In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the United States has increased military spending, NATO has expanded, and the West has embarked on a military buildup. Though Russia’s invasion was provocative and unwarranted, many of these steps are unnecessary and some are even unwise.
First, both Putin and outside observers overestimated the Russian military at the outset of the war, and it will be even weaker by the end of the war—especially if Russia is to retain any territory in Ukraine as part of a negotiated settlement, as Rajan Menon’s essay proposes. In the months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and during the first week of the invasion, many observers expected an immediate and crushing Ukrainian defeat. The forces arrayed on each side seemed woefully lopsided: the war, if it could be called that, would be a repeat, in some respects, of the swift fall of Ukraine’s Crimea region to Russian paramilitary and military forces in late February 2014.
Others were not so sure. In mid-January 2022 the historian Timothy Snyder wrote, “The forces that Russia has deployed are capable of a terrifying level of destruction. But invading Ukraine would also be an incredibly stupid move by Russia. . . . It would probably feel a lot like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: seemingly successful at first, then system-destroying after a few years.”
And, as is common in authoritarian states, no one wanted to tell the boss that his troops were unprepared or that the operation would be difficult. Optimism about the virtues of military offensives is a common characteristic of armed forces. Further, the West has consistently overestimated Russian, and before that Soviet, military power. Throughout the Cold War, threat inflation led to various gaps—including the “bomber gap,” the “missile gap,” and the “throw-weight gap.” Since the invasion the parlous state of Russian military forces has become evident. They have had logistical issues from the outset of the war, running out of food, fuel, and ammunition. They have chewed through tens of thousands of troops—220,000 killed and injured by late March 2023—and been forced to make not one, but two call-ups of hundreds of thousands of more troops and to hire mercenaries.
Read the full piece in Boston Review.