Putin's doom: Russia expert Mark Galeotti on how a once-feared leader threw it all away

Author of "Putin's Wars" says the Russian president is doomed — but the West's anti-Russian rhetoric is dangerous

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 26, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during talks with US President Joe Biden at the Villa La Grange. (Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during talks with US President Joe Biden at the Villa La Grange. (Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)

Seven months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. By all accounts, he expected victory to be rapid and relatively easy. That has not been the case. Russia's invasion forces have suffered heavy casualties. The British ministry of defense estimates that at least 25,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and several times that number wounded. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the number is likely much higher. Russia's best units, in some cases, have been so depleted they are combat-ineffective.

Russia has also suffered great losses in equipment and material more generally.

The Russians are literally running out of trained soldiers to engage in sustained offensive operations, leading to Putin's recent order to call up 300,000 reserves. There are indications that the Russian military now lacks the ability to hold the Ukrainian territory it still controls. After the Ukrainian military's successful offensive in the Kharkiv region and incremental successes elsewhere, Russia's military has been exposed as a hollow force. At almost every key juncture, the Ukrainians have demonstrated superior mastery of the operational art of war, although that has clearly been facilitated by the technical and logistical assistance provided by the U.S. and other Western allies.

No leader launches an armed conflict with the assumption that it will be a disastrous error. Seven months after the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that Putin and his generals made a number of huge miscalculations. Putin imagined himself as a force of destiny, the leader of a new Russian empire informed by Christianity and "traditional values" such as nationalism, patriarchy, misogyny and homophobia. Liberal democracy and pluralism, in his view, were obsolete — symptoms of the Western world's moral weakness.

That reactionary vision made Putin into a hero and role model for many neofascists and members of the global right, at least for a while. Too many Republicans and conservatives, especially the right-wing Christian evangelicals and other enemies of democracy have viewed Putin (and Hungary's Viktor Orbán) as exemplifying the type of authoritarian ruler they long for to help fulfill their plan to end multiracial secular democracy.

Putin looks less attractive to many such right-wing figures now. After the debacle in Ukraine, what comes next for Russia and its president? I recently spoke with Mark Galeotti, one of the world's leading experts on Russia, transnational crime and military affairs. He is the author of many books, including "The Weaponisation of Everything," "A Short History of Russia" and "We Need to Talk About Putin." His forthcoming book, to be published in November, is "Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine."

In this conversation, Galeotti explains how Vladimir Putin has put himself inside an information echo chamber that encourages his worst impulses, which includes a delusional belief that he can shape the world through the force of his own will. Moreover, Galeotti says, the failed war in Ukraine could bring an end to Putin's rule over Russia.

Galeotti also offers his analysis of why the Russian military has failed in Ukraine and why so many military experts were so deeply wrong in their initial assessments. He shares his thoughts on the early lessons to be taken from the war in Ukraine about the future of conventional warfare and other high-intensity conflicts. Although victory appears to be in sight for the Ukrainians, Galeotti cautions that the U.S. and Western allies cannot take such an outcome as a given. He argues that the Ukrainians must receive more support and not less in order to ensure a final victory.

In the end, Galeotti warns that the endgame of the Ukraine conflict will be critical for global security and peace. If the Russian people feel humiliated by the U.S. and the West that may lead to even more aggressive nationalist forces taking control of their county in the future.

Given the war in Ukraine and all of the other global crises, how are you feeling? How do you make sense of all this?

On a personal level, I'm deeply depressed by what happened. As of June, I was actually banned from entry indefinitely by the Russian government. I like Russia as a place to visit. I have friends and colleagues there. Putin has obviously been terrible for 40 million or so Ukrainians. He has been pretty terrible for the Russians too. But for those of us who study Russia, he has been very good for business. There is a sense at times of being some type of hyena, feasting on the entrails of the global body politic. But I try to put such feelings aside. I'm very busy and am just trying to keep some perspective amidst all this extraordinary madness.

How do you maintain perspective? Pundits and commentators are often rewarded for sensationalism and "hot takes." But most such claims will mostly be disproved by history — and may even be disproven in the present by more serious and careful thinkers. Do such people simply not care? Is it all about making an impact and getting paid, and only secondarily the truth?

