The Beginning of the End of Putin? Why the Russian Army May (and Should) Revolt
A realistically plausible and preferred way this can (and hopefully will) all play out
by Brian E. Frydenborg
…Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…
—The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Book IV: Chapter 4: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954
After well over a year of isolation induced by the COVD-19 pandemic, it seems Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has become so detached from reality with his wild Ukraine gamble that he may finally have adventured too far, stumbling into a trap entirely of his own making. Surprising as it is, this time it is distinctly possible his aggression, ultimately, will not provide him with any way to save face: no “offramp,” as the media seems to love to refer to a possible endgame that leaves him comfortable and not in a weak and unstable position at best (for him) or ousted at worst (obviously, the latter would be ideal for us).
I’m not going to speculate on Vladimir Vladimirovich’s health and mental state to the degree that far too many others have (I heard him referred to as “puffy Putin” recently on CNN—amusing—but I’d be remiss in not pointing out I myself have gained fifteen pounds during the pandemic and have certainly had my own mental struggles as a single man essentially living alone the past few years and covering COVID, Trump, and other horrors).
But clearly, Putin is more agitated and emotional than we have been used to seeing him in his more than two decades in power. As for whether he is suffering from some sort of (terminal?) disease or is literally going through insanity, let’s all take a step back from such diagnoses, as anyone so powerful and cooped up for so long like Putin was bound to exhibit some level of eccentricity mixed with not many (insert a certain curse word in the plural form) to give.
What is clear is that Putin is letting out some long-held frustrations and perceived grievances like we have never heard or seen before, and that does give reason to worry, aside from the actual Ukraine invasion/war itself. That this behavior has been coupled with his reckless use of force in launching the largest war on European soil since World War II is even more troubling.
And yet, I’m optimistic like never before that Putin’s end is coming and coming soon even as that optimism is surrounded by the dread of an increasingly bloody and lawless conflict. I truly think this is the last gasp for a very long time of the Great Power conflicts on European soil, of the major wars that have been constant on the continent since the ancient Greco-Persian wars through today, with the two main exceptions being the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana; this war in Ukraine will either be the end of the Pax Americana in Europe or the one great interruption of it for some time to come.
The Weakest Link in Putin’s Plans: The Russian Army
Going back in history, the greatest leaders and commanders in wartime understand a few basic things, among them, morale and organization can do wonders for winning even when supplies and force size are lacking. After all, many of the great shocks in military history, from the Spartans at Thermopylae through the Vietcong against the U.S. Military in the Vietnam War, demonstrate this. And while few would argue (at least up until a few weeks ago) against the idea that Russia has one of the most powerful militaries in the world—several ranking systems have Russia as having the second most powerful military, only behind the U.S.—some of the most powerful militaries in history have fallen into hubris and been surprised by weaker enemies that they did not respect (most relevant here would be the 1939-1940 Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland). And if a military is going to rely on size and power, but neglects morale and organization while going on the offensive against a smaller but dedicated and well-led foe fighting on his own territory, well, that is asking for trouble.
One thing that is already undeniable here is that Russian soldiers have clearly been treated horribly by their government and commanders. There is enough anecdotal reporting that has been gathered—especially video, photos, and accounts from Russian POWs and communications—that we can put together a near-certain picture of what is going on in certain respects with the Russian military.
The bulk of the rank-and-file Russian troops seem to have had no briefing or barely any briefing on what they were getting into before they crossed the Ukraine border. If they were even told there was going to be a “military operation,” this seems to sometimes include that they would be greeted as liberators.
Even before the invasion, while many of the Russian troops were staging across the Ukraine border in Russia, some were left by alone by their officers for days in crowded “nightmare” conditions in the winter cold and with no rations, the soldiers forced to use their own money to buy local food; when they ran out of money, local Russian civilians were forced to provide them with food.
Bored, cold, hungry, and lonely, some even began matching with Ukrainian women on Tinder.
