The exposure of his country’s weaknesses by a smaller adversary could threaten the Russian president’s influence abroad and even his hold on power.

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Sept. 16, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a firebrand Russian nationalist who often said publicly what the Kremlin thought privately, issued a forecast during his speech at the Russian parliament’s closing session in December.

A war with Ukraine, he predicted, will start before dawn on Feb. 22. As a result, “Russia will become a great nation again,” he thundered. “Everyone will have to shut their mouths and respect us.”

Mr. Zhirinovsky, who died in April from Covid, was off by just two days on the date of the invasion that triggered Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. But, instead of showcasing Moscow’s newfound might, the Ukrainian war—now in its seventh month—is laying bare Russia’s weaknesses.

Moscow’s recent military defeats, inflicted by a country that it never considered a serious adversary, have challenged Russia’s basic assumptions about itself and its role in the world.

The losses are also prompting Russia’s partners, allies and arms customers to reassess their relationships, with many voicing private shock about Moscow’s bungling even as they hold back from public criticism, according to diplomats.

“Russia’s reputation has taken a significant hit,” said Thomas Graham, Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council in President George W. Bush’s White House. “It’s clear that Russia bogging down in Ukraine is going to raise questions about Russia’s own capacity, about its strength going forward and about how important a power it’s going to be on the global stage.”

Russian defenses crumbled this month after a rapid Ukrainian offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region, where Moscow had begun distributing Russian passports to residents and had recently opened schools following the Russian curriculum. In a hasty retreat, Russian troops vacated in just a few days a tenth of occupied Ukrainian territory. They abandoned hundreds of tanks, self-propelled howitzers and other armored vehicles, and large numbers of Russian troops were taken prisoner.

Russian forces were similarly forced to withdraw from Kyiv and two other regions of northern Ukraine in April. And in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas area, the “liberation” of which has been Moscow’s principal proclaimed war aim, Russia has managed to conquer only a small sliver of territory since then, with some of its gains reversed in recent days.

The poor leadership of Russia’s commanders has been compounded by the disappointing performance of its weapons, matched against more modern Western systems.

“What is currently happening on the front lines makes it clear that the Kremlin cannot demonstrate any victories, and that, in principle, there isn’t any likely scenario for anything that could be called a victory,” said opposition politician Ilya Ponomarev, who was the only Russian lawmaker to vote against annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014.

To be sure, Russia still occupies about a fifth of Ukraine, including the 7% that it seized in 2014, and continues to strike cities, power stations and bridges across the country with long-range cruise missiles. A Ukrainian offensive in the southern Kherson region this month wasn’t as successful as in Kharkiv. Russia retains the ability to dramatically increase its armed forces through mandatory mobilization, a potentially unpopular step that the Kremlin has said isn’t being contemplated. Moscow also holds the ultimate card of using tactical nuclear weapons, though such an escalation would be fraught with unpredictable consequences for Russia itself and would contradict its proclaimed nuclear doctrine.

The poor leadership of Russian commanders in the war has been compounded by the disappointing performance of Russian weapons, matched for the first time in decades against more modern Western systems. While Ukraine possesses only a fraction of the firepower that Russia has deployed on the front lines, its new ability to carry out precise strikes thanks to Western technologies has significantly narrowed that imbalance. Russia’s air force remains largely unable to operate over Ukrainian-controlled territory, and its air defenses fail to protect valuable targets deep in the rear, including air bases in Crimea.

Buyers of Russian weapons have noticed how U.S.-made Himars missiles hit Russian targets with impunity nearly daily and how Moscow has turned to Iran for armed drones to try to redress its vulnerabilities on the battlefield. Turkey recently decided not to buy another S-400 air defense system from Russia, while India and the Philippines have scrapped major agreements to purchase Russian military helicopters. Russia was the world’s second largest weapons exporter in 2017-2021, with 19% of the global market. India, China and Egypt are its three top clients, according to Sipri, a Stockholm-based arms-trade research institute.

