Vladimir Putin's western apologists are not the only ones forced into a rethink by the Ukraine war. Even those who understood Putin's malign intentions and warned that his plan for imperial restoration would one day threaten Ukraine's existence as an independent state are now having to ask themselves an unexpected question: did we overestimate Putin's power?
Few leaders seem more convinced than Putin that the projection of political power is even more important than its possession. From the beginnings of his career in public life, helped by the fact that his career in the KGB made him a blank slate, he has worked carefully to build the public persona of a politician who is canny, inscrutable and, above all, tough. Those official photographs of a bare-chested Putin riding on horseback through the Siberia taiga may have drawn ridicule but the point they made was largely accepted at home and abroad. Putin’s strength appealed to populist nationalists elsewhere, drawn to his reactionary machismo and his authoritarian methods. It appealed to many Russians. And it alarmed Russia’s neighbours and his critics at home.
The control Putin's exerts in Russia is no illusion, of course. For two decades he has steadily closed down nearly every forum for genuine public debate and waged a merciless campaign of persecution against those who challenged him. But the stronger Putin appeared to be, the stronger the outside world assumed he was. That impression hardened in recent years when, through a mixture of opportunism and cunning, Putin managed to impose himself on the international stage.
His intervention on the side of the Assad regime in Syria in 2017 swung the momentum in Damascus's favour, ensuring Russia could retain its important naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast while at the same time burnishing Putin's standing as a regional power broker. At the same time, he cultivated allies in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Most important was his burgeoning partnership with China's Xi Jinping, culminating in their "friendship without limits" announcement on the eve of the Ukraine invasion. That positioned Russia and China in a united front against US hegemony.
The fact Russia conducted an interference operation aimed at helping Trump get elected in 2016 made it look as if Putin's influence extended across the Atlantic
Closer to home, everything seemed to be going Putin's way. Brexit, which he supported, weakened Britain and the European Union. Disputes over migration, the financial crisis and the rule of law exposed fissures within the EU, while Kremlin-friendly nationalist parties made breakthroughs across Europe, including in France and Italy. Putin annexed Crimea without firing a shot and set off a conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow was able to absorb ensuing sanctions with relative ease. And in Donald Trump, Putin had a deferential US president who could scarcely have been more receptive to his concerns. The fact that Russia had conducted an interference operation aimed at helping Trump get elected in 2016 made it look as if Putin's influence extended across the Atlantic.
That growing sense of Russian omnipotence helps explain why the West assumed that Putin’s forces would quickly overrun Ukraine. They expected that Ukraine’s military would be no match for a well-armed, modernised Russian force of 200,000 soldiers, battle-hardened after years of war of Syria.
Instead, the invasion of Ukraine has been a humiliation for Putin. The Russians have misjudged their tactics and suffered heavy losses on every front. Morale has been low, logistics poor and propaganda lame. Russia has lost almost as many generals in a month of fighting in Ukraine as the US did in 20 years in Vietnam. It will presumably learn from these errors and change course, but for now Russia is losing its war – and losing it badly.
The Ukraine war forces us to look at Putin's power with fresh eyes
Botched strategy has been accompanied by remarkable intelligence failures. Moscow underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance and overestimated its own forces' capabilities. It misjudged western governments' willingness to impose sanctions that would come at a heavy cost to their own economies. It failed to anticipate the galvanising effect of an invasion on the EU and on Nato.
The Ukraine war forces us to look at Putin’s power with fresh eyes. It turns out that it’s easier to bombard a country from uncontested airspace, as Russia did in Syria, than it is to attempt a full-scale invasion of a European country the size of France. What if the Russian security agencies that some believed were controlling western politics like puppeteers may just have got lucky with a populist revolt driven by much larger forces?
If the West overestimated Putin's ability to shape events outside Russia, the next question is whether his grip on power at home is as strong as it seems. So far, signs of dissent within the regime have been limited and public displays of opposition have been quickly put down. On Friday, British defence secretary Ben Wallace remarked that Putin "is not the force he used to be". At a minimum, the botched invasion is finally showing Putin – and the world – the limits of his power.