A Russian human rights group focusing on abuses within the Russian military—the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, or Soldiers’ Mothers Committee—is accusing the Russian military of taking brand new conscripts to the border under the pretext of “training.” The group says they were then pressured heavily with lies and intimidation to take on the status of the more professional contract soldiers, with those speaking against this beaten and having their phones confiscated, their subsequent status unknown. Some of those whose phones were not confiscated have been calling their mothers in panic to report the abuses. Many say do not want to fight in Ukraine and do not believe in the war, and it seems only senior officers were briefed ahead of time. And the government tells the soldiers’ concerned families almost nothing.
It has not gotten better since the hostilities commenced: one video (along with a translation) from a demoralized Russian soldier at an encampment of his uniformed comrades shows the deep neglect, even contempt, Russian commanders have for their soldiers and how dissatisfied and angry these soldiers are at the lack of respect and at the gaslighting (“exercises” is what they were told they were going to). And it seems quite a few are being given rations by the Russian military that expired years ago, seven years ago in at least one case and presumably more.
Additionally, Russian troops have not only not been given enough food as they went into Ukraine, they were also not given enough fuel for their vehicles or anywhere near proper logistical support, many of their vehicles being in disrepair and not properly maintained. Even worse, many functional vehicles are simply being abandoned by Russian soldiers with low morale who are just giving up and leaving their posts and vehicles.
While Putin (who may be the world’s de facto richest man) and his infamous oligarchs (key right hand men, along with the Russian mafia, who carry out Putin’s will and often act as extensions of the Russian government) live as literal billionaires (the parody of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but without the communism), this is how the fighting men of Russia are treated. A tiny fraction of one of Putin’s oligarchs’ wealth—or of Putin’s wealth—could have easily provided for better food and warmer uniforms for Russia’s soldiers, another fraction to repair and better maintain many of the vehicles on which they would depend but that would eventually failed them.
It gets even worse when actual combat is considered. That there was very likely the aforementioned lack of necessary briefings is reinforced as a likelihood because the very tactics often carried out by Russian ground units in this war show they clearly were not prepared for ambushes and did not expect to encounter serious resistance in smaller towns, alongside roads, etc. I say this because over and over again there have been examples of small convoys easily ambushed and destroyed by Ukrainians. It also seems there is not much communication or coordination among (or even within) Russian army units (to fatal effect), or, if there is, it is between medium- or higher-level officers because the lower-level commanders are making mistakes that show ambushes in one area were, at least for some time, not leading to prudent caution in other areas, with the same types of ambushes occurring repeatedly in different areas of operations. In other words, by walking into the same traps and over again on different fronts, the most logical conclusion is a lack of communication and briefings for the low-level commands leading different individual units forward.
The combined effect of these factors is obvious from an abundance of collected photos and videos from around Ukraine (many of which have been confirmed by independent investigators): the sheer number of successful ambushes carried out by, and other successful engagements of, Ukrainian forces against Russian convoys demonstrates that many Russian soldiers, lower-level commanders, and units have been ill-prepared, not properly briefed, and sent into harm’s way with little forethought or regard for their safety. This has decimated many units and further destroyed army cohesion for Russia, making their miserable failure of a performance even more a miserable failure of a performance.
In short, wildly irresponsible overconfidence coursed through the planning and execution of this operation.
Ukraine has, apparently, captured hundreds of Russian soldiers, many without food, crying, and desperate to call their mothers who knew nothing of their sons’ whereabouts, as several dramatic videos posted online appear to convincingly show (some of these are difficult to confirm and it is possible they are being coerced to say these things, but a good number seem quite authentic, this remarkably reflective POW in particular). Along with the clearly high number of dead, other intelligence indicates Russian morale, too. Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations even read aloud to the United Nations General Assembly several alleged text messages from a frantic Russian soldier to his mother just before he was killed in combat, seeming to confirm other accounts that Russian soldiers and their families are being kept in the dark and lied to by their government.
Among the most stinging facts to emerge is that while the Kremlin will give Russian families little or no information on their missing sons captured, wounded, missing, or killed in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has done what Putin’s regime should have: set up a hotline to inform Russians of the fates of their loved ones sent into harm’s way in an unjust, illegal war of revanchist imperialist aggression by Putin (unjustifiable, utterly banal justifications, as I noted here for Small Wars Journal recently).
