Zohra Bensemra / REUTERS

Vladimir Potemkin Putin's Disaster and What Could Happen Next

The world has overestimated Putin's power. His army is much weaker than thought, his intelligence services have failed and sanctions are starting have an impact. Will all this weaken the Russian president or make him more dangerous?

May 9, 2022 – what a victory celebration it should have been! Just imagine: Vladimir Putin, Gatherer of the Russian Lands, greets the victorious returning troops on Red Square. Ukraine shattered as a country, its capital Kyiv taken in a surprise attack, its government exiled. Along with the battlefield triumph, Russia also celebrates its ruler, who boldly changed the course of history, triggering the biggest celebration since the 1945 parade held to celebrate the victory of Stalin's army over Nazism.

Given the events of the past few months, that was likely what Putin had been hoping for. But the reality has turned out rather differently. On May 9, Russia will again celebrate Victory Day with a military parade, as it does every year, but the army that will parade through Red Square this time will be a humiliated one. Two and a half months after the invasion of Ukraine, Russia's armed forces are no longer the feared power they once were.

Putin's troops have experienced a military and moral fiasco in Ukraine. Poorly led, poorly supplied, poorly motivated and poorly equipped, they have failed against an enemy thought to be much weaker. They had to retreat from their positions near the capital city of Kyiv. And what had been planned as a blitzkrieg has turned into a tough slog, a war of attrition.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 19/2022 (May 7th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Russia's military pride has turned out to be something of a sham, like the village backdrops that Prince Grigory Potemkin once allegedly set up for his czarina to fool her into thinking he was settling empty territories.

It is all just as surprising as it is devastating to the system Putin has built. The Kremlin leader has spent years preparing his country for a major confrontation with the West – in military, economic and political terms. His declared goals are maximum sovereignty and autonomy, for Russia to be an independent pole of power in the world. Now, it has turned out that the highly equipped army is unable to overrun its poorer neighbor. Russia's economy – dependent on imports. Most of its vast foreign reserves – blocked by Western sanctions. Its intelligence services – unable or unwilling to properly inform the ruler.

Is Putin's system of power itself a Potemkin village, without the world, including Vladimir Putin himself, having noticed? What does it mean when this system's weaknesses are suddenly exposed? And does that make it more dangerous?

A pet project of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is located an hour's drive west of Moscow: the army amusement park called "Patriot." At the park, you can ride in toy tanks, shoot with real AK-47s, watch re-enacted World War II battles and buy army souvenirs. Since 2020, it has also featured a church co-designed by Shoigu in olive green – the "Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces." House-sized mosaics depict Russia's armed victories through the centuries – all the way up to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia's intervention in Syria. A mosaic featuring Putin and Shoigu and the country's political elite had also initially been planned. In the lower church, a spacious baptismal font allows for the baptism of troops, and weapons looted from the Nazi Wehrmacht have been melted into the steps.

The church's inauguration is symbolic of the new prestige the army has acquired during Putin's rule – in part attributable to the ambition of Defense Minister Shoigu. He brought glamour to the military, a new level of self-confidence and societal status. He gave the army not only its church, but also dashing new uniforms, a youth organization (Yunarmiya) and political officers for the kind of ideological indoctrination conducted in Soviet times. He kept the troops busy with large-scale, snap exercises. Russia's air force operation in Syria could even be seen as a patriotic film in theaters.

A rehearsal in April on Moscow's Tverskaya Street for the Victory Day military parade

A rehearsal in April on Moscow's Tverskaya Street for the Victory Day military parade

Foto: AP

With the invasion of Ukraine, though, that facade has collapsed and bizarre shortcomings have come to light. Just this week, a secretly recorded conversation emerged in which contract soldiers from the Caucasus detailed all that had gone wrong for them. The men returned home on their own in late March to South Ossetia, a de facto Russian-controlled area on Georgian territory. In a conversation with the region's president, they complained of armored personnel carriers that wouldn't start, tanks that refused to fire, officers who hide from their soldiers out of fear, artillery that missed targets by two kilometers and wounded soldiers who weren't provided with treatment. They also lamented a lack of information, maps and radios and of grenade launchers they said were bent. South Ossetia's president rebuked the men and asked if they thought Russia would lose the war. "Yes, we do," came the reply.

Moscow prefers to keep silent about the number of Russians who have actually been killed in Ukraine. The latest official figures are about a month and a half old. In April, the British government said it estimated 15,000 soldiers had been killed, whereas the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces cites nearly 25,000 fallen. One military analyst in Brussels estimates that the Russians have lost close to 1,000 tanks. At least seven Russian generals have been killed. The flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the guided missile cruiser Moskva sank, apparently after being fired upon by anti-ship missiles.

The first days of the invasion, in particular, when the Russian army advanced on the Ukrainian capital, baffled Western analysts. "The strategic mistakes are completely crazy," John Spencer, an expert on urban warfare at the Madison Policy Forum think tank, told DER SPIEGEL at the time. Many observers now agree that the strength of the Russian military has been overestimated.

