Complacency has since 1991 been the West’s greatest weakness in dealing with Russia. Complacency about the Kremlin’s aims; complacency about its determination to achieve them; complacency about the vulnerabilities of free societies to weaponized disinformation and dirty money.
Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine seemingly prompted the dawn of some belated realism in Western capitals. But the change is still shallow. Russia’s military weakness, revealed in its battlefield difficulties and the hasty, botched mobilization of recent days, has revived the old problem of wishful thinking. Comforting clichés abound: the Russian military is going to collapse as it did in 1917. Even if it does not, the fiasco in Ukraine shows Russia could not possibly threaten any Nato country. Putin is doomed. Whatever regime comes next will be easier to deal with.
The problem is not these assumptions — anything is possible — but the implications we draw from them. Russia’s military certainly faces severe problems. Mutinies, desertions, and a sharp decline in even defensive capabilities in coming months are quite possible. So are some more Ukrainian victories — perhaps including the recapture of Kherson.
But trajectories can change. Russia’s military did indeed disintegrate in 1917. But two years later Lenin’s forces were at the gates of Warsaw. Finland mauled the Soviet army in the Winter War of 1939-40. Hitler’s invading forces made huge gains in the months after the invasion of 1941. But the Soviets still reached Berlin in 1945. Similarly, the war against Ukraine was indeed spectacularly badly conceived and executed. But Russian generals can learn from their mistakes, and if the politicians let them, can act on those lessons. Russia may not be able to take more territory in Ukraine. But given time and more manpower, it may well be able to defend with increasing effectiveness most of what it has already conquered.
Nor should we assume that Russia’s losses have permanently damaged its ability to attack elsewhere. One lesson of the Ukraine war is that Europe is still woefully dependent on the United States in almost all respects. That is not going to change soon. Any distraction or interruption in American attention, either because of a conflict with China, or because of domestic political difficulties, would therefore leave European allies looking militarily and strategically naked. Russia could take advantage of that.
Vladimir Putin may well be in trouble. The past three weeks have been the worst in the Russian leader’s 22 years in power. More humiliations and upsets may lie in store, as military options narrow and political pressure at home increases. He may start looking like a liability to the regime, rather than its principal asset. Change at the top may be messy and abrupt.
The big danger here is that the West’s relief at his departure blinds our decision-makers to its significance. Few realize that problems with Russia predate Putin. They are likely to outlast him. It is easy to imagine, for example, a new junta in power in the Kremlin, blaming the former president for the botched war in Ukraine and seeking a rapprochement with the West (did someone say “reset”?). But that will not necessarily mean any change in Russia’s long-term strategic aims. Post-Putin Russia will still find a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine an intolerable competitive threat. If military pressure against Kyiv has failed, the Kremlin’s new masters will try other approaches.
The greatest antidote to complacency is Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Whether these weapons are used decisively for nuclear blackmail, or whether their command and control splinters amid political chaos, they remain a doomsday threat for the West. Russia defeated is better than Russia victorious. But it is still Russia.