Vladimir Putin probably knew well before he first became prime minister in 1999 and certainly by the time he became Russia’s president in 2012 that the Soviet Union was, in the words of former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, an “Obervolta mit Raketen” (Upper Volta with Missiles).
He must have realized that any effort to rectify this situation to enable Russia to compete with the U.S. would be hugely costly and require a Herculean effort which, at best, would only have a slim chance of success. Instead, as a product of the Soviet KGB where maskirovka (translated as masking) is a guiding principle, he opted for a strategic deception plan aimed at convincing the world of Russia’s military might on a par with its arch rivals.
To further this phantasm Putin undertook several blitz-type operations designed to project an image of a military ready to relentlessly pursue Russia’s great power ambitions.
For instance in 2008, he ordered a lightening full-scale land, air and sea invasion of Georgia, including its undisputed territory, referring to it as a "peace enforcement” operation. This was Europe’s first war of the 21st century. After five days of fighting Russia gained control of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia.
In early 2014, Russian naval infantry, special forces, and airborne troops rapidly seized control of the Crimean Peninsula. In the Spring of 2014, Russian special forces and troops mobilized, led, equipped and supported separatist militias who seized control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
In September 2015, Moscow launched its first expeditionary operation since the Soviet era. Moscow rushed to rescue the teething regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It deployed fixed-wing and helicopter aviation assets to Syria. It also provided intelligence information, advisors, ammunition, and artillery. In return Putin was granted a naval and an air base on Syrian territory. He could now stake a (false) claim to a new Russian zone of influence and to supplanting American presence in the Middle East.
Then came the invasion of Ukraine. What was to be Putin’s master stroke promoting his plan to reconstitute the USSR’s territories while simultaneously advance his deception plan backfired badly. The painstakingly crafted picture of a formidable Russian military simply evaporated almost immediately after its forces had crossed into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. There cannot be better evidence of the collapse of Putin’s grand design than the “partial“ mobilization which the Russian leader was forced to order. Even worse is his need for military aid from such countries as Syria (soldiers and mercenaries), Iran (reconnaissance and kamikaze drones) and North Korea (millions of rockets and artillery shells).
What did U.S. intelligence know about the Russian military’s real fighting capabilities?
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) 2017 publication Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, stated: “The Russian military today is on the rise...[it is] a smaller, more mobile, balanced force rapidly becoming capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare...[It] can be used to underpin Moscow’s stated ambitions of being a leading force in a multipolar world.”
It is hardly surprising that as Russia appeared on the verge of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. intelligence reports, “left an ominous impression of Russia’s abilities“ according to Politico on June 15.
During a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearings last May (even before Ukraine launched its successful counteroffensive) Sen. Josh Hawley (R. Missouri) said “We pretty dramatically overestimated the strength of the Russian military.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) stated “We had testimony … that Kyiv was going to fall in three or four days and the war would last two weeks. That turned out to be grossly wrong.
In response Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines indicated that U.S. spy agencies were reviewing where they erred. “It’s a combination of will to fight and capacity, in effect, and the two of them are issues that are … quite challenging to provide effective analysis on.”
However this was hardly a definitive explanation for the causes for the U.S. intelligence’s failure. It appears the erroneous assessment was based on a mirror-image fallacy where the American conception of “modern warfare” was observed in the organization and doctrine of the Russian military. Most importantly, the determination that the Russian military force was “rapidly” becoming capable of conducting the “full range” of modern battlefield operations was heavily influenced by the recent Russian military operations. Yet it is doubtful these were indicative of the true capabilities of the Russian military. In two of the engagements (Georgia and Syria) the Russians had an overwhelming superiority and in one (Crimea) the Russians operated while unopposed. Drawing general conclusions based on these military displays meant that the U.S. intelligence in effect “bought” Putin’s deception scheme hook, line and sinker.
While the U.S. intelligence conception (carefully cultivated by Putin’s strategic deception) led it to hugely overestimate the prowess of the Russian military, Putin’s own conception led to fatal underestimation of the Ukrainians. Consequently the entire Russian battle plan rested on the assessment it could quickly take out the Ukraine government, and that Russian troops would be greeted as liberators as they stormed the whole country.
No Plan B was prepared in case the operation stalled.
Putin apparently believed Ukraine would be a replica of his other successful limited military forays and that he had hit on a winning strategy to reclaim Russia’s old glory - no wonder he dubbed the invasion a “special military operation." Such was the prevalence of this intelligence concept that the Russians never bothered with laying down secured logistic lines to support their invading force. Nor was a Plan B prepared in case the operation stalled. Soldiers were not told what was their true mission, indicating deception was exercised even vis-a-vis Russia’s own troops.
A main beneficiary of the Ukraine war and Russia’s mounting problems is China. In its aftermath Russia’s position has deteriorated further and it is on the way to possibly becoming a satellite state of China.
For example an enormous and growing trade imbalance favoring China has become apparent. In 2013, China accounted for 11 percent of Russia’s trade. In 2021, the figure was 18 percent, while Russia represented a puny 2 percent share of China’s trade. This imbalance is even more striking when considering that 70 percent of Russia’s exports to China are energy related.
The war in Ukraine forced Moscow into giving the Chinese preference in trade at below market rates, losing key global arms markets and increasingly becoming a back room supplier to an Asia dominated by China.
Moreover Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are breeding instability throughout the country’s sphere of influence especially in Central AsIa.
The decline as a world power, is especially pronounced as Russia is not just losing its footing vis-a-vis the West, but also its standing towards its East. If Russia’s expansionism was actually motivated by Putin’s concern over an evolving NATO threat, he must be terrified in the wake of the Ukraine war.
Beijing can be expected to assume a more assertive foreign policy posture and redouble its efforts to contain and eventually expel America’s presence and influence from the Asia-Pacific region. China’s belligerence toward Taiwan and the South China Sea will likely intensify as well.
In sum Putin’s debacle is complete. From aspirations to play in the Premier League his relegation to the ranks of the "hasbeens" maybe permanent. Still an Upper Volta armed with nuclear tipped missiles is a pretty scary proposition if its leader is obsessed with imperial ambitions or is simply seeking revenge.
Dr. Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles and op-eds on national security issues.