“Their industry is going to pay a price for all this,” said ret. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. When the U.S. easily destroyed Russian-made military hardware in the two Gulf wars, he said, Moscow explained it away by the poor training and organization of the Iraqi army. “Well, now you’ve got Russian equipment being operated by Russian soldiers and pilots and sailors, and it’s also being destroyed,” Mr. Hodges said. “This has been quite revealing for the market.”

The new perception of Russia’s weakness means that it is finding itself with even fewer international partners and allies just as it is facing tightening Western sanctions that gradually take a toll on its economy and starve it of modern technologies.

China has been careful not to offer much beyond verbal support to Russia, even as sophisticated Western weapons flow to Ukraine. Companies like Huawei have essentially stopped sales in Russia so as not to run afoul of U.S. sanctions, further depriving it of key technologies. Chinese

manufacturer DJI, whose commercial drones are used for reconnaissance by Russian and Ukrainian troops alike, has ceased supplies to both nations, citing neutrality.

Wang Huiyao, the founder of the Center for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing, said the priority for China today is to end the conflict in Ukraine, which has disrupted the global economy, rather than to help Russia. “There isn’t really a victory on any side. It has already dragged on for over six months now, and looks like it will probably drag on for another six months. It doesn’t seem like a one-sided situation that can be quickly finished,” he said.

While maintaining “just a relation of convenience with Russia” because of the common threat from the U.S., Beijing has repeatedly reiterated its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, he added.

Russia’s renown for military might has long been the key source of domestic legitimacy for Vladimir Putin’s regime.

“There is no Chinese company taking over the vacuum left by Western companies in Russia, and a lot of Chinese companies actually avoid doing further business in Russia,” Mr. Wang said. “I don’t see any Chinese business being more active there than before.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who met Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday for the first time since the invasion began on Feb. 24, appeared to acknowledge the gap. Sitting across from Mr. Xi, Mr. Putin said that “we understand your questions and your preoccupations” with the Ukrainian crisis. A Chinese government statement after the talks made no mention of Ukraine but said that the two leaders have agreed to support each other’s “core interests.”

Russia’s formal allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization are also keeping their distance. With the exception of Belarus, which served as a springboard for the Feb. 24 invasion, they have all abstained in United Nations General Assembly votes criticizing Russia.

Kazakhstan, whose government survived unrest thanks to a Russian military intervention in January, went as far as outlawing the “Z” symbol used in Russia by supporters of the war. Even Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, raising eyebrows in Moscow, congratulated Ukraine on its independence day on Aug. 24 and wished it “peaceful skies.”

A much weakened Russia remains an important power in many parts of the world. For India, which has refrained from criticizing Moscow over Ukraine, the overriding priority is to retain access to Russian spare parts and ammunition, given that the Indian armed forces heavily rely on Soviet-legacy weapons. Another goal is to make sure that Russia doesn’t fully embrace China in the developing rivalry between the two Asian giants.

“Traditionally, it has been a strategic objective of India to keep Russia and China as far apart as possible, or at least to slow down their deepening ties,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “China can offer Russia more than India, which for its own reasons is getting closer to the West.” One side benefit of an enfeebled but friendly Russia for India, she added, is that Russian oil can now be purchased at a heavy discount.

In other parts of the world, Moscow can still provide minor military assistance, in part via the Wagner private military company, that can tip the scales against local insurgencies. Russia remains an important player in Syria, where its relatively small intervention stabilized President Bashar al Assad’s regime. And in several African nations, “Russia is probably judged more by what it has done locally than by what it’s doing in Ukraine,” said Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia and a professor emerita at Georgetown University.

For Russia—with a GDP the size of Italy’s, no popular-culture exports of global appeal and few recent technological or scientific achievements—military strength, both in conventional and nuclear forces, has long represented its chief claim to great-power status.

