The 3 miscalculations of Putin: Confusing ambition with capability?

By Jürgen Dieringer

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resembles 19th-century expansionism that seemed impossible in a rule-based post-Cold War European peace order. The security dilemma opened up again, and a new balance of power in a multipolar world is only emergent. The current war in Ukraine could establish Russia as the fourth player alongside the US, China, and Europe, or it could marginalize the country and relegate it to an appendix of either China or the West. Here are some possible scenarios.

A one-man show of Putin?

It shows that the Russian president Vladimir Putin planned his assault on Ukraine at the longhand. The destruction of the nascent Russian democracy, the totalitarian grab on the Russian society, and the Russian Army’s modernization were domestic actions meant to make Russia resilient to foreign pressures. Splitting the West, creating dependencies (on Russian oil and gas), making friends with China, and exerting pressure on neighboring countries accompanied domestic action on the international level. Aggression came step by step, following salami tactics: The occupation of Transnistria (Republic of Moldova), the seize of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia (Georgia), the violent occupation of Crimea (Ukraine), and fostering a civil war in the separatist areas in Eastern Ukraine put Putin’s master plan in practice. Endeavors like the Russian intervention in Syria allowed for widening the geostrategic presence of the country and gaining military and diplomatic experience for the larger plan. But will he succeed with it, or is he building castles in Spain, overestimating his strength, and underestimating the strength of his adversaries? There are some signs that this could be the case.

A Russian grand strategy?

This master plan – or grand strategy to use a disputed term – is based on offensive and defensive considerations. Offensively, Putin thinks in terms of re-establishing the grandesse of the Russian empire, following an inconcise and somewhat poorly informed personal construction of what Russia presents – and what Ukraine does not. With reference to Tsarian and Soviet artifacts of collective memory, Putin coincidentally serves a broad layer of Russian society experiencing the democratic post-Cold War area as one of loss, humiliation, and stagnation. In his attempt to overcome this order, the Russian president sees himself in the tradition of great Russian leaders and a historical mission: Restauration. Defensively, it secures power by destructing checks and balances, incorporating the oligarchs into the system “Putin” and reaching out to China for assistance.

Putin’s window of opportunity?

The time seemed right to start the plan’s centerpiece, namely to reunite the three Slavic areas that make up historical Russia from a Russian point of view: Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Strategically, the timing and sequencing seemed right. The answer of the West on the occupation of the Crimean was lukewarm at best. The American president Biden faces domestic struggles, the French president is running for elections, and an incoming administration governs Germany. If not now, when then? The West seemed paralyzed. The strength of Putin’s friends among populist right-wing movements in Europe (Orbán, Salvini, Le Pen) was legion, not to speak of the collapse of the US-Republicans as a stable democratic force in the US. The weakness of the West? Maybe a miscalculation, and not the only one.

Miscalculation 1: The unity of the West and the impact of sanctions

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the unity in the West propelled to a higher level. It was unclear how politicians like Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán or the reluctant Germans would position themselves within EU and NATO. In an Us-or-Them situation, an almost leninesque “who is not for us is against us” show-off, skeptics had to take sides, and the West stood and stands united alongside the great lines, despite some differences en detail. And it is not only the West; a vast global majority (of states) joined with the West. Within the UN General Assembly, Russia is isolated, only rogue states like North Korea or Syria voting against the condemnation of Moscow.

NATO – by the former American president Trump characterized as “braindead” – went through a resurrection. The criticism that NATO deploys military equipment in the eastern member states started as a reaction to Russia’s aggressive behavior and not as its cause. The EU establishes military capabilities and strengthens mutual support both economically and militarily. The European Union backlinks to NATO collective defense through mutual security guarantees in Art 42.7 TEU. Consequently, Putin will consider even the EU an enemy and EU-enlargement (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine) a security threat. What a misperception. The Russian argument that the West threatens Russia’s security militarily is not becoming more true by permanently repeating it. Russia’s security was gambled away not by NATO but by its president, and the real threat is democracy: a democratic Ukraine as a showcase of a “better Russia”.

