Putin’s Folly

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 10, No. 2, February 2022

Protestors against 2022 Russia invasion of Ukraine, at the Hachiko square in Shibuya, Japan. Wikimedia.

Richard Shortt, Ph.D.
Leader of New Zealand’s multi-agency Combined Threat Assessment Group

The work of unravelling Putin’s folly in the Ukraine began February 24 with the firing of the first missiles and artillery shells that signalled his invasion. It will be slow, time-consuming work, assuming no national uprisings in either the Ukraine or Russia by ordinary folks demanding an end to the killing and destruction, or more significant interventions by Western powers – both of which I consider unlikely. It will, in all probability, take longer than the time Putin has left sitting on the Russian imperial throne. But it will happen.

We are currently in what I term the Chaos Phase of the work. This is where invasion leads to death, destruction, despair and defiance. It is the defiance that will ultimately lead us to the next phase, meanwhile, troops and civilians will die, infrastructure will be destroyed and damaged and people on all sides of the issue will watch in stunned horror at what modern warfare and forced occupation means in a modern-day European country.

The Russian forces will emerge victorious. There is very little doubt about that, but not before the Ukrainian efforts deliver martyrs who will fuel the next phase – Resistance.

Media reports may have already given us the battle-cry for the Resistance Phase – “Go F*** Yourself” – the apparent final words from 13 Ukrainian Border Guards who, when faced with overwhelming force and no hope of rescue, made their views clear to encircling Russian forces. Resistance will be slow to mobilise fully. It may even take years to build momentum, but the defiance provided by the Chaos Phase will provide the spark, fuel and burning it requires. That initial impetus will over time be replaced by hatred of the occupiers who will be forced into a death spiral of harsher repression, secret police ‘disappearance squads’ and more martyrs to inspire those among the 40 million Ukrainians that Russia has set out to control.

As resistance and sanctions gnaw at the bear, conscript soldiers will die while carrying out lonely duties or in explosions as IEDs detonate under their feet. A slow drip of coffins will return to the Motherland with the remains of loved ones. Those not killed will occupy military hospitals and slowly but surely maimed young-men will start to appear on Russian streets as a daily reminder of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian coffins will help keep resistance alive and functioning, with new martyrs arising from the actions of those who have fallen.

Resistance and its outward signs will start to wear on the Russian public. Even those supportive of what Putin did will begin to have doubts. Costs, including financial costs, will increase as occupations are never cheap. And, slowly, the occupying forces’ morale will slip. This will inevitably lead to what I term the Crumbling Phase.

During the Crumbling, Russian domestic support goes, collaborating Ukrainians begin to see the writing on the wall and either flee or change allegiances. Politicians in Russia start to wonder if their continued support of the folly is wise. Murmurs and rumblings start to be heard from those who were once compliant or supportive. The pace of this phase will have much to do with the resolve of the occupying forces, their secret police and the Ukrainian puppet regime imposed over the people. Harsher and harsher crackdowns are ever more likely and the fuel of defiance is restocked disappearance by disappearance, baton blow by baton blow.

Finally, inevitably, the Collapse Phase will arrive. At that time Russian forces will turn eastward and return to the Motherland. They will leave behind their proxies whom they trained and equipped, but who have nowhere to go and who will themselves begin to see the futility of their continued support of what is soon to be overwhelmed. The people will take to the streets again. The Russian public, struggling to remember why they were involved with this folly to begin with, will start to call for less and less involvement, particularly in the financial support of the puppets and their minions. Now it is just a matter of time before the regime collapses, and a new Ukrainian leadership steps in to lead the country.

A reader might note that beyond reference to years I have been silent on the actual timeframe for these phases. That is very hard to predict and too many variables exist for it to be accurate or useful in making such a prediction. However, history offers some suggestions from recent times. One need only look back atprevious invasions and occupations to see each of my phases unfold with differing timescales attached. Even WW2 offers some suggestions, however, as many will immediately say, that was nation-state against nation-state and not just an occupied country against the occupier. But, let’s consider the countries of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the communist satellites held by the Soviet Union (itself an extinct experiment). Or, Afghanistan and how both the Soviet and USA/NATO forces fared there during their respective invasions and occupations – one brutal in the extreme and the other offering many signs of benevolence to cover for the unfortunate brutality it required, both on and below the surface.

Ultimately, Ukraine will cease to be occupied by Russian forces, and may well slip irreversibly from Russian influence. Putin may well be gone by then, either through illness, age or overthrow. Men like Putin know that each of those outcomes are beyond their control irrespective of how tightly they grip the reins of power and subjugation. Putin’s folly will be picked over by historians, it will fuel greater Ukrainian identity and resolve, and may well lead to the final destruction of the kleptocracy and oligarchy Putin helps maintain and presidesover in Russia. Time will tell.

Dr. Shortt served as a member of the New Zealand Police for 34 years, during which time he was seconded as a national security policy adviser to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and subsequently as leader of New Zealand’s multi-agency Combined Threat Assessment Group, within the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, tasked with reporting on terrorist and other threats to New Zealanders at home and abroad. Dr Shortt holds a Masters degree from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a PhD from Charles Sturt University, Australia.