The details on how Putin decided to invade Ukraine, got the strategy wrong, and instead of admitting it, doubled down on his bet

Vladimir Putin, in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (AP) (Uncredited /)

On February 24, 2022, very few Russian officials knew of the plans to Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. The foreign minister himself Sergei LavrovI barely knew anything from a brief phone call at one in the morning… All the senior leaders of the kremlin they found out about the invasion when they saw Putin declare a “special military operation” on television that same morning.

He Financial Times talked with six former Putin confidants, as well as with people implicated in the invasion of Russia, and with senior and former senior officials in the West and Ukraine. With all these testimonies he managed to piece together how Putin botched the invasion, and then doubled down rather than admit his mistake. “All of them spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues,” warns the prestigious British outlet in its in-depth article on the subject, one year after the invasion.

According to Putin’s invasion plan, Russian troops were to take kyiv in a matter of days in a brilliant and relatively bloodless blitzkrieg.

Instead, the war has turned out to be a quagmire of historic proportions for Russia.. A year later, Putin’s invasion has claimed more than 200,000 dead and wounded among the Russian armed forces, according to US and European officials; it has exhausted its reserves of tanks, artillery and cruise missiles; and it has isolated the country from global financial markets and Western supply chains.

People who know Putin -explains Financial Times – they describe a leader who has become even more isolated since the start of the war. “Stalin was a villain, but a good manager, because you couldn’t lie to him. But nobody can tell Putin the truth.”says one of them. “People who don’t trust anyone start to trust a very small number of people who lie to them.”

And they remember that in the years after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s inner circle began to shrink as he became increasingly consumed with what he saw as growing Western threats to Russia’s security, the people say. His isolation deepened when the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020: fearing they could infect a germaphobic Putin, even top officials were forced to spend weeks in quarantine for a personal hearing.

One of the few people who spent much time with Putin was his friend Yuri Kovalchuk, a former physicist that in the 1990s he owned a dacha next to the future president’s in the countryside, outside St. Petersburg.

the reserved Kovalchuk – banker and media mogul who the US says manages Putin’s personal finances – he rarely speaks publicly and did not respond to a request for comment.

People who know him say they share a passion for Russian imperial revenge with his older brother Mikhail, a physicist whose conspiracy theory-laden ramblings about US plans to develop super-soldiers and “ethnic weapons” have occasionally surfaced later in Putin’s speeches.

During the height of the pandemic, Putin largely distanced himself from his comparatively liberal Western confidants, who had previously listened to him. Instead, he spent the first few months at his residence in Valdai, a bucolic lakeside town in northern Russia, essentially holed up with the young Kovalchuk, who inspired Putin to think about his historic mission to affirm the greatness of Russia, much as Peter the Great had done.

“He really believes everything he says about sacredness and Peter the Great. He thinks that he will be remembered as Pedro ”, claims a former high office.

FT claims that Putin became increasingly obsessed with Ukraine as his relations with its energetic young president, Volodymyr Zelensky, deteriorated.

It is that, remember the British media, one of Zelensky’s first measures was to curb the influence of Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Putin’s headed by the largest opposition party in Parliament. While the former president Petro Poroshenko had used Medvedchuk as a crucial intermediary with Moscow, Zelensky’s team sought other intermediaries in the belief that their influence with Putin had begun to wane.

In this file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his office in kyiv, Ukraine, April 9, 2022 (AP)
In this file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his office in kyiv, Ukraine, on April 9, 2022 (AP) (Evgeniy Maloletka/)

But when Putin began drawing up plans for a possible invasion, Medvedchuk insisted that the Ukrainians would welcome the Russian forces with open arms.

A part of The plan implicated Viktor Yanukovych, a former president who has been in Russian exile since fleeing the 2014 revolution against him.. He was to issue a video message legitimizing Medvedchuk and anointing him to rule Ukraine with Russian backing.

But that belief was completely different from the political realities of Ukraine, where the pro-Russian minority that Medvedchuk represented was vastly outnumbered by those who despised him for his Moscow ties. But it was seductive for Putin, who authorized payments through Medvedchuk’s party to bribe local collaborators.

Now, with the disaster materialized, criticism multiplies. “If Medvedchuk says it’s raining, you have to look out the window: it will be sunny,” says another former senior Russian official. “You have polls, you have the secret services: how can you do something serious based on what Medvedchuk says?”

However, his assessment was backed by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, which assured Putin that victory was certain. – and paid large bribes to officials in Ukraine in the hope that this would guarantee success.

“The FSB had built a whole system to tell the boss what he wanted to hear. Huge budgets were distributed and there was corruption at all levels,” says an official from Western intelligence services. “You tell the right story up top and skimp a bit for yourself.”

Dissenting voices in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, and in the Russian General Staff tried to sow doubt. At the Security Council meeting three days before the invasion, even Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council and Putin’s longest-standing and warmongering ally, suggested giving diplomacy another try.

“He knew what a bad state the army was in and he told Putin that,” says a person close to the Kremlin.

But Putin overruled them, insisting he was better informed, reveals FT.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert dedicated to Russian service members taking part in the country's military campaign in Ukraine, on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, 22 March. February 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert dedicated to Russian service members taking part in the country’s military campaign in Ukraine, on the eve of Defender of the Fatherland Day at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, 22 March. February 2023 (SPUTNIK /)

“Putin was overconfident,” says a former senior US official. “He knows more than his advisers just as Hitler knew more than his generals,” the source ironized.

The invasion began to unravel almost immediately after Putin launched it. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, had drawn up a plan to seize Hostomel airfield outside Kiev, giving elite Russian paratroop squads a platform from which to attack Zelensky’s seat of government.

