Putin's invasion is hastening Russia's decline. Let's heed the warning.

What the U.S. can learn from the war

Vladimir Putin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

All Vladimir Putin wanted was to make Russia great again.

There are many reasons Putin decided to invade Ukraine, which historians and other experts will be sussing out for years. But it seems clear that the Russian leader pines for a time when his country — the heart of the late, not-so-great Soviet Union — was one of the most powerful on Earth. He has openly lamented its Cold War loss for years, and once famously pronounced the USSR's demise as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." If nothing else, a quick military victory in Ukraine would prove that Russia is still a fearsome power.

That's not working out so great.

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While Russian bombs and missiles continue to rain down on Ukraine's cities, inflicting a terrible slaughter on the civilians there, the fact is that we're nearly a month into an invasion that many observers expected to take just a few days at most. The war appears to be stalemated, and Russia is suffering the consequences. Its economy has been shattered by Western sanctions and probably won't recover for a very long time, and reports suggest that tens of thousands of young professionals are fleeing the country to work and live elsewhere, depriving it of crucial intellectual capital. Perhaps worst of all from Putin's standpoint, Russia's military has been revealed to be something of a paper tiger, scarier in theory than in practice.

Instead of reasserting Russia's greatness, then, it looks very likely that Putin has actually hastened his country's decline — both as a place for its citizens to live, and as a player on the world stage. "Russia is now, for the foreseeable future and as long as Putin is president, washed up as a world power," The Atlantic's Tom Nichols wrote last week on Twitter.

It's easy to engage in a bit of schadenfreude here. But maybe we should read this moment as a cautionary tale — particularly for the United States, another great power afflicted with spasms of nostalgia for a better time and a tendency to throw around the weight of its mighty military: Lashing out in the name of greatness is a good way to actually reduce your standing in the world.

So there are a couple of early lessons to be learned from Putin's adventurism:

Power is rooted in perception — and perceptions can change. Russia appeared a lot more formidable to the rest of the world just a few months ago because of other, less visible elements of its power. Its official and unofficial armies of cyberwarriors were feared around the world for their power to take down critical infrastructure and meddle in foreign elections. Its corps of poison-wielding spies had the capacity and will to seek out the country's enemies around the world. And the country's armed forces seemed a lot scarier before they actually had to mount a major invasion, thanks to a decades-long Putin-led buildup. "Russia's Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal," the New York Times blared in January.

Using its military power altered the perception of Russia in two ways — paradoxically making it appear both weaker and more threatening. One one hand, the country's inability to get fuel or decent food to its troops means other European nations don't have to take it quite so seriously as a security threat. On the other, the invasion has made neighboring countries like Sweden and Finland suddenly open to joining NATO, leaving Russia more isolated. In both cases, Putin's leadership has left his country in a less-powerful position than before.

Great powers have more to lose. Everybody expects big countries with huge, supposedly well-equipped militaries to win when they go to war against smaller, weaker forces. That expectation can be an Achilles' heel. "In war, the weaker side has many disadvantages: Fewer troops, fewer vehicles, less advanced equipment, less ability to decide where fighting takes place," writes Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois. "But there's one big advantage: a tie is a victory. Russia has to win. Ukraine has to not lose. And it's looking like they can."

Powerful countries have to win the fights they pick, and decisively. If they don't — and often, they don't — the perception problem kicks in with a vengeance. That makes it wise to be very careful about picking the fight in the first place.

Set aside the legal and moral questions that come with launching unprovoked wars of aggression, and consider the matter in cost-benefit terms. Wars are costly. Wars are full of unintended consequences. And the results of a war depend on more than just your own country's will and capabilities (as well as its leaders' ability to accurately assess them) but also the will and capabilities of the opponent. What's more, even if you win a war, and even if that war is righteous, the effort can be exhausting: The British Empire was a nominal victor in two world wars, but it declined quite quickly in the aftermath. Losing a war — or failing to win one — usually has much worse consequences. All of these things can be true even if you don't have much of the developed world arrayed against you.

It seems smarter, then, to avoid warmaking entirely.

It's not clear if Putin understands how his war has damaged his country and its standing. And it's not clear, either, if Americans understand how endless, non-winning wars of choice in the 21st century have also weakened our own country and its suddenly fragile democracy. (For all our sakes, let's hope China is learning some lessons as it considers its own path forward.)

At this moment, though, it does not appear that Russia is great again. That should serve as a warning to our leaders in Washington D.C. Some Americans like to say that "decline is a choice." I'm not sure that's right. But Vladimir Putin is proving to us that some choices bring about decline more quickly than others.

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