Learning from Putin’s Personal War

Ben Cunningham '23

(Trigger warning: this article uses sarcasm to highlight the dangers of authoritarianism. We in no way condone Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).


The tale of Vladimir Putin. Here’s how you as a future tyrant can learn from Putin’s war in Ukraine.


Before we dive into the life of the man who sent hundreds of thousands of fellow Russians into the death zone, we need to understand where he came from and his rise to power. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in Leningrad, now named St.Petersburg during the Cold War in 1952. After attending university, he joined the notorious KGB as an intelligence officer. He served for 15 years and retired in 1990, during which time he spent six years in Dresden in East Germany. In 1989, he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall after Ronald Reagan so pronounced “tear Down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev”. Humiliated and embarrassed at the collapse of the once-powerful Soviet Union, Putin vowed to become one of the world’s most powerful leaders. . He soon gained the confidence and trust of then Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, who appointed him as Prime Minister in 1999. 


After Yeltsin’s resignation, Putin began to implement his vision for the country. Putin began to reduce the power of media oligarchs and the regional governors of Russia’s eighty-nine regions. He then quickly and violently put down rebellions in Chechnya. In 2008, Putin stepped down to become Prime Minister as Dmitry Medvedev became President, although both the fairness of the election and legitimacy of Russian ‘democracy’ were called into question.  In 2011, such questions resurfaced  as irregularities in the Presidential race continued and Putin’s party faced strong opposition.  However, he won reelection  and changed the constitution so he can essentially remain in power until as far as 2036.


Since then, Putin’s regime has been heavily criticized for jailing political opposition, suppressing the media and other human rights abuses. Putin runs Russia like it’s his vehicle, him and his oligarch buddies sit at the top while many Russians suffer from the economic toll of the war and many of whom are forced into war. As we in the international relations field would say Putin is definitely a boss man. Someone who has that cult of personality and is very assertive and authoritative.Now, let’s take a look at the series of mistakes Putin has made in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 


Putin’s Ukraine war is very similar to the Vietnam War. He claimed it would be over quickly, yet he continues to forcibly draft men and send them to the front lines while underestimating the tenacity and resilience of Ukrainians. First, media and critics have speculated whether Putin is mentally competent. Since the pandemic, the Russian leader has been more withdrawn from his top officials. According to some reports, Putin did not even consult his top military generals who advised against invading Ukraine. In one clip, Putin is seen sitting in his chair during covid times and he is correcting his top secretary who is stuttering. Putin has become more erratic and is seemingly making rash decisions on his own, including miscalculating the readiness of his military. The Russian military was revealed to be using outdated maps of Ukraine, taking shelter in poorly-maintained bases, and speaking on open telephone lines, thereby revealing their position. Furthermore, Putin gave unrealistic orders to his commanders while broadcasting endless victories on state-sponsored television and forcing civilians into the draft with little to no combat experience.  The soldiers were often given outdated weapons with little or no additional supplies, such as  medic kits and rations, in addition to being told they were never going to see combat.


According to associates of Putin, he spiraled out of control into anti-western propaganda, completely isolated from his top confidants. Despite devoting millions of dollars to revolutionizing his army, corruption scandals plagued the Russian military and left it poorly equipped. Russia’s notorious cyber warfare department accused of interfering with U.S elections failed to make any significant impact on Ukraine. 


Meanwhile, newly drafted soldiers called home on open telephone lines, allowing the Ukranians to track their location. Despite these massive blunders, the Russian army showed no evidence of adapting to the ensuing Ukrainian attacks. And as we’ve seen with Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, and Napoleon, among others, sometimes conquering territory can be too much. The Russian army was stretched thin by the vast amount of territory they conquered which inevitably forced them to retreat from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine near the Dnipro River. While the Russians struggled, the Ukrainian army continued to receive new modern weapons from Western allies. With numerous squadrons fighting over resources, the situation has become tense, fracturing the inner ranks of the Russian military.


Despite backlash and criticism, Putin’s pursuit in the offensive against Ukraine continues, sparking concern about the lengths he is willing to go to ‘win’ the war. The draft has caused internal strife in Russia with many people protesting the war, leading to violent confrontations and oppressive crackdowns. Militarily and strategically, Russia has been outmaneuvered by Ukrainian officials backed by Western allies.


Unlike Putin, Zelensky rallied his fellow countrymen to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia’s intelligence services reportedly took two to three days to update information, and pilots flew high over the radar, which readily revealed their locations. On the ground, the Russian military was more vulnerable without air cover and inexperienced troops. Soldiers in Belarus were expected to arrive in Kyiv in less than 18 hours, yet conditions rendered such orders impossible. Consequently, casualties mounted as squadrons were left isolated and vulnerable. 


Future authoritarians ought to beware the cautionary tale of Vladimir Putin, who failed to control both his military and his own people.  After all, the last thing you need is for your head to be on a spike. 


Works Cited

[1] Gibbons, Thomas. “How Putin’s War in Ukraine Became a Catastrophe for Russia.” The New York Times, 16 December 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/12/16/world/europe/russia-putin-war-failures-ukraine.html. Accessed 17 January 2023.

[2] “Vladimir Putin – Third presidential term | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vladimir-Putin/Third-presidential-term. Accessed 17 January 2023.

[3] Walker, Shaun. How the Soviet Union’s Fall Pushed Putin to Try and Recapture Russia’s Global Importance, 28 February 2022, https://www.history.com/news/vladimir-putin-russia-power. Accessed 17 January 2023.