Some of Medvedchuk’s associates worked as spotters for the advancing Russian forces, painting markings on buildings and roads to direct the invaders to key locations. Others joined the attack on the seat of government. In southern Ukraine, they helped Russia capture a large swath of territory, including Kherson, with little resistance.

However, most of Medvedchuk’s network just took the money and ranrefusing to join the invasion, or went directly to the Ukrainian authorities and warned them of the instructions they had received, according to a senior Ukrainian official and former US and Russian officials.

Prewar predictions that the Ukrainian military would collapse were largely based on the assumption that the Russian air force would quickly seize control of the skies over Ukraine.

In stead of, amid widespread disarray among the invaders, the Russian military shot down several of its own aircraft in the early days of the invasion. As a result, he was left without pilots with experience in combat operations with ground forces who were also prepared to fly, according to two Western officials and a Ukrainian official.

“It may not have been double digits, but it’s more than one or two” Russian planes shot down by friendly fire, says the former senior US official. “There was a lot of fratricide.”

And he adds: “They may not have pilots with combat experience willing to fly over Ukraine and risk their necks in that crazy environment.”

Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligenceHe adds: “It happened. From artillery units, from tanks, and we even saw it from our interceptions of their conversations. They shot down their own helicopters and they shot down their own planes.”

On the ground, Russia’s gains came at the price of huge casualties and they did not help him capture any important cities apart from Kherson. By the end of March, the invading forces were in such bad shape that they withdrew from most of central and northeastern Ukraine, calling it a “goodwill gesture.”

“Russia screwed up,” says Skibitsky. “Initially, Gerasimov didn’t want to go in on all sides like he did. But the FSB and everyone else convinced him that the whole world was waiting for him to show up and there would be no resistance.”

As the consequences of his invasion became apparent, Putin searched for a scapegoat to hold accountable for the intelligence errors that underpinned it. that person was Sergei Beseda, head of the fifth directorate of the FSBresponsible for operations abroad and which had laid the foundations for the invasion by paying Ukrainian collaborators, according to two Western officials.

Initially, Beseda was placed under house arrest, according to officials. However, his stay in captivity did not last long. Weeks later, US officials came into a meeting on bilateral issues with their Russian counterparts wondering, after news of Beseda’s arrest leaked to Russian media, whether he would show up and how the Russians would explain where he was.

Instead, Beseda walked in and said, paraphrasing Mark Twain: “You know, the rumors about my disappearance are wildly exaggerated,” according to the former US official.

Beseda’s quick return demonstrated what aides consider some of Putin’s biggest weaknesses. The Russian president values ​​loyalty more than competition, he is obsessed with secrecy to a fault and presides over a bureaucratic culture in which his subordinates tell him what he wants to hear, according to people who know him.

For many members of the elite, the torrent of lies is a survival tactic.: Most of Putin’s presidential administration and economic cabinet have told their friends that they oppose the war, but feel powerless to do anything about it. “It really is a unique war in world history, in which the entire elite is against it,” says a former senior official.

A small number of them, including the former special representative for climate, Anatoly Chubais, have quietly resigned. A former senior official who now heads a major state-owned company even applied for an Israeli passport while still in his post, and began making plans to leave the country, according to two people close to him.

As the war thickens, Putin began to realize the scale of Russia’s miscalculation, prompting him to seek more information at lower levels, say people who know him. A cohort of ultranationalist bloggers critical of the military establishment have held at least two closed-door meetings with Putin since last summer; some were guests of honor at the annexation ceremony of the four Ukrainian provinces in September.

But according to sources FT, Putin refuses to admit that the invasion was a mistake in the first place. Some of the liberal officials who oppose the war have tried to convince him to end it by pointing out the economic damage that sanctions can do to the Russian economy.

But Putin tells them that he “has already factored in the cost,” says another former senior Russian official. “He tells them, ‘We paid a huge price, I understand. We underestimated how difficult it could be.’ But how can you convince a madman? His brain will crash if he realizes it was a mistake,” the source adds. “He doesn’t trust anyone.”

Asked about the discrepancy between the Defense Ministry statements and complaints from fighters at the front about poor equipment in December, Putin paraphrased a character from his favorite TV series, the Soviet spy drama Seventeen Moments of Spring: “ You can not trust anyone. Only in me.” He then he chuckled.

more threats

According to two people close to the Kremlin consulted by the British media, Putin has already considered the possibility of using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine and has come to the conclusion that even a limited attack would not benefit Russia at all.

“He has no reason to push the button. What’s the point of bombing Ukraine? You detonate a tactical nuclear bomb in Zaporizhzhia,” says a former Russian official, referring to the Ukrainian capital of a province Putin has claimed for Russia. “Everything is totally irradiated, you can’t go in there, and it’s supposed to be Russia anyway, so what’s the point?”

However, he did announce the suspension of Russia’s participation in new start, the last remaining arms treaty with the United States and governing the nuclear arsenals of both countries. The suspension was the most concrete step Putin has taken in escalation since the war began.

Putin’s calculation, people close to the Kremlin say, is that Russia is more committed to war than the West is to Ukraine.and it’s tough enough to take the financial pain.

So instead of insisting that most Russians are unaffected by war, as the Kremlin did in its early months, when life was largely normal, Putin has now embraced mobilization rhetoric, urging all of society to unite after the invasion.

“Even in his own mind, he realizes that if he succeeds in the Ukraine it won’t be soon. It’s going to be a long and costly process,” says the former US official. “He thinks that he has time – he is 70 years old – and the resources, the oil and gas money to get it. And for this he will be remembered: for reuniting the Russian lands as Peter the Great did ”.

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