Sanctions accompany institutional and policy adaptations by EU and NATO. In the academic literature, sanctions do not have the best reputation. Sanctions often do not reach their goal. The effect shows too late and the amount and depth of measures often seem too low as sanctioning states have to lose something as well. Sanctions may make the population suffer more than the responsible elites. “Smart sanctions”, or “targeted sanctions”, directed at the elites, seem to have a more substantial impact. Still, states often failed an institutional backing to implement them, as Drezner pointed out in his 2011 review article in the International Studies Review.

Today, targeted sanctions are precisely what the world is aiming for. Targeted Russian actors like President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and the oligarchs alongside military personnel, will have to learn that even when winning the war, they maybe won’t find a place to go outside Russia anymore. Concerning the smartness of sanctions and their sheer amount, the present sanction regime is unprecedented. However, it comes with high costs for the West as well. In the end, it may be China that profits by occupying space deserted by the Allies.

Western sanctions seem to be heavier than expected by the Kremlin and constitute a significant blow on Russia’s economy, which is already under pressure for years. The following screenshot shows the sanctions list of the US Treasury. Scrolling through it gives the reader an idea about the vast size of the sanctions agreed on in four packages (March 13, 2022).

Miscalculation 2: The state of the Russian Army and the resistance of the Ukrainian Army

Putin is reported to isolate himself, taking advice only from a small circle of mainly military advisers. What usually happens under such patterns is groupthink. Groupthink provokes a decreasing quality of decisions caused by internal dynamics in the group. A strong hierarchy oppresses critical voices, leading to a deterioration of mental efficiency and moral judgment, as Janis put it in his 1982 seminal work on groupthink within political circles. Miscalculation will occur almost automatically in such a setting. That may have been the case when Putin assessed the military campaign in a SWOT analysis, where he put emphasis on the letters SO and neglected WT.

Of course, on the paper, the Russian Army is way superior to its Ukrainian counterpart, as the following graph shows:

Still, misperceptions and miscalculations on the Russian side seem to be prevalent. First, Putin overestimated the strength of Russian forces. Planning for a Blitzkrieg campaign to take Kijev within days and expecting a mostly friendly population cheering at the “liberators”, the roughly 200.000 troops might have been sufficient. In reality, being faced by an overwhelming resistance on the Ukrainian side and almost zero willingness of Ukrainians to collaborate, the size of the occupation force is – as a German General and former NATO commander put in in German TV – just ridiculous. The Russian Army needs to secure a frontline of more than 1000 km in length. A military strategy based within the rules of international combat law is hardly imaginable. Massive reinforcement and using weapons of mass destruction may be paths the Russian army leadership will rely on. Even after a (regional) military success, the occupiers will be challenged in the hinterland by partisan attacks and an overstretch of forces. Estimations set the number of soldiers needed to secure a hostile environment at 10-20 per 1000 inhabitants (Rand Corporation). Just one example: the first district fully occupied by Russian forces is Oblast Cherson with a population of 1 million. At the low end of the estimates in would require 10.000 troops to sustain occupation. The entire endeavor makes only sense if the population is friendly. A Russian misperception, Putin’s autosuggestion, and maybe the result of groupthink.

Second, it already turned out that Russian military gear is outdated. The Russian forces did not fully control the Ukrainian airspace within the targeted Blitz timeframe. The export of modern western weapons is a massive challenge to tanks built in the 1970s. Even without heavy military material based on Stingers and anti-tank missiles, the defenders can cause the attacker heavy losses, as the first two weeks of the campaign showed. Supply seems to be sufficient. Twenty-four old MIGs would not necessarily help, they’d maybe be shot down within days, but Turkish drones pretty much do the job. Establishing a non-flight-zone by NATO, with the necessity to attack Russian air defense systems on Russian territory, would mean an uncontrollable war escalation.

Besides poor military strategy and tactics – some Russian Generals and KGB officials already had to take Putin’s furor on that – the morale in the Russian troops is low and frustration high. Estimations (impossible to verify!) speak of a ten times higher number of casualties on the attackers’ side.

