Russian President Vladimir Putin got many things wrong when he decided to invade Ukraine. He exaggerated his army’s military prowess. He underestimated the power of Ukrainian nationalism and the ability of its outmanned armed forces to defend their home soil. He appears to have misjudged Western unity, the speed with which NATO and others would come to Ukraine’s aid, and the willingness and ability of energy-importing countries to impose sanctions on Russia and wean themselves off its energy exports. He may also have overestimated China’s willingness to back him up: Beijing is buying lots of Russian oil and gas, but it is not providing Moscow with vocal diplomatic support or valuable military aid. Put all these errors together, and the result is a decision with negative consequences for Russia that will linger long after Putin has left the stage. No matter how the war turns out, Russia is going to be weaker and less influential than it would have been had he chosen a different path.
But if we are honest with ourselves—and being ruthlessly honest is essential in wartime—we should acknowledge that Russia’s president got some things right, too. None of them justify his decision to start the war or the way Russia has waged it; they merely identify aspects of the conflict where his judgments have been borne out thus far. To ignore these elements is to make the same mistakes that he did: that of underestimating one’s opponent and misreading key elements of the situation.