Lack of success in Ukraine has become a problem for the Russian government and the Russian media. Russian leader Vladimir Putin does not tolerate public criticism. After all, Putin began his career as a Soviet KGB officer. Back then openly criticizing the KGB was against the law and violators were jailed or simply died under mysterious circumstances. Putin revived those practices after the invasion of Ukraine turned out to be a disaster for Russia. Now the Ukrainians are counter-attacking with the goal of driving Russians out of Ukraine entirely. Another embarrassing aspect of the Ukraine fighting was that the Ukrainian received over $80 billion in military and other aid from NATO countries while no one was helping Russia. Several groups in Russia have opinions on why this is so and not all of these opinions agree with each other.
Some Russians see the invasion of Ukraine as necessary if Russia is to negotiate with the West on an equal basis. The invasion triggered massive Western economic sanctions on Russia, which kept Russian leaders developing methods to cope with the economic impact, especially on ordinary Russians. Vladimir Putin first established power in Russia two decades ago by paying attention to the standard of living for Russians, especially those surviving on a pension. This made Putin very popular, although that popularity is diminishing the longer Russian forces are struggling in Ukraine. This has encouraged the more radical supporters of Putin’s foreign policy. This produced the “angry Russia” faction that opposes any efforts to negotiate with the West. Demands are preferred but the more Russia struggles in Ukraine the less likely anyone in the West wants to negotiate with Russia. This is because Russia tends to break agreements made with the West and blame the West for forcing Russia to take drastic action.
Despite many failures, Putin remains in power. Despite that, the growing list of threats is eroding that power. Russians like a strong leader, but there is a limit to how many of the leader’s mistakes they will tolerate. This has created a bad situation for Putin because the most common causes of wars are territorial disputes and overconfidence by the aggressor. The current war in Ukraine is the result of over a decade of bad decisions by Russian leaders, particularly Vladimir Putin, who has been running Russia for over two decades despite term-limits laws and continued, but futile, popular opposition.
The first actual invasion of Ukraine occurred nine years ago after five days of popular protests in Ukraine forced a pro-Russia Ukrainian president to flee to Russia. Victor Yanukovych had won the 2010 presidential election because of promises to seek greater economic and diplomatic links with the West. At that point Russia had been interfering in Ukrainian affairs for over a decade in an effort to prevent Ukraine from becoming more Western and less subservient to Russia. Yanukovych was bribed by the Russians to renege on his election promises about closer links with the West. In late 2013 Yanukovych was supposed to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU (European Union). To the surprise of the Ukrainians who voted for him, Yanukovych refused to sign the EU agreement and announced he was going to seek closer ties with Russia. This triggered a popular uprising demanding he resign. At first Yanukovych tried using violence to suppress what came to be called the Maidan Revolution. Over a hundred protesters were killed but the number of protesters in Kyiv grew and Yanukovych fled to Russia. The Ukrainian parliament then voted to officially remove Yanukovych from office and an interim president was selected to arrange new elections and sign the EU agreement. Petro Poroshenko was elected president in May 2014.
Russia was dismayed by the removal of Yanukovych and turned to more violent solutions to their Ukraine problems. Russia declared that former Ukrainian president Yanukovych was still the legitimate president and had him write a letter requesting Russian military assistance in Crimea, where the new Ukrainian government was threatening to cancel the lease Russia had for their naval base. Russia was providing Yanukovych with sanctuary and protection from prosecution for crimes he is accused of in Ukraine.
