Unlike Peter the Great, who had a record of success, there is growing evidence that Vladimir will fail in his pursuit of conquering Ukraine and incorporating it into a new Russian empire.
London: So now we know. President Vladimir Putin thinks he is the true successor to Peter the Great. During a meeting with young entrepreneurs in Moscow on the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great last week, Putin compared the fate of modern Russia to the empire of Peter the Great. “Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years”, he said, “but while some saw that war as taking land away from Sweden, they were wrong. Peter was not taking anything away from Sweden, he was returning land that rightfully belonged to Russia. That’s how it was.” For “Sweden” read “Ukraine”, and you get the message. Putin concludes that he deserves to be remembered as Vladimir the Great. No wonder he keeps a statue of Peter so prominently displayed in his ornate meeting room in the Kremlin.
Putin, now in his 23rd year in power, has repeatedly sought to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where his forces have devastated cities, killed thousands and put millions of people to flight, by promoting the view of history that asserts Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood. As usual, Putin is very selective in his choice of facts. Peter the Great gave his name to the new capital, St Petersburg (Putin’s hometown), on land he conquered and stole from Sweden, just as Putin is attempting to steal land from Ukraine using the absurd pretence of “liberating” the very people he is killing and whose property he is destroying. His obsession with his neighbour reflects his burning resentment over the collapse of the Soviet Union and his lingering bitterness at post-Soviet Russia’s dramatic loss of international status. This nostalgia is not rooted in fondness for the ideology of Marxist Leninism. It’s because he regards the disintegration of the Soviet Empire as the demise of “historical Russia”. Many times he has spoken of how the 1991 breakup left “tens of millions of our compatriots living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation”.
The reality, it now transpires, is considerably less elaborate and infinitely more chilling. Putin has launched the largest European conflict since the Second World War for the simple reason that he wants to conquer Ukraine. Inspired by the czars of old, Putin aims to crush his neighbour, blaming the war on everything from NATO expansion to imaginary Nazis, while also making completely unsubstantiated and ridiculous claims about Western plots to invade Russia and Ukrainian schemes to acquire nuclear weapons.
But unlike Peter, who had a record of success, there is growing evidence that Vladimir will fail in his pursuit of conquering Ukraine and incorporating it into a new Russian empire. In the early phase of the war, the Russian military faced considerable logistical challenges, in part because of poor training and planning. Their ground offensive was planned and executed based on delusional assumptions about how the Ukrainian military, and population, would respond and how the West might react. Seizing and holding territory was a major objective of Russian policymakers. But controlling territory in a foreign country with a hostile Ukrainian population was deeply problematic for the Russian military, particularly since the conflict began to resemble a “people’s war”.
The Russian invasion force was also far too small to achieve its objectives and in the early days displayed astonishingly poor coordination between land power, air power, and long-range artillery. The result was the sacking of several senior military officials, such as Lt General Kisel, commander of the 1st Guards Tank Army, for “dereliction during the offensive against Kharkiv”, Lt General Yershov, commander of the 6th Combined Arms Army, for “failing to capture Kharkiv”, and Vice Admiral Osipov, commander of the Black Sea Fleet, following the sinking of the flagship cruiser Moskva. In addition, more than a dozen Russian generals and other senior officers have been killed on the battlefield, which, together with the firings, may have exacerbated Russia’s appalling command and control of their forces. Putin is blaming everyone except himself.
This has not gone unnoticed around the world, as countries are closely observing Russia’s dismal performance in Ukraine and drawing their own conclusions. For example, those that historically have had low levels of defence spending, such as Japan and Germany, are bulking up, while nations that purchase most of their weapons from Russia are questioning their reliability and future delivery. Russia’s general sales pitch for its weapons has always been that they are cheaper and easier to maintain than Western alternatives. This is why Russia accounted for 19% of the world’s arms exports from 2017 to 2021, second only to the US, which had 39% of the market. But this pitch may no longer be effective for many countries that have seen Russian equipment losses and failures on the battlefield.
These are significant. More than three months into the war experts assess that Russia has lost about a thousand tanks, at least fifty helicopters, thirty-six fighter-bombers, and some four hundred artillery pieces. A huge number of Russian soldiers have been killed, with estimates ranging from about fifteen thousand to as high as thirty thousand, and the once-thought mighty Russian air force is still unable to control Ukrainian airspace. The situation has become so dire that there are reports that commanders are trying to preserve equipment by forbidding troops from using them to evacuate wounded soldiers or to support units that have advanced too far.
Russia’s offensive weapons have also proved disappointing. Its missile failure rate, the share that either failed to launch, malfunctioned in mid-flight or missed their target, may be as high as 60% due to design flaws and outdated or inferior equipment. As Russia exports about 90% of its weapons to just ten countries, including India, the failures and poor performance are creating serious doubts in the minds of senior officials in their Ministries of Defence about future procurement. After all, Russian weapons might be cheap, but if they fail to work as promised, they could be a total waste of money and, worse still, provide a false sense of security. And there’s more. As the war progresses, it’s becoming clear that Russia’s ability to replace its equipment losses is being hampered by economic sanctions, which bar key foreign components like circuit boards. As Russia will almost certainly need to replace its own military hardware before it exports anything abroad, this means that countries that want to keep buying Russian tanks and fighter jets will have to wait in turn or seek alternatives elsewhere to fulfil their defence needs.
This creates a big opportunity for China. Currently only three of the world’s biggest arms importers, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, buy the majority of their weapons from China. That could change if Beijing takes advantage of Russia’s weakness to position China as a reliable national security, economic and political partner. Currently, US and European weapons are considered top-quality and expensive, therefore unlikely to be supplanted by China. But Beijing might well fill the market niche that Russian arms makers dominate, thereby increasing China’s role as a major weapons exporter, gaining political and market benefits that accompany that.
India, too, could take advantage of Russia’s deteriorating position. Having already cancelled a $520 million helicopter deal in May this year, New Delhi will either have to source spare parts for vehicles and weapons from other former Russia arms customers, such as Bulgaria, Georgia and Poland, or build up India’s own defence industry. The announcement in April that India would ramp up production of helicopters, tank engines, missiles and airborne early-warning systems to offset any potential reduction in Russian exports, could therefore be the start of an exciting and rewarding enterprise for the world’s largest democracy.
Vladimir the “not-so-great” is clearly an angry man. The trouble with anger is that it gets hold of you, and then you aren’t the master of yourself anymore. And when anger is the boss, you create unintended consequences. In years to come, historians will look back on this unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and list the numerous unintended consequences of the war, not least the demise of Russia’s arms industry, arising from Putin’s bizarre and illogical decision on 24 February 2022.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.