A year after it invaded Ukraine, Russia is weakened and humiliated

The war has been catastrophic for both sides. But Putin’s “special military operation” has been a strategic disaster

February 23, 2023
It was clear early on that Putin had lost the war. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
It was clear early on that Putin had lost the war. Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

One year after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, both countries and the rest of Europe have been transformed by the war. As at other great turning points in European history, this transformation is irreversible; there is no way to return to the world before February 2022, however the war ends. The future of European and global security will be shaped by how states and institutions address this fact.

The domestic and international effects on Russia have been profound and shocking. Already an authoritarian state, it has descended with frightening speed into something approaching totalitarianism, where military training is compulsory for schoolchildren, peaceful protest against the war is punished by 15 years in prison and TV pundits threaten Ukraine-supporting states with nuclear annihilation.

Since the start of the war, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country in an exodus that has been compared to the wave of emigration after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Rich Russians have relocated to Dubai and other places where they can dodge the effects of sanctions. Large numbers of conscription-age men have sought refuge in other states of the former Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of workers in the IT sector are reported to have left, posing significant problems for the economy. It is unclear how many of these people—some of the most highly skilled and economically active Russian citizens—will ever return to their home country. The Kremlin needs them back but, unsurprisingly, has not been able to persuade them.

While the rich and educated have escaped, those in some of the poorest parts of society have not been so lucky. Mobilisation has disproportionately targeted men from Russia’s ethnic minority populations in regions far from Moscow and St Petersburg. In return, their families have been given frozen fish or bags of vegetables or, in one infamous case, packs of towels when soldiers have died. And the state is not the only organisation treating marginalised Russians with contempt. The Wagner mercenary group has recruited thousands of inmates from Russia’s prison system to act as little more than cannon fodder. Staggering numbers of them—reportedly up to 80 per cent of those deployed—have been killed, wounded or captured.

The UK government estimates that there have been 200,000 Russian casualties, 60,000 of them killed—four times more than the number of Soviet troops killed in a decade-long war in Afghanistan. Perhaps as startling as the numbers is the ratio of killed to wounded; observers have suggested that this is partly a result of inadequate medical support but also of poor unit cohesion, with soldiers unwilling to risk their own lives to save injured men.  

It is hard to see how any of this can be sustained in the medium or long term, either organisationally or politically. Across Nato and the EU, policymakers and analysts are contemplating the prospects for Putin’s political survival, and who might replace him if discontent and infighting within elite circles grow. The possibility of a state collapse on the scale of the USSR’s dissolution in 1991 concerns many western policymakers, as was clear from President Macron’s recent comments on the need to avoid crushing Russia. A Soviet-style implosion seems unlikely, but the fact it is being discussed at all is a sign of how much expectations have changed over the last year.

The war has crushed Russia’s claims to anything like a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space

All this is a consequence of Russia’s profound military failure in Ukraine. The damage to the armed forces’ reputation is hard to overstate; the war has been a disaster in every way imaginable. The humiliation of the first phase has been replaced with a war of attrition in which tiny gains are being presented as great victories, because there are no meaningful successes to show for a year of death and defeat. The US’s most senior military officer has rightly said that Russia has lost strategically, tactically and operationally. To make matters worse, this is an entirely unnecessary war of choice, the product of an extraordinary series of miscalculations by Putin about Ukrainians’ capacity to resist, the west’s willingness to support them and even the capabilities of his own armed forces.

Even worse military embarrassment has been avoided by the involvement of Wagner. But this is itself another form of humiliation, demonstrating that what was supposed to be one of the world’s most powerful armed forces has to rely on mercenary groups to avoid deeper defeat. One analyst has observed that not only is Russia’s military not the world’s second most powerful, as widely suggested before the war, it is now not even the most powerful military in the former Soviet Union.

The war has been just as bad for Russia beyond the battlefield. An attempt to assert its revived great power status, the invasion of Ukraine has made the country a far weaker international actor. Forced to look elsewhere to compensate for the loss of European energy customers, it now needs its economic ties with China more than ever, giving Beijing significant leverage in its dealings with Moscow. As a result, what looked a decade ago like a partnership of approximate equals now seems like a relationship of dependence.

Attempting to compensate for this loss of influence, Putin has tried to position Russia as a leader in the fight against imperialism. Although there are many countries outside the west where narratives of Nato aggression play well, there is very little active support for the war from the states of the global south, either materially or diplomatically in forums like the UN General Assembly. The change of government in Brazil seems to have ended any chance of the Kremlin building the Brics grouping of major emerging national economies as a diplomatic support base.

