If I could give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine a name for posterity, I think I’d call it the War of Surprises, because from the get-go it so thoroughly confounded the military mavens and experts on Russia and Ukraine. For now, though, let me confine myself to exploring just two surprising aspects of that ongoing conflict, both of which can be posed as questions: Why did it occur when it did? Why has it evolved in such unexpected ways?
It’s NATO’s Fault
Though a slim majority of experts opined that Putin might use force against Ukraine many months after his military buildup on Ukraine’s border began in early 2021, few foresaw an all-out invasion. When he started massing troops, the reigning assumption was that he was muscle-flexing, probably to extract a promise that NATO would cease expanding toward Russia.
Some context helps here. NATO had just 16 members at its Cold War peak. More than three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has 30 — 32 when Finland and Sweden, which sought membership after Putin’s invasion, are allowed to join. Long before Putin became president in 2000, Russian officials were already condemning the eastward march of the American-led former Cold War alliance. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin made his opposition clear to President Bill Clinton.
In October 1993, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepared to travel to Russia, James Collins, chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow, sent him a cable warning that “NATO expansion is neuralgic to Russians.” If continued “without holding the door open to Russia,” he added, it would be “universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russia alone — or ‘Neo-Containment,’ as Foreign Minister [Andrei] Kozyrev recently suggested.”
In February 2008, eight years into Putin’s presidency and about a month before a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, William Burns, then the American ambassador to Moscow and now the director of the CIA, sent a cable to Washington focusing on Ukraine. “NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine,” he warned, “remains an ‘emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia.” That same month, in a memo to President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Burns wrote that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would cross “the brightest of all red lines” for Russia’s leaders. “I have,” he continued, “yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Such diplomatic missives had little effect as NATO expansion became the centerpiece of Washington’s new security order in Europe. In April 2008, at Bush’s urging, NATO finally took a fateful step at that Bucharest summit, declaring that Ukraine and Georgia would, one day, join its ranks.
Now, it was one thing to include former Soviet allies from Central Europe in NATO, but Ukraine was another matter entirely. In the eyes of Russian nationalists, the two countries shared a centuries-long set of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious ties with Ukrainians, not to mention a 1,426-mile-long border, a point Putin made in a 7,000-word essay he wrote in July 2021, tellingly titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Putin, who never regarded Ukraine as an authentic state, saw the Ukrainians’ overwhelming December 1991 vote in favor of independence as a deep injustice. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that he told George W. Bush at a NATO-Russia Council meeting held during that 2008 Bucharest summit, “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is Eastern Europe, another part [Ukraine east of the Dnipro River], and a significant one, is a donation from us.” He later added ominously that, if Ukraine entered NATO, it would lose Crimea, its sole Russian-majority province, and the Donbas, its Russophone east. In his 2016 book, All the Kremlin’s Men, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar confirmed that Putin had indeed threatened to destroy Ukraine, were it to join NATO.
Those who blame NATO for the present war point to just such evidence. And it can’t be denied that NATO expansion created tension between Russia and the West, as well as Russia and Ukraine. But the alliance’s Bucharest promise that Ukraine would become a member someday didn’t make Putin’s war any less surprising.
Here’s why: between then and the invasion moment, NATO never followed through on its pledge to take the next step and provide Kyiv with a “membership action plan.” By February 2022, it had, in fact, kept Ukraine waiting for 14 years without the slightest sign that its candidacy might be advancing (though Ukraine’s security ties and military training with some NATO states — the U.S., Britain, and Canada, in particular — had increased).
So, the NATO-was-responsible theory, suggesting that Putin invaded in 2022 in the face of an “existential threat,” isn’t convincing (even if one believes, as I do, that NATO’s enlargement was a bad idea and Russian apprehensions reasonable).