Sickly, since virtually the whole world now knows of the invasion, it is certain these secrets and silences are not being kept still out of any national security purpose related to the war in Ukraine, but merely to keep Russians in the dark and domestic opinion in Russia from turning against Putin.
Whole other articles can, and should, be dedicated to the shocking incompetence of the Russian military displayed in Ukraine, especially the details of the failures of command-and-control and logistics, but such will not be dealt with in detail here. Overall, this war on Russia’s part is truly one of the great military blunders by a superpower in world history, but it is the cavalier, disgraceful betrayal of Russia’s fighting men (and their families) by Putin’s regime that I most wish to emphasize here and that should be seized on urgently by Ukraine, NATO, and the world, but not just them… (more on that in a bit).
On Casualty Figures
For those willing to search, there are also plenty of videos of Russian soldiers’ dead bodies, abandoned by their comrades and country.
In fact, casualties are clearly very high for the Russians, and by all major indicators, significantly higher than those of Ukraine’s armed forces. Though precise numbers are impossible to arrive at amidst the current fog of war, there are multiple reasons to believe the higher Russian casualties estimated by Ukraine’s government are far closer to the truth than Russia’s claims.
For one thing, we are talking about Russia, which has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that it has zero credibility on such matters, gaslighting as it has for years about all things Ukraine (as well as other theaters in which it operates militarily, especially in Syria). But led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s democracy is trying to build up its credibility and earn spots in both the European Union and NATO, working hard to overcome the corruption that has long plagued the country (corruption boosted greatly by Putin et al., as I have discussed at length). Thus, maintaining the distinction in regards to truth-telling between itself and Russia is vital for Ukraine, which has a lot to lose by lying, especially at a time when it is in desperate, existential need of international support. Zelensky and his government have a far better record than Putin and his Kremlin, then, and should be extended the (slightly cautiously bestowed) benefit of the doubt. Ukraine also has a “robust,” “free” media landscape and open society relative to Russia where information travels far more freely than Russia, a further point in favor of the Ukrainians’ accounting.
And while, even taking into account the preceding, it is possible that there could be some deliberate exaggeration on Ukraine’s part for propaganda purposes, Ukraine has demonstrated during this conflict an ability to correct more self-serving narratives to more accurate ones when new information becomes available.
In this war, it was the Russians who gaslit the world the first few days of their invasion by claiming they had suffered zero casualties when numerous pictures and videos proved otherwise, while it was the Ukrainians who admitted from the very beginning that they were suffering casualties as well as inflicting them even as they have since declined to specify their losses. But choosing to not specify so as not to tip off your enemy to the scale of your losses is entirely different from straight-up denying or significantly misrepresenting them. Such describes the serial approach of the Russians, who obviously and actively hide and grossly downplay their casualties, especially to hide them from their own population, a Russian trend in the earlier low-level conflict in the east of Ukraine going back its beginning in 2014 (in this earlier conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas that has now now blended into the current all-out war, Russia, denying it ever sent soldiers into eastern Ukraine when it most certainly has, even lies to the families of soldiers who have died fighting there about their deaths; the dead soldiers are not given proper combat-death honors and it seems their families are not even given proper combat-death benefits or, if they are paid anything, it can be in exchange for their silence).
There are other reasons Ukraine’s official estimates seem entirely probable. Given the quality of Western—supplied weapons (including Javelin and Stinger missiles), American training of Ukrainian forces since 2015, and that Ukrainians are playing defense on home soil, it makes sense that they are, more often than not, inflicting more casualties than sustaining them. The previously discussed sheer amount of evidence of the sheer amount of both Russian combat deaths and destroyed, burned-out Russian vehicles (even some large transport planes)—many of which would have been full of troops—adds even more credibility to the high casualty figures presented by the Ukrainians. In addition, early in March, several Western officials corroborated Ukraine’s accounting of Russian casualties at the time as quite accurate, at close to 5,800 killed; a (possible hacking and) releasing of a state-run Russian media outlet’s communications also further corroborates the accuracy of Ukraine’s Russian casualty figures with similar numbers around the same time.
