I was in Ukraine last May and saw firsthand the massive damage done. Vladimir Putin executed an audacious nationally coordinated strategic deception in preparation for his “Special Military Operation,” the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In other words, he told falsehoods to the Western nations and his own people regarding his true intentions. Then he lied some more about his thousands of losses once combat was joined.
Now the conflict has devolved into an artillery duel. The dead are multiplying at a startling rate. There are legions of lies at work here. But serial dishonesties have a shelf life. The end of Putin’s may soon be in view.
In 1989-90 I served with the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization in both Observer Group Egypt in the Sinai Desert, and then later with Observer Group Lebanon. Some of my observer post colleagues were Russian military officers. The Soviet Union collapsed during this period, and largely based on the collective weight of the veritable cornucopia of untruths told by the Communist Party.
The emotional and psychological impact on the Russian officers was terrible. I remember one telling me sadly over one too many vodkas, “They lied to us. My whole life has been a lie.” Tragically, it has happened again — drawn from the same playbook, only this time the fantastic fabrications are in the service of a kleptocratic dictatorship masquerading as a pseudo-democracy that harbors vainglorious delusions.
The dictator controls all levers of national power. His state news conglomerate spews pure propaganda. That effort to date has been effective. After all, the only story told domestically is his. But Putin’s attempts to convince the Russian people that the aggressor in this invasion is the defender may soon lose traction domestically. The Russian and Ukrainian peoples know and understand one another well. Ukrainians are not Nazis. Putin, the former KGB officer, swam well in oceans of pretense for all his adult life. His backstroke in these dark waters prior to this unwarranted conflict was often superb. But his invasion of Ukraine is a major faux pas. Has absolute power finally corrupted absolutely?
Ill-prepared and predominantly conscript Russian soldiers are being killed in vast numbers. Estimates range as high as 80,000 uniformed dead and wounded. News of those deaths will surface. Putin hopes that his “Special Military Operation” will not be perceived as a real war by average Russians. But if these casualty estimates are anywhere near accurate, the longer the fight lasts, and as the Kremlin’s losses continue to mount, the greater the danger to the autocrat’s rule, and he knows it.
America lost fewer than 2,500 soldiers to hostile action in Afghanistan over a period of 20 years. These huge Russian losses in less than 8 months of conflict demonstrate a startling level of Russian military incompetence coupled with an uber-determined Ukrainian resistance.
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The entire edifice of today’s Orwellian Russian State is built on brutal repression that is supported by misrepresentation and distortions of truth. Putin has created mountains of mendacities over his more than 2 decades in power. The weight of all those lies is now enormous. There was a reckoning for the Soviet Union.
Has Putin placed the modern Russian state on a similar trajectory? If so, multiplying Western political, financial and economic sanctions should hasten its final days. Putin fears these figures, so much so that they were declared a state secret. Anyone caught releasing them could serve 7 years in prison. What will the oligarchs do when their fortunes are further depleted? What will the people do if his war of choice turns into a quagmire that demands even more Russian lives? There is a problem with attempting to build and maintain a national edifice based on legions of lies. Multiple falsehoods will eventually prove unsustainable. Facts are stubborn that way. The truth will catch up to Putin, too.
Robert Bruce Adolph, who served nearly two decades with the United Nations, is a retired senior Army Special Forces soldier, who holds graduate degrees in both National Security Studies and International Affairs. He is the author of his publisher’s number one best-selling book, “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”