The details are only now emerging, and they help explain why Russia is losing in Ukraine and, indeed, why autocracies are often terrible at fighting wars.
By annexing Crimea and taking Donbass, in 2014 Putin tipped Ukraine into becoming majority western-oriented:
Until 2014, Ukraine was fairly evenly split between, to borrow 19th century Russian terminology, Westernizers and Slavophiles. Some Ukrainians wanted to join the institutions of the free world, including NATO. Others preferred, if not a merger with Russia, at least a special relationship with what they saw as the sister nations to their east and north. When Putin annexed Crimea and effectively detached parts of the Donbas region, he removed millions of Russophile voters and thereby gave Ukraine a solidly pro-Western majority.
Putin had thus unwittingly created what was, from his perspective, an intolerable situation. The last thing he wanted was a kindred population on Russia’s border, speaking a cognate language but moving toward liberal multiparty democracy. So he began to prepare for a further and more decisive military intervention.
Bribery was supposed to make a takeover easy, but the bribery bureaucrats took the money for themselves:
From at least 2015, the FSB’s [Russia’s Federal Security Service] Fifth Service was charged with preparing the ground. Large sums were set aside to suborn Ukrainian civil and military leaders. The idea was that when the moment came, senior Ukrainians, such as mayors, regional governors, generals, and police chiefs, would switch sides, opening the gates to their paymasters.
But the FSB’s bosses never believed an invasion would happen. And so, Russia being Russia, they siphoned the cash off into yachts in Cyprus and numbered Swiss accounts.
Imagine the scene when, toward the end of 2021, Putin called his spy chiefs in and asked them to confirm the bribes had been disbursed and that key Ukrainian institutions would throw in their lot with the Russian invader. The terrified FSB leaders assured him that, yes, all was well while desperately trying to find a way out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
Running away was not an option. Their former colleague Alexander Litvinenko had fled to London … [but] was assassinated with polonium in 2006. Another former agent, Sergei Skripal, had moved to the sleepy English town of Salisbury, but he was poisoned with Novichok in 2018 by two GRU operatives.
So the bureaucrats tried to torpedo the invasion by leaking the plans to the US:
It looks as if they did the only possible thing in their position. They sought to prevent the invasion from happening so that their embezzlement should not come to light. The way they appear to have done so is to have told their Western counterparts what was being planned, hoping that, once Putin knew that his plot had been uncovered, he would drop it. Hence the detailed knowledge that Britain and the United States had about what was coming — knowledge that their governments made public and that Putin lamely denied.
Corruption hobbled the military too:
It soon emerged that much of the money set aside for the modernization of the Russian military had also been diverted into private bank accounts. Tanks lacked basic spare parts. Weapons systems failed. But, again, no one wanted to be the bearer of bad news.
Why autocracies fail but democracies succeed — freer speech:
This brings us to a counterintuitive truth. Democracies, supposedly soft, decadent, and convulsed in culture wars, often turn out to be better at fighting than brutal dictatorships. This is not because their people are braver or more virtuous — it’s because they have systems in place that allow for greater transparency and speedier error correction.
Fascinating. It all fits, and explains much. Probably true.