Russia was acting on its belief that three Ukrainian provinces, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk should be part of Russia because most of the people in those provinces were Russian speakers and could be persuaded to voluntarily join Russia. This turned out to be only partially true. Many of the Russians in Crimea were military personnel and their families, living there because of the continued use of Sevastopol as the Black Sea Fleet headquarters. Russia prepared a surprise operation that involved the 22nd and 45th GRU (Military Intelligence) spetsnaz (special operations) regiments, which were part of the Russian military force but not identified as spetsnaz. There were only a few hundred spetsnaz in Crimea and Ukrainians soon were able to recognize the “little green men” with weapons and lots of attitude wearing uniforms with no insignia. Also identified were recently (after the takeover began) arrived members of the infamous (for brutal but effective special operations in Chechnya) Vostok battalion and an airborne unit (31st Airborne Brigade) that showed up in a lot of tricky situations (Bosnia, Chechnya, Georgia). In other words, what foreign intelligence agencies have come to regard as The Usual Suspects whenever there is an operation using a lot of special operations troops.
Ukraine appealed to the West for help, not just a trade deal. Putin’s actions in Ukraine had made Ukraine closer to the west and seek membership in NATO. Putin had invoked grievances with NATO and sought to resolve them by claiming they attacked Ukraine to annex it to Russia. This was considered necessary to restore Ukraine to its status as part of Russia. Putin later claimed that he was seeking to restore other areas to Russian control.
Putin eventually named portions of Poland as one of its future targets for absorption into “Greater Russia”, otherwise known as the Russian empire. Belarus, the Baltic States and some former Soviet territories in Central Asia are also on the acquisition list. None of these targets for Russian aggression are willing to go peacefully. As the largest and wealthiest East European NATO member, Poland is leading the way by rearming to confront any future threat. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Poland decided to increase the size of the armed forces to 300,000 personnel and spend at least three percent of GDP on defense. NATO agreements suggest two percent of GDP but few European NATO members reached two percent. Now more NATO members are reaching or exceeding two percent and the increases are higher the closer the country is to Russia.
The NATO nations close to Russia or bordering Russia insist that if Russia is allowed to keep any Ukrainian territory, the Russians will attack them too as part of an effort to reconstitute the Greater Russia that the tsars and later communists created and maintained until 1991. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has always insisted that the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a big mistake and must be rectified. Many Russians agree with that, but are less willing to pay the economic and military price that Ukraine demonstrated would result if Russia tried.
Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan are nervous because they are, after Ukraine, according to Vladimir Putin, on the list of former Soviet territories that need to be reunited with Greater Russia. That would be difficult because these three states have growing economic ties with China and diplomatic ties with India.
Russia later expanded its territorial claims beyond Ukraine to include what it openly called Greater Russia. This is not quite rebuilding the tsarist or communist empires because Russia does not want the expensive to rule Central Asian states, but rather more lucrative territories Russian once ruled. This includes portions of Poland, all of the Baltic States and Finland, and parts of Alaska. There are some serious legal and practical problems with these claims. The United States has a larger military and nukes which might come into play to deal with efforts to enforce any Russian claims on Alaska. Russia is making claims on several Eastern European NATO members who are protected by the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty.
Russia and all the nations involved are members of the United Nations. Article 51 of the UN charter demands that members refrain from the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. Russia says this does not apply because Ukraine is a breakaway part of Russia and Russian troops are seeking to liberate Ukraine from foreign (NATO) oppression. Ukraine is also a UN member and protests Russian claims as well as the UN tolerating the Russian use of its Security Council veto to block any serious UN opposition to the Russian aggression.
Ukraine pointed out that the Ukrainian forces will force Russian troops out of Ukraine and then the problem will be what the rest of the world does with Russia.
Putin’s decisions have led Western and even some Russian media to describe Putin as out of control and deranged. That sort of talk can get you arrested in Russia. This is only one of many unpopular Putin decisions. Another one is the effort to sever access to the Internet outside of Russia. Only a few government and commercial operations would have access to the Internet beyond Russia’s borders. Putin has had this system tested recently and there were still major problems that had to be fixed before he could sever international Internet access for most Russians. This is not popular with most Russian Internet users.
Putin appears to go out of his way with actions and statements that further diminish his popularity inside Russia. There are still like-minded Russians who agree with Putin, but their number dwindles as each new scheme backfires and makes things worse for Russia.