As for the current specific estimate, as of the morning of March 8 Ukraine time, Ukraine’s estimate of Russian combat deaths was over 12,000, with far more precise figures of nearly 2,100 ground vehicles of different specific types destroyed (including over 300 tanks) along with 128 aircraft (helicopters and planes). Astonishingly and mortifyingly for Russia, even if the estimate is generous by several thousand troops (say, 4,000, a third of the total given), just the troops killed in less than two weeks alone still easily exceed the combined military deaths for the U.S. in Iraq over almost eight years (over 4,400) and Afghanistan over two decades (over 2,400).
In writing this, the text from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I quoted to open this entire piece kept coming to my mind; it is hard not to feel sorry for these Russian soldiers, in many ways like the men of Harad (including the dead one Samwise Gamgee sees fall near him; for all you movie fans, in The Two Towers film Faramir says aloud what in the book are Sam’s thoughts) and other parts of Middle Earth who came to fight alongside the forces of Sauron in the War of the Ring with little agency as individuals. These abused and misused Russian soldiers also lack much agency, and we know “what lies or threats had led” them to Ukraine: the lies and threats of Putin and his Kremlin.
Penetrating Russia’s Media Iron Curtain
The focus here has been to show how disgustingly careless, even cruel, the Russian military has been with the lives of its soldiers, how abusive and deceitful they have been to these fighting men of Russia and their families. And the point of this is to acknowledge that, by such unforgiveable conduct towards Russia’s own soldiers and their families, Putin and his cronies may have finally sowed the bittersweet seeds of their own demise. This was one thing with the hundreds of concealed deaths over eight years with “volunteer” deployments into rebel-held portions of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (known together as the Donbas) in Ukraine’s east; it is already an entirely different phenomenon with thousands of deaths less than two weeks into Putin’s exponential escalation in the whole of Ukraine.
Even allowing for the possibility that some of images and video are not authentic, there is still a lot of real footage of dead Russian soldiers and destroyed Russian vehicles, evidence of Putin’s lies to his own people and his lack of competence in managing and leading Russia’s army, evidence that increasingly destroys his credibility not only with his own people but his own soldiers and their officers.
The dead collectively are something that is very hard for Kremlin spinmasters and apologists in Russia and around the world to explain away, an undeniable public monument to Putin’s astounding failure. The truth is enormous, visible even from afar, and death on the scale that the Russian Army is experiencing just across a border where many Russians have friends and family cannot be hidden by Putin from his people forever: Russia is not North Korea, its people not North Koreans.
As more and more Russians take in parts of the horrific picture, they will realize how totally they have been gaslit, how pathetically their army has performed under the leadership of a man so desperate to project strength that he literally rides around shirtless on a horse to pose for photos for public consumption.
The key psychological component here is that the foundation of Putin’s regime rests on the idea of restoring Russian strength. So when the Russian people realize how totally degraded the Russian Armed Forces are after two decades of Putin’s leadership, only able to beat up on Georgia and Syria and utterly humiliated by its first real challenge under Putin’s Potemkin regime in a war with far smaller and far weaker Ukraine—which Russia has always regarded as a little brother, a former vassal of Russia in recent centuries—and understand that thousands of their boys have been needlessly slaughtered in a needless war as Russia hits its economic nadir and apex of isolation under well-deserved historic sanctions, there is going to be massive public outrage.
For Putin’s whole bargain with his people was “Give me your fledgling democracy to discard and I will raise you up and deliver you from the pit of Boris Yeltsin’s humiliated Russia,” yet Russia finds itself now—after only a matter of days into Putin’s absurd war—precisely where Putin promised to move it away from: the weak laughingstock status of the Yeltsin years, not respected, just tolerated because of its nuclear weapons and natural resources.
As more and more Russians realize this, Russians overall will realize that the bargain it struck with Putin repeatedly over the years is null and void, that they owe him no allegiance or support since the little man delivered (after some stability) mainly illusions and repression: the weakness of the Russian military, state, and international standing has now been exposed in a matter of mere days to the whole world as the Ukrainian people kick the Russian Army’s ass, the U.S.-led international order roars into action to show how defenseless the main institutions of Russian daily and economic life are rendered if America and its allies will them to be so, and the world overall isolates Russia as a pariah as no top-tier state has ever been isolated before.