It’s Democracy, Stupid
A rival explanation for Putin’s war is that it stemmed from his fear of liberal democracy. Under his rule, Russia had become steadily more authoritarian until the state was embodied in a single person: him. Putin’s greatest fear, so this explanation goes, was the specter of Russians thronging the streets demanding more freedom — and so, his departure. For that reason, he curbed the media, exiled opposition figures, allegedly had others like Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov killed, and jailed Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident and the person most likely to lead a grassroots rebellion against him.
According to this account, Putin can’t imagine Russians turning against him spontaneously, since he played such a crucial role in putting the 1990s — a decade of economic collapse, fire sales of state property to sleazy “oligarchs,” rising poverty, and potential civil war — behind them. Instead, he built a strong state, imposed order, crushed the Chechens’ attempted secession, paid off Russia’s massive debt early, rebuilt the army, revved up the economy, and left the country standing tall as a great power once again.
So, if Russians do protest en masse (as they did from 2011 to 2013 against rigged elections), it must be thanks to instigation from abroad, as was supposedly true in adjoining countries like Georgia during its 2003 Rose Revolution, Kyrgyzstan during its 2005 Tulip Revolution, and Ukraine during its Orange Revolution that same year. Putin, this narrative continues, hated the “color revolutions” because they created turmoil in regions he deemed Russia’s sphere of influence or in which, as former president Dmitry Medvedev put it, the country has “privileged interests.”
But his real beef against citizen rebellions in Russia’s neighborhood, according to this explanation of what sparked the invasion, is that they might inspire insurrection in Russia. And when it came to that, he especially feared such events in Ukraine. In 2014, after all, its “revolution of dignity” culminated in the ouster of a Russian-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych. For Putin, in other words, that revolt hit too close to home. He reacted by annexing Crimea (after a referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution), while working to foster two separatist “republics” across the border in Ukraine’s Donbas region. A little more than a month before his invasion at a meeting of the Russia-led Collective Treaty Organization, he warned that “we will not allow the realization of so-called color-revolution scenarios” and promptly dispatched 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan following a revolt there.
As for Ukraine, while it may be an imperfect democracy, it was certainly making progress. Its elections were cleaner than Russia’s and its media far freer, as political parties competed, governments were voted in and out of power, and civic groups multiplied. All of this, so goes the argument, Putin found intolerable, fearing that such democratic ideas and aspirations would eventually make their way to Russia.
As it happens, though, none of this explains the timing of his invasion.
After all, Ukraine had been moving toward political plurality for years, however slowly and unevenly, and however far it still had to go. So, what was happening in 2021 that could have taken his fear to new heights? The answer: nothing, really. Those who claim that NATO was irrelevant to the invasion often insist that the deed sprang from Putin’s ingrained authoritarianism, dating back to his days in Russia’s secret police, the KGB, his love of unchecked power, and his dread of uppity citizens inclined to rebellion.
The problem: none of this explains why the war broke out when it did. Russia wasn’t then being roiled by protests; Putin’s position was rock-solid; and his party, United Russia, had no true rivals. Indeed, the only others with significant followings, relatively speaking, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democracy Party (neither liberal nor democratic), were aligned with the state.
According to yet another explanation, he attacked Ukraine simply because he’s an imperialist through and through, yearns to go down in history as Putin the Great (like Russian tzars Peter the Great and Catherine the Great), and has been transfixed by far-right thinkers, above all the exile Ivan Ilyin, whose remains he arranged to have returned to Russia for reburial.
But why then did a Russian ruler seized by imperial dreams and a neo-fascist ideology wait more than two decades to attack Ukraine? And remember, though now commonly portrayed as a wild-eyed expansionist, Putin, though hardly a peacemaker, had never previously committed Russian forces to anything like that invasion. His 1999-2009 war in Chechnya, though brutal, was waged within Russia and there was no prospect of outside intervention to help the Chechens. His brief military foray into Georgia in 2008, his landgrab in Ukraine in 2014, his intervention in Syria in 2015 — none were comparable in their size or audacity.
Do I have a better explanation? No, but that’s my point. To this day, perhaps the most important question of all about this war, the biggest surprise — why did it happen when it did? — remains deeply mysterious, as do Putin’s motives (or perhaps impulses).