One of the most visible weaknesses is logistics. Overstretched, poorly secured supply routes turned into easy targets for small, mobile Ukrainian units, especially in the early weeks of the war. Just a few days after the war began, a U.S. official said that 70 percent of Russian forces would soon run out of fuel and food, or had already.

Glaring failures have also emerged in equipment maintenance – a result of sloppiness or corruption: Expensive air defense systems are getting stuck because their tires are defective, some missile launchers still have tires with "Made in the USSR" labels on them. "Their logistics have been disastrous throughout," says military historian Phillips O'Brien. "They just assumed they would steamroll the Ukrainians and they wouldn't have to worry about supply." Since Russia began concentrating its attacks on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, these massive logistics problems have been less frequent, in part due to the fact that supply routes are shorter and the advance has faltered.

Communication has also caused major problems for the aggressors. Western intelligence officials have described a considerable degree of chaos in conversations with DER SPIEGEL. The few satellite phones that Putin's troops used were soon no longer operational, and even commanders use standard mobile phones to make calls over the Ukrainian network. Radios for encrypted connections are either unknown or officers aren't trained to use them, explains one Brussels-based military analyst. The result being that Ukrainians can eavesdrop on telephone conversations and locate senior officers through radio signals.

"Their inability to use their air force is their No. 1 failure," says Phillips O'Brien. "What they seem to be doing is flying point-to-point missions. They take off from an airfield in Russia. They know exactly what they were told to bomb. They go bomb that one thing and then they come back as quickly as possible. What they're not doing is patrolling, controlling the air over the space of battle." This gives the Ukrainians the ability to move heavy vehicles even during the day. "The Russian air force is dated and limited in what it can do," says Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. Navy think tank. "That much was well known, given Russian performance in Syria." It's sort of an air force from the early 1990s, he says.

There also appears to be a lack of precision-guided munitions. "It's costly, and they have in effect been rebuilding their air force, relatively speaking, on the cheap," says Justin Bronk, an air warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. To attack targets on the battlefield, he says, Russians are having to rely on unguided bombs dropped from lower altitudes. This exposes the aircraft to the threat of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, he says.

To date, Russia still hasn't managed to achieve unrestricted air superiority over Ukraine – and that is also a function of strategic choices. When the Russians began their offensive against Ukraine in the early morning of Feb. 24, they did so in a manner most military experts had expected. "There were quite heavy, very widespread, ballistic and cruise missile attacks on all the key ground-based radar stations that the Ukrainians have," says Bronk. Long-range air defense systems were also targeted, as were air bases and other targets.

But the logical next step failed to materialize: large-scale air strikes once the Ukrainian air force had been blinded and was stuck on damaged runways. NATO experts estimated that only 140 cruise missiles were fired, by which time ground troops were already moving across the border. Establishing air superiority first was beyond the capability of the Russian air force, Kofman says. It would have cost the Russians too many aircraft, he says, and too much time.

Finally, discipline and morale of the Russian troops is also catastrophic, as evidenced by the many crimes that have been committed against Ukrainian civilians. The rapes, looting, torture and executions have created the image of a force that cares little about other people's lives, and doesn't think highly of themselves. It did not help that the soldiers were sent into a war basically without preparation and based on a false political assumption: The assumption that the Ukrainian population would welcome the troops as liberators.

It is not only Putin's army that has suffered a defeat in Ukraine. His intelligence services have also revealed weaknesses. This applies particularly to the FSB foreign intelligence agency, which is responsible for reconnaissance in Ukrainian territory. It should have prepared Putin and his advisers for the fact that the majority of Ukrainians would be hostile to the invaders. "But to say something to the leader of Russia about Ukraine that he doesn't like, apparently no one was willing to do that," says intelligence expert Andrei Soldatov. "For the last seven years, there has been an atmosphere of selective repression in the country – and senior FSB officers are among those being detained."

The FSB has also failed in its second role: that of recruiting politicians loyal to the Kremlin in Ukraine. There is a lack of pro-Russian opposition that could welcome Putin's troops and replace Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government. Preparing it would have been the responsibility of the Service of Operational Information and International Relations, a structure within the FSB led by General Sergei Beseda. According to Soldatov's information, Beseda has been detained. He presumably now has to explain where the money for the infiltration of Ukraine has gone.

Financially, at least, Russia is currently navigating the crisis better than expected, despite the constant rounds of new sanctions imposed by the West. Putin's attempts at making the Russian economy as self-sufficient as possible, to be sure, have failed. But the damage hasn't thus far been as significant as Western analysts initially predicted.

"My Russian acquaintances who are involved in business and politics were completely alarmed," says political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya."But the mood has been different for the past two weeks. What I'm hearing now is: It's not so bad after all. Some Western brands have stayed, and, besides, we can live without iPhones, or we can buy them in Kazakhstan." She says Putin himself is also optimistic. "There were unpleasant surprises for him in the military. He thinks things are going better in business and finance."

President Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

President Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

Foto: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

That's not to say that the sanctions aren't wreaking havoc, but high energy prices are softening the blow. In the two months since the invasion, Russia has taken in 63 billion euros by exporting oil, gas and coal – 44 billion of which have come from the European Union and 9 billion of that from Germany alone. This amounts to around 1 billion euros each day. One day of war costs Russia only half that amount, $500 million to $600 million, estimates Moscow economist Nikolay Kulbaka.

Although the U.S. has imposed an oil embargo and the EU has announced one, other buyers have long been ready to step in. And in terms of foreign policy, Russia is less isolated than it seems from the perspective of the West. Angela Stent, a Russia expert in Washington, D.C., says that even though Putin may have underestimated the West's resistance, he correctly recognized that non-Western foreign countries would not condemn him. "To much of the world, Putin is not a pariah."

This is true of China, but also of its rival India, because the country is dependent on Russian arms imports. And it also applies to Israel, whose security is directly affected by Russia's intervention in Syria. Yet Putin's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has still managed to outrage the government in Jerusalem with his nonsensical remarks about the alleged anti-Semitism of Jews (he even erroneously claimed that Hitler had "Jewish blood"). On Thursday, Putin even personally picked up the phone and apologized to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for Lavrov's comments.

Russian diplomacy isn't cutting a good figure these days. Moscow has affronted its neighbors in the territories of the former Soviet Union and hasn't even invited them to this year's celebration of their joint victory over Hitler's Germany on May 9. And neighboring Finland, fearful of Moscow, is likely to apply for NATO membership soon, along with Sweden. Putin himself has ensured that the Western alliance is closing ranks. Russia's soft power, it's appeal to other societies, is melting away. Instead, hundreds of thousands of educated young Russians have fled the country to places like Tbilisi, Yerevan, Istanbul, Berlin, Riga and London.

The question now is what conclusions Putin will draw from the mistakes and the defeats of recent months. If the fiction of a quick military "special operation" in Ukraine has failed, will he now prepare his people for a real war, including the mobilization of all forces? British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has speculated publicly that Putin might use Victory Day to announce a mobilization.

The Russian war symbol "Z" in St. Petersburg and Moscow: Will Russia soon call this a war?

The Russian war symbol "Z" in St. Petersburg and Moscow: Will Russia soon call this a war?

Foto: AP

The Russian army needs more soldiers, that much is obvious. Without a national mobilization, says military expert Kofman, Russia's offensive potential will be exhausted by the campaign in the Donbas. "As things stand, this will be their last major offensive."

But there are also inherent risks to mobilization. Public approval of the war in Russia could plummet if the war extends beyond what people are seeing on television and more families are left to mourn casualties. Putin has so far stressed in public that no conscripts have been deployed in Ukraine. This isn't true, of course, but it is likely that Putin himself doesn't know this, just as he doesn't know about many other things that go on behind the Potemkin facades of his state. He was careful not to ask too much of the average citizen. Moreover, for the mobilization, he would have to actually start calling this a war and not a "special military operation" on Ukrainian territory. At the moment, anyone who calls Putin's disaster a war can still be put in jail in Russia.

"Putin really believes that this is not a war with Ukraine. A general mobilization is fundamentally at odds with how he sees Russia's actions," says political scientist Stanovaya. "In his eyes, the operation is directed against a Ukrainian regime and a corrupt elite enlisted by the West and acting against his own people. It isn't aimed at conquering territory." She says Putin wants to help the Ukrainians build a state that is independent of the West. "It's ridiculous, but that is his reality."

Putin doesn't see mistakes of his own. In his eyes, the West has turned Ukraine into an artificial enemy state, an "anti-Russia." Putin thinks the struggle with the West is impossible to avoid or even postpone, that it has been imposed by the adversary. "He sees no alternative. Either Russia liquidates Ukraine as 'anti-Russia' or Russia ceases to exist," Stanovaya says.

So far, Putin has been able to rely on Russian society, because it isn't currently asking critical questions. The unexpectedly harsh sanctions imposed by the West, as well as a kind of psychological self-protection, have ensured that Russians accept Putin's convenient narrative of the West's alleged impending attack on Russia, which Moscow merely preempted. The liberal business elite, which is suffering most from the sanctions, has fallen silent, with very few officials and executives daring to defect.

There is extensive speculation on Russian state television about the new nuclear weapons Russia could use to wreak havoc on the West. Putin himself recently warned against any "interfering from the outside," going on to say that those presenting a "strategic threat to Russia that is unacceptable to us, they should know that our retaliatory strikes will be lightning fast. We have the tools we need for this, the likes of which no one else can claim at this point. We will use them if necessary … we have made all the decisions on this matter."

It was a clear rhetorical escalation. It's quite possible that Putin wanted to use it to compensate for the image of weakness his army has recently shown. Either way, one meaning was clear: There is no turning back for Putin or for Russia.

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