This is one of the problems caused by Twitter and other forms of social media and 21st-century media more generally. People can make a name for themselves by delivering "hot takes" that are a bit more exciting, a bit more strident and frankly a bit more lunatic than even the ones that came before. It would be nice to believe that there was some kind of grand karma at work, where at the end such people who are playing that game would be found out. 

There was a period when Putin seemed to be, in his own brutal and ugly way, doing good for Russia and the world.

It's a very depressing aspect of modern society because we now get to curate our own individual information bubbles, an echo chamber where we just hear the same things that confirm our beliefs. That means delusions can be maintained quite successfully, independent of reality on the ground. I predate the real internet age. I started studying Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. So from the phenomenal upwelling of optimism of the Gorbachev years, I saw the system collapse amidst chaos and recrimination. There was the gangster 1990s, and then the period in which Putin did seem to be, in his own brutal and ugly way, doing good for Russia and the world. He brought stability to that chaos. 

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I'm a historian by training, which means that I try to look at things from a longer-term perspective. Today Putin is this bloody-handed despot; he's going to be either a prisoner in a war crimes tribunal or more likely dead at some point. Then the historians will be ripping his historical legacy to shreds. And there will be another chance for Russia. We must step outside the fury of the moment and try to look at the big picture.

We have seen a major land war in Europe: So much of this is surreal. I say that as someone who came of age during the end of the Cold War. It almost feels like we are witnessing a bad novel or movie made real.

I didn't think that Putin was going to invade. I put the chances at 30 to 40%. It just didn't make sense. Sometimes it is very difficult to get your head around what makes sense to someone who has completely enclosed himself and surrounded himself with yes-men. How to make sense of the surrealism?

I take comfort in the fact that there are cycles and pulses to history. History never ends. It just reverberates and echoes. Putin represents the last gasp of a particular generation. He is going to be 70 in October. His closest allies are in that same age range. They're all very much of that generation that went through the trauma of the collapse of an empire around them. 

On one level, a huge land war in Europe between Russia and Ukraine is extraordinary. But on another level, historically what's extraordinary is that we're so surprised by it. What Putin is doing is actually something that a Bismarck or a Napoleon, any of the 19th-century statesmen, would have regarded as perfectly normal. It's actually a sign of how far we've moved as a global society to think of the war in Ukraine as something amazing and anomalous.

How did Putin convince himself to invade Ukraine? And more specifically, that he could win?

Putin is a rational actor who happens to believe a lot of deeply bizarre things. It's a prime example of a "garbage in, garbage out" problem. Putin has increasingly become cut off from reality. He's pushed those people who would challenge his views out of his inner circle. Putin has become addicted to the heady sense of always being right. As such, he has surrounded himself with people who share his views. That even applies to the spies. 

A retired Russian intelligence officer told me, "We've learned that you do not bring bad news to the czar's table." 

In 2015, I was talking to a retired Russian intelligence officer who told me, "We've learned that you do not bring bad news to the czar's table." In other words, you tell Putin what he wants to hear, not what he needs to know. Putin clearly has this sense of himself as a figure in the tradition of the grand Russian state-building heroes. He convinced himself that Ukraine wasn't a real country and that it is really a part of the Russian Slavic heartland. In Putin's mind, Ukraine would have just gone along with his invasion.

He really did convince himself that the war would last two weeks, and it would all be over. Putin imagined that he would be Vladimir the Great, the man who reunited the Slavic heartlands.

He's getting older. In 2024, Putin is due to stand for re-election. Obviously, he will win. But I think he's showing signs of being tired and bored with the job. His problem is that, like any kind of mafia boss, when you are in a system where the law always takes second place to politics, it does not matter what guarantees you get from a successor. The moment you hand over power to a successor you are basically handing him or her complete control over your fortune — and your life.

How are the Russian people going to deal with this national humiliation?

Most Russians don't really know what's going on, and quite frankly, are happy to keep their heads in the sand. It's an old Soviet practice. When you think there are some dangerous truths out there, you make sure that you aren't aware of them for as long as possible. The war in Ukraine is going to define Putin's legacy. Everything that was built up over his earlier terms is being squandered, be it the economy, Russia's place in the world or a military that he spent 20 years dumping huge amounts of money into that is now being ripped apart.

If we are hostile to the Russian people and treat them all like they're in league with Putin, we may force them into a very aggressive position.

