Nearly 10 months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has suffered great losses. Its military has faltered against a foe that, before the war, appeared much weaker. A team of Times journalists published an account this weekend of how Russia so badly mismanaged its invasion, based on interviews, intercepted phone calls, documents and secret battle plans. At the center of it is Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who has been in power for more than two decades.
I spoke to Anton Troianovski, the Moscow bureau chief and one of the lead reporters on the story, about how Putin came to decide to go to war.
Claire: When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, experts believed that Russia would quickly conquer Ukraine. That didn’t happen. What is the main reason that the war went so badly for Russia?
Anton: It was a cascade of failures, and at the top is Putin’s own misguidedness, his own isolation and his own conviction that he knew what was best. The Russian military was unprepared all the way down to a tactical level, like using Soviet-era maps. Like using their cellphones to call home, which gave away their positions and allowed them to be ambushed or attacked. There wasn’t enough food to feed the soldiers.
We got hold of actual copies of some of the invasion plans that some of the Russian military units had, which showed them expecting to race toward Kyiv within hours of invading. Russian military leaders didn’t think they’d need any reinforcements.
I talked to many people who knew Putin personally, and they told me that the decision to go to war was based on his gut feeling. Putin didn’t seem to think he needed advice on the wisdom of this invasion. Putin was convinced that he knew best, that he understood Ukraine and its place in history as well as his own.
You report in the story that, partly because of the pandemic, Putin didn’t meet face to face with a Western leader for more than a year. How did that affect his decision to go to war?
We don’t have perfect insight into what’s going on inside Putin’s inner circle; it’s still one of the world’s most secretive ruling establishments. But everyone I talked to said they didn’t believe that 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 got a rise out of him emotionally, and they’d bring him information that further intensified his views.
Why were the predictions about the war so wrong?
It’s because this war was something that nobody could really imagine. It wasn’t just Putin who miscalculated. The Russian elite largely thought there’d be no way that Putin would actually go to war. Many Ukrainians also didn’t think Putin was actually going to invade, nor did the Europeans. The U.S. did expect Russia to invade, but thought it could win in days. The war was so different from anything that has happened in recent decades that it was impossible to make informed predictions.
There was a ton of miscalculation from all sides. Putin also didn’t expect the West to unite behind Ukraine the way it did, nor does he appear to have expected Europe to reorient away from Russian fossil fuels so quickly.
We’ve talked a lot about what went wrong for Russia, and of course the war isn’t over. Is there anything that is going well?
Putin recognizes that things haven’t gone to plan, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to fold. He is willing to accept a lot of casualties — up to 300,000, according to what one NATO member is now telling allies. The way Putin looks at it is that the Soviet Union lost 27 million people in World War II, and he’s convinced that the Russian people are prepared to suffer — more than people in the West.
Something else that has gone well from the Kremlin’s point of view is the country’s propaganda machine. It helped convince many Russians that the war was not going disastrously wrong, and that it was the West that was forcing Russia to fight. In addition, sanctions haven’t derailed the Russian economy the way the West had hoped, and much of the world hasn’t turned its back on Russia they way some expected.
Telling the inside history of an ongoing war is an ambitious goal. How did you all pursue this story?
It was a very intense reporting effort. I was trying to get beyond what we already know about Putin and get to some of the nuances surrounding him and his decision to go to war. It is really hard, because it’s something that so few people know for sure. It took a long time and a lot of conversations.
I spoke on the record to two rich Russians, one who turned against Putin and another who didn’t. It was fascinating to see how people made their decisions. There were a good amount of people who were willing to speak publicly. Often these people were prepared to talk because they want their side of the story out there.
Anton Troianovski is The Times’s Moscow bureau chief. His first journalism job was as a photographer with local papers in the St. Louis area, where he grew up, and he first reported in Russia as an intern for The Associated Press in 2006.
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