This last point bears some spelling out: Germany, Japan, and Italy had each other and numerous vassals during World War II. Today, Russia could only muster the support of four other pariahs—Belarus (essentially its puppet), Syria (its mass-murdering client-state), the Stalinist/Maoist relic of North Korea, and basket-case Eritrea in a historic 141-5 vote at the United Nations condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (China, Russia’s supposed new “best friend,” wanted no part in the historical record of being seen to be emphatically on Russia’s side here, settling for a cowardly pathetic abstention, a choice shared by 34 others).
According to a major CNN poll conducted shortly before Putin launched his full Ukraine war, when asked “Would it be right for Russia to use military force to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO,” half of Russians said “Yes,” one-quarter “No,” one-quarter “Don’t know;” if the war was framed as one “to ‘reunite Russia and Ukraine,’” that support dropped to only 36% “Yes,” “No” rising to a plurality of 43%, with 21% as “Don’t know.”
It is remarkable that the numbers for war are not higher when one considers the insane media atmosphere inside Russia and how it trickles down throughout public life in Russia. It is a constant Orwellian bombardment of an alternate universe, one where Russia is a perpetual victim fighting against the whole world. Ukrainians with relatives and friends in Russia (as well as the pro-Russian separatist parts of Ukraine’s Donbas and a very Russian Crimea controlled by Russia since that region’s 2014 invasion and annexation) are even having inane conversations with these brainwashed relatives and friends, those relatives and friends telling the dismayed Ukrainians laughable fictions about the reality of the war. So strong is the pull of Kremlin propaganda that these wayward friends and relatives believe fantasy over their own blood as they dare to lecture on the invasion to those actually living through the bombs and shells of the invasion. Much like America’s Trumpist Capitol insurrectionists in the U.S. believe in an alternate reality bellowed out by Fox News and its ilk, so, too, does Putin’s base in Russia (and the few Ukrainian regions with high-proportions of Putin-loyalists) loyally and enthusiastically consume Russian state-run television networks’ non-stop barrage of the world according to Putin (and it is no coincidence that the American rightist and Kremlin media ecospheres have tremendous overlap, as I have noted in detail before).
As a result, most Russians actually get their news from state-run media, so most Russians, then, simply do not have an accurate understanding of what is currently happening in Ukraine and believe as fact many absolute falsehoods while rejecting actual facts. Because of the relentless propaganda, lies, and straight-up gaslighting that is the media and government apparatchik public landscape in Russia, they think that this has been a limited humanitarian peacekeeping operation mostly in the Donbas area of Ukraine with few Russian casualties.
But there are others in Russia who see past the propaganda and disinformation. And the brittle reality of the Kremlin’s fake news operations can come crashing down like a house of cards in the face of hard realities, none more likely to cause this than thousands of dead Russian soldiers and their enraged families.
The Time Is Ripe for the Russian Army and the Russian People to Reject War, Reject Putin
I mentioned before that the betrayal of Russian soldiers and their families was being weaponized by Ukraine and should be weaponized by the U.S.-led international community, including NATO. But most importantly, these injustices must all be seized upon by the Russian soldiers and the Russian people themselves.
Despite Putin’s totalitarian-ish crackdown on media and the flow of information, social media (ironically so often the vehicle for the dissemination for Russia’s own disinformation) and, especially, certain messaging apps (e.g., Telegram), are too powerful to be easily silenced fully, and it is hard to stop text exchanges. Especially among the country’s young people, information will keep trickling in past Putin’s Media Iron Curtain through these means, and with enough holes emerging, the truth will light the way for more and more inside Russia as time marches on.