One of the biggest challenges facing us now is to think about what comes next after victory for Ukraine. I'm worried about some of the very anti-Russian rhetoric that is now commonplace across the U.S. and Europe. I think of that as dangerous, because this is Putin's war. This is not a war that most Russians are enthusiastic about. If we are hostile to the Russian people and treat them all like they are in league with Putin and the Kremlin, then we have forced them into a very aggressive position. My concern is that if the West is not careful, the outcome will be something like what happened after the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First World War. A hostile deal will make the Russian people very angry, and in the future there may likely be a more aggressive Russia on the global scene.

It was generally agreed among military experts that Russia could invade and defeat Ukraine in several weeks. We are now at the seven-month mark. How did this go so wrong for Russia so fast?

We have to give the Ukrainians full credit. That is particularly so because they have spent the last eight years since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea thinking very carefully about how the Russians fight — and therefore how they would resist them. Second, Russia's military reforms have not been anything like as successful as they looked from the outside. Sure, the Russian military parades really nicely through Red Square. But they still hadn't solved fundamental issues about logistics, personnel training, having a proper NCO corps and all their other infrastructure and leadership problems.

Even more important than any of these issues is that the Russian military was not sent to fight the way it trains and prepares to fight. If the world had been as Putin believed it to be, we would probably now be talking about his extraordinary strategic brilliance. It is precisely because Putin believed that Ukraine would be an easy victory that he didn't share his plans with anyone, including the generals and other officers who would be carrying out the operation. They may have found out a week before the attack, which is nothing like the kind of time you need to properly prepare. They only had supplies for maybe a two-week operation.

The ordinary soldiers weren't even told what the real mission was. Russia did not fight according to their own doctrine, which is very bureaucratic and carefully structured, where there is a massive air and missile bombardment and then a big combined arms operation on just two or three axes of advance.

What Russia's military did instead was to conduct an extraordinarily amateurish, halfhearted attempt where Putin really seemed to believe that a couple of companies of paratroopers could just motor into the middle of Kyiv and arrest the government. Putin said the attack on Ukraine was a "special military operation" instead of a war. True, that was propaganda for domestic purposes. But that language also reflected the fact that Putin simply didn't think it was going to be a real war. The consequence was that in the first couple of weeks, the best of the Russian military was ripped apart because it was stuck in a conflict that it was not ready to fight.

Leaders need accurate information to make correct decisions in wartime. Putin does not want this information. We can assume that the intelligence officers know the truth and the military leadership knows the truth. How are they balancing the reality of the situation with what Putin wants to hear? What does that look like, day to day?

On a practical level, there are so many filters between the people who know what is really going on and the people who brief Putin. It all gets carefully sanitized and rewritten. The Russians still have excellent intelligence-gathering capabilities; the spies have very good analytic capabilities.

The failure is at the briefing level where that intelligence gets fed into policy. Putin is getting, at best, half the truth. Putin created this system, it's not something that was foisted upon him. For years, he has made it clear that he is very intolerant of people telling him things that are counter to his worldview. A lot of people just basically play along and hope things work out, or at the very least hope that someone else gets the blame when they don't.

What is going on with the oligarchs and organized crime right now in Russia?

Everything's moved on to a kind of wartime footing. Once upon a time, the oligarchs were powerful. Now they are rich — but only so long as Putin lets them be. This is one of the perverse effects of the sanctions regime, where many of the oligarchs basically lost all their assets outside the country. This means that everything depends on staying in Putin's good graces.

The oligarchs are grumbling. On the whole they're clearly not happy with this war, even the ones who were actually close to Putin. But they have to be careful about being viewed as not "patriotic."

These types of situations create new markets and new pressures. Sometimes it is all kind of silly. So of course, now there is a thriving organized crime trade in luxury Italian handbags, which are under sanction and cannot legally be exported to Russia. More significantly, I think we are beginning to see organized crime getting into areas that are adjacent to the state's interests, such as obtaining microelectronics that are needed for the war effort.

Ukraine is being flooded with weapons. This is a potential bonanza for criminals, terrorists and other malign actors. What do we know about this situation?

There is a small illegal market. There is an organization I'm involved with, the Global Initiative on Transnational Organized Crime, that has been doing a lot of research on the ground in Ukraine. I was talking to one of their researchers who was talking to a weapons trafficker. He told my contact that he could get Javelin missiles. Anything that is man-portable is basically man-stealable. I'm not really worried about the high-end military kit that's been provided, though. I don't think there's much of a trade because, if nothing else, it's hard to get the stuff out. Western law enforcement and intelligence is aware of the potential problem. There are attempts to try and get ahead of this before it becomes a real crisis.