Mr. Putin has repeatedly boasted about Russian weapons, and Moscow has successfully used its military to achieve victories in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas in 2014, and in Syria the following year.

“Russia has historically had relatively weak economic foundations of power and often relied on the military instrument as one of its strongest arguments for why it should be considered and recognized as a great power,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank that provides research for the U.S. military. “But impressions of military power can change fairly quickly, especially if you have a disastrous war like Russia is having in Ukraine.”

Russia’s renown for military might has also long been the key source of domestic legitimacy for Mr. Putin’s regime, especially after the country’s economy, which prospered in the first decade of his rule, contracted and then stagnated following the military intervention in Crimea and the Donbas in 2014.

Mr. Putin, who made a rare foray outside the confines of the Kremlin to pay his last respects to Mr. Zhirinovsky in April, has turned the celebrations of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory against Nazi Germany into something akin to state religion in contemporary Russia.

In the Kremlin’s narrative, spread daily by Russian propaganda, the Ukrainian state (headed by a Jewish president) represents modern-day Nazis, and the current “special military operation” is a reprise of World War II. Anything short of an outright victory, therefore, would represent a historic betrayal of the legacy of 1945, threatening the very foundations of the regime.

That is why Russian military officials and Mr. Putin himself keep insisting that the “special operation” is going strictly according to plans. The Russian ministry of defense described this month’s rout in Kharkiv as a planned troop redeployment to make it easier to “liberate” the Donbas.

Cracks in the official narrative are beginning to appear, with some commentators describing the Russian retreat in Kharkiv in the same apocalyptic tones as Soviet defeats there in 1942.

“We haven’t lost anything and won’t lose anything,” Mr. Putin said at an economic forum in the Pacific city of Vladivostok this month. Russia will fulfill its duty in the Donbas “to the end,” Mr.

Putin pledged, “and at the end of the day, this will strengthen our country, both within and in its international position.”

Russian public opinion, by and large, has accepted this version of events, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment who specializes on perceptions within Russian society. “Putin’s propaganda is able to describe losses as a victory,” he said. “You just have to find the right words because the public opinion is so indifferent.”

Yet, cracks in this narrative are beginning to appear, with some nationalist commentators and military bloggers describing the Russian retreat in Kharkiv in the same apocalyptic tones as Soviet defeats in the same area in 1942.

“The main lesson should be that the Russian Federation must stop looking at Ukraine from the condescending viewpoint of absolute strategic superiority and start fighting smartly, with teeth, claws and everything else that we’ve got,” wrote ultranationalist historian Yegor Holmogorov, who advocates eliminating Ukrainian language and culture.

Speaking at the Russian parliament’s opening session on Tuesday, Gennadiy Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, called for telling the truth about the Russian military’s “failure” in Kharkiv and—breaking an important taboo—said that the “special military operation” in Ukraine has now become a full-scale war.

So far, criticism within Russia has focused not on Mr. Putin but on Russia’s military brass, particularly Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, derided on social media as the “plywood marshal” for having conducted a 2017 re-enactment of the 1945 Battle of Berlin, complete with a specially constructed plywood Reichstag.

In one widely circulated post, Maksim Fomin, a pro-Russian fighter and commentator in the Donbas, urged Mr. Putin to fire his generals and take personal command of “our Holy War,” the way Czar Nicholas II did in 1915 and Stalin in 1941. Other nationalist commentators have urged Mr. Putin to mobilize civilians to beef up the Russian army’s depleted ranks or to strike Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons.

“While Russia seems to have failed in its plan, the war is not over yet. Neither Putin nor his siloviki can afford to appear being weak, or losing,” Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview, using the Russian word for senior security and military officials.

A show of weakness can be fatal. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, he recalled, was ousted in a palace coup after the Soviet establishment viewed him as yielding too much to the U.S. during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. “Any ruler is strong while he is being perceived as strong,” Mr. Rinkevics said. “If he is being perceived as weak, then challengers appear.”


Thomas Graham is Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.