Small Wars Journal

Putin’s War of Self-Destruction, Zelensky’s (and Biden’s) War of Exceeding Expectations

Thu, 02/09/2023 - 8:37am

Putin’s War of Self-Destruction, Zelensky’s (and Biden’s) War of Exceeding Expectations

Early in 2022, many thought Zelensky and Biden were weak and that Putin was strong—what a difference a year makes

By Brian E. Frydenborg Twitter @bfry1981 

President Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine

Twitter/@Potus/President Joe Biden


Let’s be clear about one thing: Ukraine’s resilient President Volodymyr Zelensky, by the odds and by Russian design, should now be in exile, in prison, or in the ground.  That he is not is a testament, first and foremost, to himself and his team, his people and his country, and then to his and Ukraine’s friends and allies around the world, first and foremost among them the United States and its President Joe Biden.  And on December 21, the two wartime leaders finally met for the first time since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive escalation beginning February 24, and met here in Washington at the White House before Zelensky’s historic address to a special joint-session of Congress.

Russia, on paper the second most powerful military power in the world, should have taken Kyiv and much of the rest of Ukraine rather quickly; by the odds and by the takes of most pundits at the time, Ukraine should have lost the war months ago, Ukraine’s military and leadership crushed (and clearly Russia hubristically expected and planned on this, too, and Putin certainly did not expect the unified and robust support of a West and NATO led by Biden).  At best, it was thought Ukraine might to be able to offer some level of heroic and persistent nationalist guerilla insurgency against Russian occupiers much like the case when Ukrainian anti-Soviet partisans kept fighting from the mid-1940s into the mid-1950s in the wake of World War II and the Soviet Union’s reimposition of unwanted Soviet rule over Ukraine after Hitler’s German Army’s temporary occupation and misrule. 

Even today, the official Russian “history” is that there were no genuine Ukrainian nationalists with good reasons to want to overthrow Soviet rule: there were only Nazi-aligned “Banderites” (the complicated fascist rebel Stepan Bandera was the most prominent of Ukrainian resistance leaders, hence the term).  Putin, as I have noted previously, has very much doubled down on this false narrative and extended it laughably to the conflict today, in which he is constantly calling for “denazification” against the “banderites” and “(neo-)Nazis,” Putin’s term for (Jewish!) Zelensky and his government and for all Ukrainians (the vast majority) who stand against Russia and support Zelensky and the war for national liberation from Russian occupation and influence.  As I have also previously discussed, much like Stalinist delusions about Finland during the Soviet Union’s disastrous yet ultimately somewhat victorious war against Finland in 1939-1940, the blind assumptions about “fascists” in Ukraine today were deeply enmeshed in Russian war planning and are a major factor in Russia’s disastrous, losing performance in Russia’s current war.

Before Putin’s escalation, he and Russia were viewed as strong.  Zelensky, meanwhile, had seen his initially very high popularity falter and seemed hapless to achieve any breakthroughs in the stalemate in Ukraine’s east with Russia and Ukrainian separatist backed by Russia.  And Biden seemed headed for a “red wave” midterm loss and at least appeared weak on the international stage in the wake of an optically disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal (I have earlier argued that the reality of that withdrawal was more impressive that the most salient visuals, but few saw or see it that way).

Yet, in part because of the aforementioned and many other ridiculous mistakes on the part of Russia and at least as much in part because of the leadership of Zelensky and Biden, instead of Russia’s military crushing Ukraine, Ukraine has crushed Russia’s military.  Zelensky was well-known—and sometimes dismissed—as a (literal) comedian before becoming president, but it is now Putin who is viewed accurately as a belittled clown while Zelensky has become a titan of a folk hero both in Ukraine and internationally, already cementing his place in history as a far greater man than Putin.  Now, it is Biden who is seen as strong on the international stage (and having helped staved off a midterms disaster domestically) and Putin who is greatly diminished, the latter losing sway among traditional Central Asian allies (former vassals), even taking disrespect to his face at international forums with their leaders.

Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME; Source Images: Getty Images (12); Ivanchuk: Lena Mucha—The New York Times/Redux; Kondratova: Kristina Pashkina—UNICEF; Kutkov: Courtesy Oleg Kutkov; Nott: Annabel Moeller—David Nott Foundation; Payevska: Evgeniy Maloletka—AP

Late in December, Zelensky gave the most important address by a foreign leader to a joint-session of Congress since Winston Churchill came to address a joint U.S. Congress late in December, 1941, after Imperial Japan’s attack against the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor and against other U.S. bases in the Pacific.  Like Churchill (and leaving aside his blatant, gross, racist imperialism, charges of any similar nature being inapplicable to the Ukrainian president), Zelensky has come to rally U.S. public and lawmaker opinion against a looming fascist threat that targets not just nations but democracy and freedom itself.

And now—with the firm and robust support of a NATO and West led by Biden—Zelensky is leading his Ukraine to victory, humiliating Putin and Russia on a daily basis not just by his very survival, but with his military actually humiliating Russia on the battlefield virtually every day, with not only Putin at his weakest since coming to power over two decades ago, but with Russia at its weakest since Hitler’s armies were knocking on the gates of Moscow and Stalingrad at the height of World War II in 1942.  Then, Russia had tremendous material support from the West against Hitler’s Nazi regime, but today, Russia is essentially alone, with its capabilities and internal stability decreasing over time even as Ukraine’s capabilities and future are only improving with time.  As I have noted before, with this escalation of his Ukraine war, Putin has doomed himself, the Russian military, and Russia itself to a downward spiral, as he is incapable of stopping his absurd and losing war and Russia will be unable to stop destroying itself until Russians remove him from power one way or another and thereby cease Russia’s self-destruction.

