Imperial Failure

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine should not have been a surprise. Not to anyone. It was, in large part, a result of the imperial imperative; the desire of an egotistical leader with dictatorial powers to reconstruct the global prestige and territorial influence of the pre-1989 Soviet Union, and thus to raise himself to the status of the great leaders of the past. It thus had much in common, predictably so, with the military actions of many failing and former imperial regimes of the past. Another primary motive was the desire to reverse the supposed threat posed to the Russian regime by regional governments that support reforms such as democratic processes, freedom of speech, anti-corruption movements, and growing alignment with NATO and western Europe. Statements by President Putin and his supporters and his media have demonstrated the importance of political control within their “sphere of influence” as they promoted the imperial myth of Ukraine as an integral part of historical Russia.

The propagandistic preface to the 2022 attack on Ukraine thus mirrors the justifications that preceded the 2014 takeover of the Crimean peninsula and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia which resulted in the occupation of the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The timing of the Georgia military action followed Putin’s 2000 election and the 2003 changes that brought an increasingly pro-western government to power in Georgia. There is an unfortunate trend here, one that puts Putin’s actions during his two-decade reign solidly within the global pattern displayed by imperial powers faced with the dissolution of their territorial influence, a violent history that does not bode well for the future. The almost inevitable consequence of imperial decline is war, military attempts to retain or regain powers that were at one time viewed by the empire as normal and appropriate.

War also has its common patterns. One almost ubiquitous and likely necessary function in justifying an attack on any foreign population is demonization of the people and their leadership. In reference to Ukraine, of course, the Russian propagandists have had a problem in that the people of Ukraine are largely indistinguishable, in physical and cultural terms, from much of the population of Russia. They do not have darker skins or distinctive facial features, the types of characteristics that have so often served colonial subjugation of southern hemisphere regions by northern hemisphere countries. Ukrainians are mostly Christians, not largely Muslim like the populations of Chechnya or Afghanistan. Even their clothing and customs are similar to those of the region around them, encompassing countries like Belarus and Moldova as well as large southwestern segments of Russia. Many Ukrainians even speak Russian and have relatives living in Russia. Therefore, to justify military action, Russian propaganda had to invent some other differences and amplify them in propaganda.

The Kremlin government responded to this need in two ways. First, they characterized the Ukrainian leadership as a pro-Nazi regime maintained by a fascist military. This is an effective message because of the strong regional memory of the trauma of World War II, so that in much of Russia the necessity of defeating and excising Nazis is understood at a visceral level. Second, they have severely controlled the media, making sure that any unapproved information about Ukraine or about their operations there, especially news about the destruction of cities and attacks on civilians, is strictly blocked. The war is not a war, it is a “special military operation.” Under a new law anyone in Russia can be imprisoned for as many as 15 years if they spread information other than the official message or if they use the words “war” or “invasion.” Independent media sources and popular social media platforms have been virtually silenced.

The Russian propaganda efforts at home seem to have been successful. Polls report that public support for Vladimir Putin has risen to near 80 percent. Many Russian nationals living in Ukraine have noted that their relatives in Russia refuse to believe any of their first-hand accounts about the actions of the Russian Army. There are indications that the indiscriminate violence used by Russian troops against civilians in Ukraine has been motivated by beliefs that the vast majority of the Ukrainian population supports Nazi philosophy and Nazi activities, that even Ukrainian civilians are, in effect, the enemy, and are deserving of harsh punishment. In short, Ukrainians have been broadly and effectively demonized, and this development has affected the conduct of the war.

What was unexpected in the progress of this war was the failure of the Russian military to sweep across Ukraine in a dominant blitzkrieg-style attack. The model for this, of course, is the effective movement of Hitler’s forces in the previous major European land war, the attacks of the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was assumed that Putin’s forces had levels of hardware superiority and troop strength similar to that of World War II Germany, characteristics that gave Hitler’s army control of both the air and land back in the early 1940s. Everyone, even those who opposed the war, seemed to believe that Putin’s forces would capture most of Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv, within a month.

There were problems with this assumption. Perhaps the primary one is that warfare has changed significantly since World War II. Modern anti-tank weapons are still carried and fired by individual soldiers, similar in that way to the WWII bazooka, but the new guided rockets are designed to accurately hone in on and penetrate the weakest location in a tank’s armor, the turret. Unlike WWII scatter-shot anti-aircraft guns, modern hand-carried anti-aircraft weapons use heat-seeking rockets that are much more likely to hit their target and much more likely to destroy it. Ukraine’s open flat terrain is also ideal for the efforts of long-distance snipers using modern rifles, telescopic sights, and night-vision tools. Ukrainian troops have used all the above tools very effectively in small-unit guerrilla tactics. As a result, Russian soldiers and armor, relying on tanks and personnel carriers, have suffered significant casualties. They have failed to move rapidly on the ground and Russian aircraft have failed to gain control of the sky.

There is also some evidence that Russian military leadership was inadequate if not incompetent, and arrogant as well, failing to anticipate the effects of modern weapons and to provide necessary supplies for anything more than a brief attack, so that their intended blitzkrieg was stalled by unexpected casualties, by shortages of fuel and food, and by clogged roads and damaged bridges. Russian troop communications were insecure, allowing Russian-speaking Ukrainians to monitor their plans, greatly improving the effects of Ukrainian guerrilla and sniper actions. The leadership didn’t even anticipate the danger posed by Ukrainian cruise missiles, a failure that resulted in the loss of the flagship Moskva.

All of the above has created confusion, anxiety, and low morale among Russian troops, effects that may simultaneously have made many resist orders and, unfortunately, caused many others to take out their frustrations on civilians; thus the stories about widespread murder, rape, and looting. A focus on troop characteristics should also remind us about another characteristic of imperialistic military action. When an occupying force attempts to maintain or regain control of territory, the advantage of raw power often lies with the occupiers, the country that has the strongest economic and military power. However, the motivational advantage is generally more intense on the other side, among those who believe that they are defending their own land, their own country. Whatever narratives are offered for a takeover, troops who find themselves in a foreign land will always be less motivated, having much lower intrinsic morale compared with their enemies who are fighting for what they view as their “home.”

In short, there are three facts about the 2022 attack on Ukraine that should not have surprised anyone. One, as I noted at the beginning, is the attack itself. Putin’s ego and recent history made that inevitable. Another is that the Russian efforts have, as I write this, been notably, dramatically, unsuccessful. Russia’s corruption in weapons contracting and in military leadership had made that, too, inevitable. Finally, the devoted resistance of the Ukrainian population could have been predicted. We can only hope that the eventual outcome is disastrous enough for Putin and Russia that it will, finally, put an end to his attempts at territorial expansion by providing him with the lesson that he should have learned long ago. In history it seems that only a manifest failure has been effective in halting imperial ambitions such as his.

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