Most damagingly of all, the war has crushed Russia’s claims to anything like a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The Kremlin has lost influence in each of the area’s sub-regions, even among previously close allies. In Europe, Ukraine and Moldova are closer than ever before to membership of western institutions, while the president of Belarus has so far resisted pressure to join the war, despite his dependence on Putin for his political survival. In the South Caucasus, the president of Armenia, another country traditionally dependent on friendly ties to Russia, has been publicly critical of Moscow, while Azerbaijan has taken advantage of the war to revive the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In Central Asia, the Kazakh government has failed to support Putin despite the Russia-led intervention to protect it during large-scale anti-government protests in January 2022. The idea of Russia as a great power—central to its national identity—has always rested in significant part on its ability to dominate the region of the former Soviet Union. The war has destroyed that power.

For Ukraine, the war has been an unimaginable catastrophe. The scale of Russia’s destruction of cities, infrastructure, cultural heritage, and the environment is unprecedented in Europe since the end of World War Two. The atrocities committed by Putin’s troops include the torture, rape, and murder of civilians of all ages and the mass abduction of children. The Kremlin has repeatedly made it clear that it intends to erase Ukrainian identity, culture, and language through a forced assimilation into a greater Russian nation. Putin’s project is genocide.

In the face of this existential threat, the government and people of Ukraine have shown extraordinary resilience and bravery, collectively committing to the idea of their country and to its defence in a way not seen since the collapse of the USSR. One of the Kremlin’s seemingly countless failures is that the war appears to have achieved a greater cohesion of Ukrainian national identity than at any point in the last 30 years, and a rapid move away from Russian language and culture for many Ukrainians.   

Another is that far from demilitarising Ukraine—one of Putin’s stated aims for the “special military operation”—the war has transformed the capabilities and international reputation of the Ukrainian army, making some form of closer military integration with Ukraine a far more attractive prospect for Nato.

Actual Nato membership still looks unlikely, but membership of the European Union is now under serious consideration. It is a mark of Putin’s geopolitical incompetence that Russia’s attack on Ukrainian sovereignty—begun in 2013 to prevent Kyiv developing closer ties to Brussels—has finally made EU accession a realistic possibility.

This is because of the ways that the war has changed both Ukraine and Europe as a whole. Ukraine still experiences many of the classic problems plaguing post-Soviet societies and states, but it has taken significant steps to address them. A high-profile fight against corruption is one example of this; another is an emphasis on liberal values. These developments reflect and are reflected by societal changes, such as the major shift in recent years on attitudes to LGBT rights.

The fight against invasion has made the idea of Ukraine as a European state even more central to its national identity. At the same time, the identity of Europe as a political, cultural, and security space is now tied to Ukraine and what happens there. Earlier this month, Zelensky told the European Parliament that “free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine”; this feeling is shared across the continent in a way that would have been unimaginable before February 2022.

European security has been transformed by the war. Russia is understood to be a serious and immediate threat, and states and institutions are transforming their policies and practices in order to address it. Sweden and Finland’s application for Nato membership is a dramatic example of this; so is the rapid move away from dependence on Russian energy. 

Some sections of Europe’s political class, and the advisers and analysts who support them, still cling to the idea that business as usual can resume once the fighting ends; Putin’s ally Orbán aside, this is perhaps the most common reason for talk of “off-ramps” and settlements in which Ukraine compromises on its territorial integrity. But these voices have diminished as the reality of the war and its consequences have been better understood. There is no going back to the world before the war. This seems to be increasingly accepted, however reluctantly. Europe’s security, as well as Ukraine’s, depends on Nato, the EU, and their individual member states acting consistently in ways that reflect this understanding.

The invasion has made the idea of Ukraine as a European state even more central to its national identity

The decision to invade Ukraine a year ago is one of the greatest strategic errors in recent history. A war intended to restore Moscow’s Soviet-era geopolitical prestige by exploiting western weakness has triggered the likely expansion of Nato and the possible expansion of the EU; created greater resolve and unity among their members than has been seen for decades; eroded Russia’s influence in what it sees as its sphere of influence; and put the weakness and incompetence of its armed forces on global display.

It was clear from very early in the war that for all these reasons Putin had lost. That failure has transformed Ukraine, Russia, and the whole of Europe. The war to restore Soviet-style great power has finally put an end to post-Soviet Europe. Global security depends on Moscow and western states adjusting to a post-post-Soviet future.