To sum it up: The Russian decision-makers overestimated the quality of Russian forces and friendly attitudes in the Ukrainian population. As a result, they underestimated military and popular resistance, and the willingness of the West to supply efficient weapons. Even if some people in the inner Russian leadership circle knew it better, they were challenged by groupthink, just like the Americans were when deciding to support the landing of paramilitary forces in the Swine’s Bay of Cuba.

Miscalculation 3: The Stability of the Russian “home front”

This is the most challenging measure to judge upon, and what I can present here is more a bundle of hypotheses than verified material. Unfortunately, there are no trustworthy opinion polls available that produce reliable data on how Russians think about the war and how high the support for Putin is. Putin’s pre-war popularity rates were at approximately two-thirds of the Russian population, and allegedly, the support for the war is at around two-thirds as well. One cannot trust these polls. The willingness in authoritarian systems to answer openly and freely is relatively low if the personal opinion does not match with official public doctrine. Reports in the press that a majority of Russians support the war are often an extrapolation from some interviews with a minuscule number of citizens. So let’s face it: we cannot know what the Russians really think.

Uprisings in Ukraine (the Euromaidan demonstrations) in 2014, recently in Belarus and Kazakhstan, show that democratic movements permanently challenge autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet space. Vladimir Putin reacted to civil protests by imprisonment of opposition leaders (Navalny, Kasparov) or other measures, maybe up to murder and assassination. Measures like the imprisonment of demonstrators and classifying civil society activists as foreign agents oppress the general public. Still, protests are underway, and it is not sure that – depending on the size – the regime will be able to crush them violently as it did in the past.

The Russian elite is a black box, too. Within the elite, both oligarchs and the armed forces may constitute a danger for Putin. The Russian oligarchs are a result of the spontaneous privatization under President Yeltsin (1990-1999). By no means are they only a Russian phenomenon. Ukraine wrote the same stories, and some current EU members did, too. Putin retarded the influence of the oligarchs. Under Yeltsin, politicians were the agents, and the oligarchs were the principals. Putin made himself principal, and the oligarchs either took on the role as agents or got punished if they joined opposition forces or showed too big political ambitions. One of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spent eight years in prison and had to emigrate when released.

Western sanctions are directed directly at oligarchs loyal to Putin. Given their age – they all were relatively young during the wild capitalism of the early 1990s but are around retirement now – the prospect of being banned from their lifestyle for a lifetime may not look very promising: a life without Yachts and English football. A flashback to Yeltsin-style cartelization under a Putin-successor installed by them may be a much better option. Muted criticism is already underway, and this is maybe only the tip of the iceberg.

If oligarchs join forces with parts of the military and secret service leadership being humiliated by Putin before or during the war, the combination may prove to be deadly for Putin. The longer the Ukrainians resist, and the more pronounced the failure of the Russian campaign becomes, the higher the probability of a coup d’état.

Scenarios for the future

Combining the measures mentioned above, we may arrive at diverging scenarios. For example, the war against Ukraine may turn out to be Putin’s decisive blunder, but also his masterpiece. Between the extremes, a status quo ante-based scenario has a certain probability, too.

Scenario 1: Putin’s blunder

A scenario of overstretch and miscalculation. Strong Ukrainian resistance, groupthink-caused suboptimal decisions in the inner Russian circle, morbid Russian technology, and a well-organized, strongly malevolent world combined with internal pressure urge Putin into a peace agreement or induces a coup d’état. Putin’s reign is over.

Scenario 2: Putin’s masterpiece

The resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces collapses, and the West cannot uphold sanctions. Instead, Russia wins militarily and, with the help of China, manages to pave her way back into the international community. Neighboring countries lose trust in the West and bandwagon with Russia to survive. Putin has restored the post-soviet space as an area where he rules in almost absolute terms.

Scenario 3: Status quo ante

This scenario is based on either a negotiated compromise or the freezing of the conflict. Status quo ante is the scenario where Putin is offered a way out of the war without losing face. This scenario is not based on the Russian president’s conclusion that he made a strategic mistake but on internal pressures pushing Putin towards a compromise. Preconditions for such a scenario are a stalemate on the battleground and continuous pressure from the inside, be that “the street” or the political elite (politicians, military, oligarchs).