What a difference a year makes, indeed.

Vladimir Putin took part in events in Volgograd to mark the 80th anniversary of the Red Army’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad.

Vladimir Putin took part in events in Volgograd to mark the 80th anniversary of the Red Army’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad. Photograph: Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Brian’s Ukraine analysis has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the Ukraine Territorial Defense ForcesLt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army (Ret.), former commanding general, U.S. Army Europe; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.


This article is an adapted and updated excerpt from a much longer article previously published on Brian’s news website Real Context News on December 26 under a different title: Russia-Ukraine War Settles into Predictable Alternating Phases, But Russia’s Losing Remains Constant; see all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here.

Also see Brian’s related eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook (preview here).

About the Author(s)

Brian Frydenborg has spent two decades studying, writing about, or working in the fields of conflict analysis, counterterrorism, international affairs, public policy, politics, history, and humanitarian aid and international development.  His work has been featured in Newsweek, Jerusalem Post, Modern War Institute at West Point, London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, Jordan Times, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Real Clear Defense/History, among others.  You can follow him on Twitter @bfry1981 and on his website, Real Context News.




Thu, 02/16/2023 - 9:13am

This article is very biased and does not reflect the reality on the ground in Ukraine. This should not be used by anyone who wants to understand the war in order to prepare for future conflicts. There is no evidence that Russia planned to conquer all of Ukraine in its second invasion that started on 24 February, 2022. Russia attempted a coup de main with roughly 150,000 soldiers against a nation of some 40+ million. They hoped that the Ukrainian government would flee which would allow them to install a new puppet government. Russia has since mobilized its industrial base and placed it on a war footing. It has mobilized 300,000 reservists who had some level of training plus an additional 200,000 for their yearly conscription requirements. Last year, the Russian GDP contracted roughly 3% while the Ukrainian GDP contracted some 30%. The Russian economy is expected to grow while Ukraine continues to be destroyed. Meanwhile, the IS, EU, and the UK are not just funding the Ukrainian military, but also their government. Continue support for such efforts are starting to wane. It is unlikely that Ukraine will be able to take back its territory and thus history will remember that it was Ukraine who lost this war.


Thu, 02/09/2023 - 9:19am

While I lack the credentials of Mr. Frydenborg, I disagree deeply with his assessment. Putting aside the words which indicate strong bias, something which is necessary to clear the work to concentrate on "facts on the ground", there are several points he makes which do not meet with many reports. The Russian forces, while certainly performing well below expectations, have yielded ground around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kerson. A good portion of those withdrawals were based on voluntary movements from regions which do not serve Russia's strategic goal, that of holding firmly Lugansk and Donetsk and the overland corridor to Crimea. The current relatively slow movement along the front line in the east reflects Russian advances, not Ukrainian, and the wearing down of Ukrainian forces appears increasingly evident. While I do not believe the Russians can conquer all of Ukraine, I also do not believe they wish to do that. What appears to be the strategy is to force a diplomatic/political solution which yields those regions currently under Russian control permanently to Russia. Unless NATO wishes to send troops, the manpower available to Ukraine is limited much more than in Russia, and the ruling class in Russia will be able to continue mobilization, training, and deployment to replace losses. Additionally, there remains enough capability in Russia to manufacture weapons and ammunition while Ukraine must rely on the diminishing stores from the West, coupled with a wrecked infrastructure for logistical support. Partisan activity south of the Kerson region has been reduced. The rest of the regions show little activity of this sort. 

Similarly, Zelenskyy's expressed goals of reconquering all of Ukraine, including Crimea, is unrealistic. Ukraine simply does not have the capacity, even with "modern" tanks, etc. because she simply lacks the manpower and training, not even covering the logistical support which itself is seriously lacking for those new pieces to be effective on the battlefield. It is fine to speak of "winning" but no one seems interested in discussing how that is achieved, short of hoping for the Russian government to collapse and the new regime to give up everything it has gained. Personally, I do not see that as possible, despite what people remain or are put in charge. 

Personally I feel that Zelenskyy has dramatized his lot because he is aware of the weaknesses of his own forces and while many of those in the United States have expressed strong support for him, there are increasing rumblings of how unrealistic his goals are and concerns over our deepening commitment has become. Our language, understandably a bit extreme at times, unfortunately reflects all too clearly the degree to which some in this administration are willing to go. But we are being distracted from China's aggressiveness, diverting resources and funds from an area which has little strategic importance to us (contrasted with the importance to the EU). Much as current language focuses on the preservation of democracy against Putin's actions, Russia offers little threat in overturning governments. The important matter is that the EU nations, other than Poland, have shown little willingness to step up defense spending even with this conflict on their doorsteps. Germany, especially, resisted sending tanks not because of the matters offered by Stoltz but because the German military is third rate and is underfunded and equipped. He was fearful of depleting the already completely insufficient stores available. 

I will not step into arguments over Biden's and Austin's and Milley's leadership. Each will make his own judgments on those individuals, but overall, as I wrote above, our strategy on protecting our national interests and security should be focused on China rather than Russia. It will stink to yield Ukrainian territories to Russia, but in the larger picture what matters TO US is China.