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Why Russia Has Already Lost The War

The prolonged war in Ukraine is certainly not over. But six months in, we already know that Russia will come out the loser, both to its Western rivals, and to China, for whom it is now a junior partner.

A man wrapped with a Ukrainian flag looks at a destroyed Russian tank at Khreshchatyk, Kyiv

By overestimating his own strength and underestimating his opponents, Putin got caught alone in the trap he set for himself.

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — The blitz war Vladimir Putin wished for in Ukraine has become a war of attrition. No side seems to be on the way to winning after six months, even though odds may now be slightly tipping in Kyiv’s favor thanks to Western assistance.

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The Cold War, which started between 1945 and 1947, ended on Dec. 26 ,1991, with the dissolution of the USSR. The post-Cold War ended on Feb. 24, 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. It is still too early to define a precise term for the period that just started: “new cold war,” “precursor of a third world war,” “un-globalization," “era of chaos.”? But it is possible to already learn the first lessons from it.

This Russian military gamble seems very irrational (“Putin is not stupid” a renowned expert on Russia assured me), anachronistic, and also completely irresponsible. In times of climate change and pandemics, how can one still dream of expanding or using weapons to get territory?

What past diplomacy teach us

The best key to understand Putin is probably the sharing of Poland by Austria, Russia and Prussia between 1770 and 1795. “I exist because I’m expanding,” Vienna, Saint Petersburg and Berlin said in unison.

Diplomatic history is especially useful to answering this question: how are winners supposed to behave towards the vanquished? There is the model used by Metternich and Castlereagh at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which reorganized Europe after the defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars. With no intention of punishing or humiliating France, the country was returned to its pre-revolutionary borders because peace needed to be kept on the continent.

All things considered, it was the choice made by the U.S and their allies in 1945. In the face of the growing Soviet threat, it was right to integrate Germany and Japan in the community of democratic nations as fast as possible.

The trap Putin set for himself

In 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, America did not humiliate Russia uselessly, like Paris and London did to Germany after the First World War.

After 40 years under Soviet influence, “the abducted Europe” in the east center of the continent was thirsty for democracy and protection. It was necessary to offer it. But has America paid enough attention to Russia’s feelings? America did not win the Cold War — the USSR lost it.

Power is complete isolation.

The aim is not to exonerate Putin’s Russia from its responsibilities. On the contrary, if there is one lesson to be learned after six months of war in Ukraine, it is the danger represented by authoritarian regimes in the triggering and management of conflicts.

By overestimating his own strength and underestimating his opponents, Putin got caught alone in the trap he set for himself. Since his successful military adventures in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, Putin was convinced that he was not only an astute tactician but also a great strategist, a direct descendant of Peter the Great and Catherine II. In short, he came to believe he was the Chosen One to bring Russia back to its greatness. Around him, as Stalinist logic would have it, no one dared express reservations or warnings.

Power is complete isolation. In war time, authoritarian regimes are at once more dangerous and more fragile than others because they know that for them, losing war means losing power — or losing their life.

Profile view of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a desk during a face-to-face meeting with the newly appointed chairman and CEO of Aeroflot, Sergei Alexandrovsky, at the Kremlin

Has Putin really reached his goals with China?

Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire

Consequences for the Kremlin — and the world

At the end of summer 2022, Putin’s Russia is the main loser of those six months of war in Ukraine, not only because Moscow is stalling against an opponent who, on paper, is infinitely weaker. But also because its non-victory has a geopolitical cost: Moscow finds itself being excessively dependent on Beijing.

Through the years, Russia progressively became China’s junior partner. Today, it’s in its debt. Was it what Putin wanted? Which goal has he really reached ? He wanted the “finlandization” of Ukraine. Instead, he got the “NATO-ization” of Finland and Sweden.

By closing the post-Cold War book — and maybe simultaneously that of globalization — the Ukrainian war made us go from a world largely dominated by geo-economical factors to one where geopolitical considerations are more and more central.

What if globalization prompted the passing of the torch of history to China?

Thirty one years ago, when the USSR fell, globalization and Americanization of the world seemed to go hand-in-hand. The destruction of the World Trade Center in Sep. 2001, followed by the 2008 financial crisis and the metaphorical fall of the Lehman Brothers tower, had dissociated the two phenomena.

What if globalization, far from supporting the central status of the U.S, instead prompted the passing of the torch of history to China and/or India?

For the last few months of 2022, one lesson stands out with even more clarity: there are limits to military power, mostly when the quantity of troops and weapons are not enough to differentiate the quality and determination of men. Not only is Russia not progressing, but it’s taking the risk, through a nuclear accident, of making the planet turn back in time.

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