History and modern roadblocks
Mr Putin began the “special military operation” in the name of Ukraine’s demilitarization and “denazification,” seeking to protect ethnic Russians, prevent Kyiv’s NATO membership and to keep it in Russia’s “sphere of influence.”
While he claims Ukraine and the West provoked the invasion, they say just the opposite — that it was an illegal and brazen act of aggression against a country with a democratically elected government and a Jewish president whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust.
Putin laid the foundation for the invasion with a 5,000-word essay in 2021, in which he questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation.
That was only the latest chapter in a long obsession with the country and a determination to correct what he believes was a historical mistake of letting it slip from Moscow’s orbit.
He reached back three centuries, to Peter the Great, to support his quest to reconquer rightful Russian territory.
But rectifying history soon hit modern roadblocks.
“Literally everything that he set out to do has gone disastrously wrong,” said British journalist Philip Short, who published his biography, “Putin,” last year.
Despite armed interventions in Chechnya, Syria and Georgia, Putin overestimated his military and underestimated Ukrainian resistance and Western support. Russian media try to boost his authority with images of a bare-chested Putin riding a horse, shooting at a military firing range and dressing down government officials on TV, but the war has exposed his shortcomings and the weakness of his military, intelligence services and some economic sectors.
Ukrainian forces have liberated more than half the territory Russia seized.
The war has killed tens of thousands on both sides, caused widespread destruction, and induced not only Ukraine but Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership. It has increased the security threat to Russia and scuttled decades of Russia’s integration with the West, bringing international isolation.
Increasingly, Putin seems to be improvising in a conflict much longer and more difficult than he expected. For example, he’s threatened to use nuclear weapons, then backed off.
The strategy is familiar from his lifelong passion, judo: “You must be flexible. Sometimes you can give way to others if that is the way leading to victory,” Putin recounted in flattering 2015-17 interviews with American director Oliver Stone.
In Putin’s view, an aggressive West wants to crush Russia. His narrative, along with increasingly repressive measures to stifle domestic dissent, has galvanized patriotic support among many of his countrymen.
But it runs up against an inefficient, top-down power structure inherited from the Soviet Union, against the interconnected world’s porous borders, and against the sacrifices Russians are suffering firsthand.