God Doesn’t Favor the Bigger Battalions
Once Russian troops did cross Ukraine’s border, just about everyone expected Kyiv to fall within days. After that, it was assumed, Putin would appoint a quisling government and annex big chunks of the country. The CIA’s assessment was that Ukrainian forces would be trounced in no time at all, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley reportedly told members of Congress that resistance would fizzle within a mere three days. Those predictions briefly seemed on the mark. After all, the Russian army made its way to the northern suburbs of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv — think of a military bent on capturing Washington, D.C., reaching Bethesda, Maryland — before being stopped in its tracks. Had it taken that city, we would be in a different world today.
But — perhaps the biggest surprise of all — the far weaker Ukrainian army not only prevented what was then considered the world’s second-greatest military superpower from taking Kyiv, but in September 2022 ejected Russian forces from the northeastern province of Kharkiv. That October, it also pushed them out of the portion of the southern province of Kherson they had captured on the right bank of the Dnipro River. In all, Ukrainian forces have now retaken about half the territory Russia occupied after the invasion.
As winter approached that year, the crescent-shaped frontlines extending from northern Luhansk Province (one of two that make up the Donbas region) all the way south became the scene of World War I-style trench warfare, with both sides throwing their troops into a virtual meat grinder. Still, since then, despite having overwhelming superiority in soldiers and firepower — the estimated artillery exchange ratio between the two forces has been put as high as 7:1 — Russia’s advance has been, at best, glacial, at worst, nonexistent.
The Russian army’s abysmal performance has perplexed experts. According to American, British, and Norwegian estimates, it has suffered something on the order of 180,000-200,00 casualties. Some observers do believe those numbers are significantly too high, but even if they were off by 50%, the Russian army’s casualties in one year of fighting would exceed by perhaps twofold the losses of the Soviet Union’s Red Army during its 10-year war in Afghanistan.
Russia has also lost thousands of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters, while vast amounts of equipment, abandoned intact, have fallen into Ukrainian hands. All of this, mind you, after Putin initiated a mega-bucks military modernization drive in 2008, leading the Economist to declare in 2020 that “the Russian military dazzles after a decade of reform” and NATO had better watch out.
For the surprising evolution of the war, unlike so much else, I do have an explanation. Military experts typically dwell on what can be counted: the level of military spending, the number of soldiers, tanks, warplanes, and artillery pieces a military has, and so on. They assume, reasonably enough, that the side with more countable stuff is likely to be the winner — and quickly if it has a lot more as Russia indeed did.
There is, however, no way to assign numerical values to morale or leadership. As a result, they tend to be discounted, if not simply omitted from comparisons of military power. In Ukraine, however, as in the American wars in Vietnam in the last century and Afghanistan in this one, the squishy stuff has, at least so far, proven decisive. French emperor Napoleon’s dictum that, in war, “the moral is to the physical as three to one” may seem hyperbolic and he certainly ignored it when he led his Grande Armée disastrously into Russia and allowed the brutal Russian winter to shred its spirit, but in Ukraine — surprise of surprises — his maxim has held all too true, at least so far.
When it comes to surprises, count on one thing: the longer this war continues, the greater the likelihood of yet more of them. One in particular should worry us all: the possibility, if a Russian defeat looms, of a sudden escalation to nuclear war. There’s no way to judge or measure the probability of such a dreaded dénouement now. All we know is that the consequences could be horrific.
Though neither Russia nor the United States seeks a nuclear war, it’s at least possible that they could slide into one. After all, never, not even in the Cold War era, has their relationship been quite so poisonous, only increasing the risk of both misperception and overreaction born of worst-case thinking. Let us hope, in this war of surprises, that it remains nothing more than another of the scenarios strategists like to imagine. Then again, if as 2021 began, I had suggested that Russia might soon invade Ukraine and begin a war in Europe, you would undoubtedly have thought me mad.