As this far more accurate and convincing information reaches the Russian people, we can expect some of the “yes” to war and most of the undecideds of the CNN poll mentioned earlier to switch to “no.” With many of their lives being ruined under sanctions and international isolation, Russians will turn to the people they should blame most of all: introspectively, themselves for being duped by Putin’s propaganda and empowering him, and externally, Putin and his inner circle themselves, who made themselves monstrously wealthy and treated Russia, its resources, its industries, and its military as their personal playthings. Protests will erupt in Russia in ways not seen since the fall of Soviet Union.
All the devastating Ukraine revelations have happened incredibly quickly, and it will take time for things to filter into enough Russian minds, so expect a gap, but when at least some of the truth does become apparent to a certain critical mass of Russians, expect Russians to revolt from within.
In response to understanding the precariousness of its standing with its own people, in the crackdown alluded to above, Putin’s regime is censoring, (partly?) blocking, banning, or even criminalizing the work of major Western news outlets, independent Russian news outlets, protests, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter: reporting the truth inside Russia of Putin’s war in Ukraine is now illegal. Other platforms—such as YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, and text messaging—remain. It is inevitable, then, that word of what is happening in Ukraine and the awful treatment of Russian soldiers will continue to spread among the Russian population, members of which are increasingly taking to the streets in protest despite at least some 4,600 protesters being arrested throughout Russia just on Sunday, according to the Russian human rights organization OVD-Info, with about 13,000 arrested in total since February 24, some of them tortured. Among those arrested was Yelena Osipova, a nearly-eighty-year-old woman who survived Nazi Germany’s epic Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during World War II. The protests have the backing of that perennial political martyr and thorn in Putin’s side, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, currently jailed himself for ridiculous fake “crimes” and facing new state-initiated indignities.
Russian people, businesses, and celebrities (even Elizaveta Peskova, the daughter of Putin’s main spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov) are speaking out and warning their countrymen, customers, and fans of the mendacity and killing that is afoot because of their government and its autocratic leader holed up in the Kremlin. A Russian senator even complained publicly during a Federation Council meeting that conscripts were being coerced into signing contracts and that, in one unit, only four survivors out of 100 soldiers total returned alive from fighting in Ukraine. Such acts knock chunks out of the wall of Putin’s Media Iron Curtain.
Soldiers, indeed, whole military units disgusted with their mission—being forced to become murderers and war criminals—will get wind of the massive outrage and civil unrest at home as protests in Russia grow in number, frequency, and intensity. And these protests will include these soldiers’ mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, romantic partners, children, and friends hitting the streets, even leading the protests.
Hopefully, enough of these troops, their officers, and commanders will realize and collectively decide as whole military units that there is a more important mission that destroying and subjugating Ukraine: to march on Moscow, join the people for whom they should be fighting, and realize that when the military and people are united, Putin is defenseless. Russia can end an era of gaslighting, delusion, criminality, and kleptocracy through the actions of the Russian people themselves. Russian soldiers wising up to their abuse and taking a stand, sometimes a stand that echoed throughout history and helped bring down the Russian government at the time, is not unheard of in Russian history, especially in the twentieth century. Thus, this would hardly be unprecedented.
It is already occurring to Ukraine’s government that Russian soldiers and their families are very much worth engaging, as it is already appealing directly to them and has set up that aforementioned hotline to help reunite Russian soldiers with their families, but there should be a concerted information warfare campaign to coopt Russian soldiers and citizens directed not just by Ukraine but by the entire NATO Alliance and the rest of the democratic world. The prolific hacking group Anonymous has already gotten into the action, including with a major hack Sunday of all Russian state television stations and several Russian streaming services that put footage of Russia’s Ukraine war, suppressed in Russia, on screens for the whole of Russia to see. Other hacking groups and tens of thousands of volunteer cyberwarriors from around the world are engaging in similar efforts on behalf of Ukraine (perhaps even including U.S. Cyber Command). Such acts will do much to lift the veil of gaslighting draped by Putin over many a Russians’ eyes, and should dramatically increase opposition to the war and Putin’s regime over time.