What are some of the early lessons learned from the war in Ukraine?

I think it is precisely about the degree to which big wars are increasingly hard to win. We have to realize that this was not what Putin intended or was looking for. The irony is that right up to the point when Putin invaded Ukraine, he was winning. He had this huge force on Ukraine's borders, but it was all on the Russian side of the border and therefore entirely acceptable under international law.

Right up to the point when Putin invaded Ukraine, he was winning. If he were really a grand Machiavellian mastermind, he would have just allowed the situation to continue.

Under the shadow of the Russian guns, who wanted to invest in Ukraine? No one. The Ukrainian economy was tanking. And because of the danger of war there was a constant stream of Western dignitaries going to Moscow. That put Putin exactly in the position he likes to be in. He was at the center of attention and had all that leverage with everyone coming to petition him, more or less begging him not to start a war.

Because of concerns about a possible war, certain Western governments were trying to bring pressure on Zelenskyy to make concessions to the Russians. If Putin really had been this grand Machiavellian geopolitical mastermind, he would have just allowed the situation to continue. It was when Putin resorted to the crude instruments of force that he actually began to lose.

As for war and warfare, we are heading into an age in which conflict will take many different forms. The shooting war will never go away. What the war in Ukraine has shown is that it is vastly less predictable than we might have thought previously. This means that war is much less safely used by any potential aggressor in the future. No one starts a war that they think they are going to lose. The corollary of that is the aggressor must feel pretty confident that they can win. One big lesson is that the Ukrainians have shown that modern war has so many variables, which makes any prediction of success not so easy.

How do you make sense of this cult of personality among some Republicans and other members of the American and global right toward Putin?

It reflects a desire for a reality that never really was, where the heroic force of the individual can change the world. Reality is much more complex than that at present. Putin exemplifies personalistic rule, and for those attracted to such leaders and politics he embodies that idea of a ruler who can make the trains run on time. Polarization is so extreme now in America, where if Biden is against Putin the right wing then responds by saying that since Joe Biden is an untrustworthy and senile old fool who represents vested interests, then Putin obviously must have something going for him.

What about this narrative in the West where Ukraine is depicted as on the front lines of a struggle for global democracy against Russia and Putin?

We always have to put ourselves into everything. We can't just simply accept that this is about Ukraine and the Ukrainian people genuinely struggling for their own sovereignty. Are the Ukrainians fighting for America's or the West's freedoms and democracy? No, of course not. They're fighting for their own freedom. We should support that struggle on its own terms.

With Ukraine's recent victories, is the war near its end? What do you think is a reasonable timeline?

We are not near the end yet. That's a dangerous assumption. If people start thinking, "Oh, it's all but over now," then when it doesn't end that's when we run the risk of Ukraine fatigue. The Ukrainians are going to fight as long as they possibly can. The weak link for Ukraine is us. They need more than just military equipment and ammunition. The Ukrainian economy is basically on life support. It's being kept alive by Western financial assistance. Without that, Ukraine won't be able to sustain itself.

The recent offensive by the Ukrainian forces is a major victory. There's no question about it. It gives the Ukrainians momentum. It also imposes a whole series of dilemmas on the Russians: Where might the Ukrainians attack next? Ukraine is not yet within reach of winning the war, but the offensive does show that Ukraine is not going to lose the war either. Unless something happens to Putin, in terms of his mortality or a coup or the like, the war is going to go on for a while.

Gorbachev and Queen Elizabeth II both passed away within weeks of one another. How do you make sense of their legacy, relative to Putin and Ukraine?

They represented restraint. Both Queen Elizabeth II and Gorbachev were willing to accept that there are some things you shouldn't do. There is a great problem with the modern personalistic age of leaders, whether it's Trump or Putin or even Xi Jinping, where they are committed to a mythology in which people like them can grab the world and shift it on its axis through the sheer force of personality and will. Too many people actually believe in that dangerous mythology.

What are some lessons Vladimir Putin should learn from this moment?

Frankly, it is too late for Putin to learn a lesson about the danger of overreach. Putin has reached so far that he is beyond bringing back from the precipice. The only question is when he falls.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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