Nearly 10 months after its invasion of the Ukraine, Russia has suffered heavy losses. Her army has faltered against an enemy that, before the war, seemed much weaker. A team of journalists from the Times published an account this weekend of how Russia handled its invasion so badly, based on interviews, intercepted phone calls, documents and secret battle plans. In the center is Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, who has been in power for more than two decades.
I spoke to Anton Troianovski, the Moscow bureau chief and one of the top reporters on the story, about how Putin decided to go to war.
Claire: When Russia invaded the Ukraine in February, experts believed that Russia would quickly conquer the Ukraine. That didn’t happen. What is the main reason why the war went so badly for Russia?
Anton: It was a cascade of failures, and at the top is Putin’s own mistake, his own isolation, and his own conviction that he knew best. The Russian Army was not prepared up to the tactical level, such as using Soviet-era maps. Like using their cell phones to call home, which gave away their positions and allowed them to be ambushed or attacked. There was not enough food to feed the soldiers.
We obtained actual copies of some of the invasion plans that some of the Russian military units had, which showed that they expected to rush into Kyiv within hours of the invasion. Russian military leaders did not think they would need reinforcements.
I spoke to many people who knew Putin personally and they told me that the decision to go to war was based on their intuition. Putin did not seem to think that he needed advice on the wisdom of this invasion. Putin was convinced that he knew better, that he understood Ukraine and its place in history as much as his own.
You report in the story that, partly because of the pandemic, Putin did not meet face-to-face with a Western leader for over a year. How did that affect his decision to go to war?
We don’t have a perfect view of what goes on inside Putin’s inner circle; it remains one of the most secretive ruling establishments in the world. But everyone I spoke to said they didn’t think Putin had a single meeting before the invasion where people talked openly about the wisdom of going to war. Putin doesn’t like group discussions, he likes one-on-one discussions.
One person I spoke to compared it to a social media algorithm. Putin’s aides and friends would see what turned him on emotionally and provide him with information that would further intensify his views.
Why were the war predictions so wrong?
It is because this war was something that no one could really imagine. It was not just Putin who miscalculated. The Russian elite largely thought that there would be no way Putin would actually go to war. Many Ukrainians also didn’t think Putin was really going to invade, and neither did the Europeans. The United States did he expected Russia to invade, but thought he could win in days. The war was so different from anything that has happened in recent decades that it was impossible to make any informed predictions.
There were a lot of miscalculations from all sides. Putin also did not expect the West to rally behind Ukraine the way he did, nor does he seem to have expected Europe to move away from Russian fossil fuels so quickly.
We have talked a lot about what went wrong for Russia, and of course the war is not over. There’s something that is it is going well?
Putin acknowledges that things have not gone according to plan, but that does not mean he is going to give in. He is willing to take heavy casualties, up to 300,000, according to what a NATO member is now telling his allies. The way Putin sees it is that the Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II, and he is convinced that the Russian people are prepared to suffer, more than people in the West.
Another thing that has gone well from the Kremlin’s point of view is the country’s propaganda machine. He helped convince many Russians that the war was not going disastrously wrong and that it was the West that was forcing Russia to fight. Furthermore, the sanctions have not derailed the Russian economy in the way the West had hoped, and much of the world has not turned its back on Russia as some had hoped.
Telling the inside story of an ongoing war is an ambitious goal. How did they follow this story?
It was a very intense informative effort. He was trying to go beyond what we already know about Putin and get at some of the nuances surrounding him and his decision to go to war. It’s really difficult, because it’s something that very few people know for sure. It took a long time and many conversations.
I officially spoke to two wealthy Russians, one who turned on Putin and one who didn’t. It was fascinating to see how people made their decisions. There were a good number of people who were willing to speak in public. Often these people were prepared to speak because they wanted to hear their side of the story.
Anton Troianovski is the Moscow bureau chief of The Times. His first reporting job was as a photographer at local newspapers in the St. Louis area, where he grew up, and he first reported on Russia as an intern for The Associated Press in 2006.
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