 Scenario 1 Putin’s blunderScenario 2: Putin’s masterpieceScenario 3: Status quo ante
State of the military and the process of the armed conflictUkrainian resistance supersedes Russian military superiority or/and Western assistance grows continuouslyAfter a reorganization of troops and deployment of reinforcement, the Ukrainian resistance collapses. The West cannot agree on further assistance with heavy weapons.The military conflict arrives at a stalemate. Russia occupies territories but is not able to advance further. The costs for the Ukrainian Army to regain control over Ukrainian territory are too high as offensive capabilities are missing.
pressure 1: General public
The war challenges the young urban elite’s lifestyle and contests their liberal-democratic values. Occasional protests turn into mass demonstrations, and the regime has to decide to follow the Chinese Tiananmen square example or not  Officials oppress the general public efficiently by police and KGB forces and interrupt the organization of protests. Critical activists emigrate.Public opinion is split between supporters and opponents of the regime; protests erupt occasionally but do not reach critical mass.
pressure 2:
Sanctions hit elites, and they start to build up resistance and conspire with parts of the humiliated security forces in a plot to remove Putin.Elites raise to the flag behind Putin or are effectively cut off from the inner circle of decision-making. They are forced into compliance or to emigrate.Elites often disagree with Putin, but they rather emigrate or pull back into private niches.
International pressure 1: sanctionsSanctions are deep-cutting. The West holds them up over a more extended period, and the Russian economy collapses.Sanctions do not hit the core of the Russian economy. Rifts in the western camp prevent the widening and deepening of sanctions. The Russian economy manages to replace markets and utilities in other areas of the worldThe Russian economy is hit strongly, but consolidates at a low yet sustainable level.
International pressure 2:
War crimes and escalation of violence bring China in as a negotiator and peacemaker. Even close allies like Kazakhstan and Belarus are not ready to follow on the escalation scale set by Putin.International pressure is reduced due to rifts in the western camp, Putin is able to engage in splitting up the allies.The general public in the West loses interest in the conflict after enduring combat. Global pressure remains stable, too weak to be a game-changer but too strong to allow a Russian victory.

Some of these variables are interconnected and cannot be seen independently. The state of the military conflict influences all other parameters. The same holds true for public opinion. A change of one parameter will automatically move other parameters.

External events like an MCA could be a game-changer

Against the background of the complexity of the conflict, it is impossible to tell which scenario is more probable. But all of the scenarios developed here do have a certain probability. The Spanish armada was destroyed in 1588 despite military superiority by chilly winds, less so by Charles Howard and Francis Drake. An MCA (Maximum Credible Accident) in Chernobyl or one of the other Nuclear Power Plants the Russian Army shot at could be a game-changer and provoke western military engagement. The role of China is misty at best, but Chinese engagement as Russia’s ally or as peacemaker could make a difference.

Of course, there is a fourth scenario: Armageddon. This scenario cannot be calculated rationally. It depends on Putin’s state of mind and the in-build checks of the military nuclear command chain. From a social science point-of-view, we can reconstruct Putin’s worldview by analyzing his speeches and interviewing people who know him. We will have to leave judgment of his mental state to psychologists and psychiatrists. Xerxes, who crossed the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in 480 BC with forces being superior to those of the united Greek city-states got crashed by his enemies. He may have confused ambition with capabilities (Gaddis). Turkey just closed the Dardanelles for Russian warships. Putin’s grand strategy may not be so grand at all.


Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.



Daniel W. Drezner, Sanctions Sometimes Smart: Targeted Sanctions in Theory and Practice, International Studies Review, Volume 13(1), March 2011, 96–108.

John L. Gaddis: On Grand Strategy, Penguin Books 2019.

Irving L. Janis: Groupthink and Group Dynamics: A Social Psychological Analysis of Defective Policy Decisions, Policy Studies Journal 2(1), 1973, 19-34.

James Obbins, Seth Jones, Keith Crane, Beth Cole deGrasse: The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building, RAND National Security Research Division, Santa Monica 2007.