As I have noted time and time again, Putin’s information warfare against the West has been relentless. Now, let us turn the tables on him, but use truth as our weapon instead of the disinformation so favored by Putin as we give him a coordinated taste of his own medicine. In turning the tables of cyberwarfare on the Kremlin, NATO should even explicitly add cyberwarfare—including disinformation—to NATO’s collective defense Article 5 in addition to engaging in this targeted information warfare offensive. And if NATO states adjust Article 5 in this way—as I formally recommend last year—they can even collectively declare Article 5 in response to Russia’s years-long sustained cyberwarfare against NATO and carry out this offensive information warfare campaign as the first cyberwarfare-related invocation of Article 5 and just the second ever invocation in the Alliance’s history, the only one so far being a response to the 9/11 attacks.
History Has Its Eyes on All of Us
Barely a fifth into the twenty-first century, Great Power autocracy in Europe has reared its ugly head again, ready to destroy Western democracy and the precious post-World War II order of European—and relative global—peace and stability, sometimes referred to as the “Long Peace,” or Pax Americana. I must admit, when I wrote almost exactly six years ago an article warning of Western democracy being tested like no time since World War II, I did not imagine a major land war in Europe in 2022. But make no mistake about it, Putin at the helm of Russia has forced this upon us this and seeks to drag Europe and the world centuries backwards, with China watching, waiting, and taking notes.
Let’s make sure we provide China a clear set of lessons by encouraging and demonstrating the high cost of actions like Russia’s and encouraging a Russian soldiery at its breaking point, abandoned in so many ways by its Kremlin, to march on Putin in Moscow in support of the Russian people and their shared Motherland. Not through NATO military forces, but through the Russian people themselves—soldier and citizen joined together—can Russia, now more than ever, seize the moment and rid itself of Putin and Putinism.
And then, having freed themselves from tyranny, Russians would find—should they want to reach out—open arms and extended hands from the West.
Should a Russia free of Putin clasp hands with and embrace the West, the future will be a world in which there is no challenge that Russia, Europe, and the United States working together cannot overcome. And in such a world, China will not want to be left out.
But for such an era to come about, the first and necessary step is for Putin to be gone and for Russia to no longer be a menace on the periphery of Europe and the free world but to be a partner of both as part of both. For NATO to attempt to do this itself is the path to World War III, perhaps nuclear war and the destruction of humanity and the world; it is for Russians to remove Putin, but if they do, they will find the same level of global support Ukraine has found.
Under the threat of Putin and the leadership of U.S. President Joe Biden, the West and the free world have awoken and realized they are strong, stronger than Putin and in a position to stare down his challenges to freedom, democracy, and that singular international order set up in the wake of the Second World War. And they will gladly support the Russian people of a post-Putin Russia in a quest to rejoin the family of nations as a good-faith constructive partner for an era of unprecedented global cooperation. This support would match the amazing much energy present in the current solidarity being expressed for Ukraine, but it is up to Russians to decide if they are willing to fight for a better future for themselves as Ukrainians clearly have. And by far the best way for this to happen is for the Russian Army—the weakest link in Putin’s current imperialist plans—to become Putin’s worst nightmare.
Putin began his reckless campaign by dangerously overplaying his hand in Ukraine, and now we see him dangerously overplaying his hand at home in Russia. At the heart of this all are some of the people most wronged not just by his regime in general, but most especially during his Ukraine fiasco: the rank-and-file Russian soldiers fighting—and dying—on the front lines and their families back home in Russia. The Russian people owe nothing to this orchestrator of the betrayal of those soldiers and their families, but they owe a great deal to the Russian soldiers and Ukrainians being treated as disposable pawns for the geopolitical ambitions of the dictator they empowered. Only by removing Putin themselves can they restore Russia, in time, to true greatness, but going along with their Dear Leader’s insane playbook will only result in the opposite.
For too long, Russians have fed Putin’s maniacal, anachronistic ambitions; now is the time for them to act—for soldiers to inspire citizens and citizens to inspire soldiers—to free the world of a madman; waiting may prove fatal for the Ukrainian state and far too many Ukrainians and Russians fighting in the current tragedy created by Putin. This war in Ukraine is not the first tragedy foisted upon the world by Vladimir Vladimirovich, but let us all—especially the Russian Army and people—ensure it will be his very last.