbors. That and the natural desire to avoid admitting they may be governed by war criminals.
In fact, polls suggest a growing urge to tune out the war completely. In July, 32% of Russian respondents said the “special military operation” was the most memorable event of the previous four weeks, down from 75% in March, according to the Levada Center.
Support for the war is certainly not universal. Despite heightened repression, a remarkable 18% of respondents still say they oppose their country’s military actions. A big question for the next six months is whether discontent will grow into a threat to the Kremlin. The danger is less likely to come from anti-war sentiment per se than from potential protests against economic hardship should the sanctions bite.
A final lesson is one the West can no longer avoid. Putin’s Ukrainian aggression has removed any last doubt that we are in a new Cold War. It will take skill to keep this one from heating up. This time, the West’s adversary is not just Russia, but an ever-closer partnership between the Kremlin and China. The idea that the US could “pivot” from one to the other now seems quaint.
As long as Putin remains in power, he will be working to weaken the West. Although cooperation with China remains possible in some spheres, Xi Jinping also looks committed to challenging the power of the United States.
A painful reckoning awaits the West in the next six months. We saw in February that democracies, although slow to react, can rouse themselves once a threat becomes unmistakable. Western unity behind Ukraine in the spring was impressive. The challenge now will be to maintain that cohesion through a winter of dwindling gas supplies as Putin’s Western friends – from German businesses, eager to revive the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to countless French and Italian politicians – attempt to divide us.
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The looming energy crisis is just the beginning. The West has not yet come to terms with the cost of defending itself against China, Russia and a host of other emerging threats. Since the late 1980s, Western leaders have – like populist politicians on a binge – pretended they could simultaneously expand NATO and decrease military spending as a share of the budget. Greedy for a big “peace dividend,” they left the alliance’s new borders – and borderlands beyond them – at best lightly defended. That has to change, and it will not be cheap.
Putin’s last six months could hardly have been a bigger failure. But according to well-sourced analysts, as reported by Bloomberg News, he strongly believes that time is on his side – that the West will fracture in the face of economic pressures. The next six months will show if he is right.