Putin’s Historic Miscalculation May Make Him a War Criminal

The West condemns Russia’s aggression as “barbaric” and “horrific,” as Biden warns that conflict could drag on for weeks or months.

In the eyes of the world and almost certainly history, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday was an epic miscalculation, drawing comparisons to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein for cold-blooded aggression that could challenge the world order and change its borders. The Russian leader appeared almost delusional in a pre-dawn speech from the Kremlin announcing a “special military operation” to “protect” Donbas, the eastern region where Russian-backed separatists have waged a war for eight years. Putin, instead, immediately ordered Russian tanks into Ukraine and air strikes on the capital and more than a dozen cities in a country of forty million people. “Peace on our continent has been shattered,” the nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. “We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought belonged to history.” Putin’s “reckless” attack risks “countless innocent lives,” Stoltenberg warned.

Putin is now, at minimum, a pariah condemned by leaders across the world. “Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war,” President Biden said in a speech to the nation announcing new sanctions on Russian financial institutions and élites. He charged that Putin “has much larger ambitions than Ukraine.” “He wants to, in fact, reëstablish the former Soviet Union,” Biden said. “His ambitions are completely contrary to the place where the rest of the world has arrived.” In one of a flurry of statements reflecting outrage globally, the European Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, called Russia’s act “barbaric” and dismissed its justifications as “cynical.” In a tweet, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said he was appalled by Putin’s “horrific” decision to pursue “a path of bloodshed and destruction.” Putin’s military offensive put him on the diplomatic defensive. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, called the attack “a turning point” in history that will have a profound and lasting impact across the continent.

Putin may now also qualify as a war criminal, according to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. War crimes include willful killing and extensive destruction of property “not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.” The term has been inconsistently interpreted and unevenly applied to leaders or countries—including to the U.S. and its officials—who have initiated aggression for reasons considered unjustified. In Ukraine, Putin’s “war of choice” has clearly violated international law through his invasion of a sovereign country and attempt to oust its government. After an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting, on Wednesday, the Secretary-General, António Guterres, warned that the Russian invasion could be the “worst war” of the century “with consequences not only devastating for Ukraine, not only tragic for the Russian Federation” but for the entire world.

Putin has lied at every stage of the Ukraine crisis, insisting last year that he had no military ambitions in Ukraine even as he steadily amassed a force of nearly two hundred thousand troops on three fronts. During a joint press conference with the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, last week, Putin played down the prospect of war. “Do we want this or not? Of course not,” he said, in response to a question. “That is exactly why we put forward proposals for a process of negotiations.” As he spoke, however, his military was setting up field hospitals near the Ukrainian border stocked with fresh blood supplies. “You don’t need blood unless you plan on starting a war,” President Biden noted on Tuesday.

Putin’s invasion is based on wild accusations, including a claim that he needed to “denazify” Ukraine, a country led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is, in fact, Jewish. Putin vowed to end the “humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime,” when, in fact, separatists backed by Russia have for years waged a war in eastern Ukraine. Putin also claimed that the Kyiv government sought to acquire nuclear weapons when, in fact, Ukraine, once the third-largest nuclear power, denuclearized after the Soviet Union collapsed and it became an independent country again. He described the government in Kyiv as a “junta,” even though it was democratically elected in 2019. And Zelensky, in fact, won in a landslide with seventy-three per cent of the vote, defeating thirty-eight others who ran for President.

In a plaintive final appeal, Zelensky spoke directly to the Russian people, hours before the attack. “You are being told this is a plan to free the people of Ukraine,” Zelensky said, in an official video in Russian. “But the Ukrainian people are free.” He implored Russian citizens to embrace peace. “Many of you have visited Ukraine. Many of you have relatives here,” he said. “You know our character, you know our people, and you know our principles. You know what we value. . . . Hear us.”

Putin was, in fact, the one who sparked the crisis with an erroneous—even fictional—claim that Ukraine would soon gain membership in nato. Joining the Western military alliance is an aspirational goal for Ukraine, which it enshrined in a constitutional amendment in 2019. But nato’s leadership has openly said that Ukraine does not yet qualify for membership. It would have to introduce and enact multiple reforms that may be years away.

To counter Putin’s paranoia, the Biden Administration has offered detailed proposals to enhance security for Russia. They included offers on arms control as well as limits on military exercises. Putin’s response has been defiant. He demanded that Ukraine never join nato and the Western military alliance roll back its membership to its 1997 level. As Russian forces advance across the country, Putin’s goal now appears to be regime change by military force—a step that he criticized the U.S. for taking in Iraq. In a reflection of his paranoia, Putin even suggested that the invasion of Ukraine was to protect Russia from the U.S. “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation,” he said. And he brazenly reminded the world, “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.”

Russia experts and former U.S. officials increasingly question Putin’s stability, especially as he has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and yes-men who encourage his ambitions to rewrite history. “Putin believes that in historical terms, as in Peter the Great and so on, blood will be forgotten and his legacy as the uniter of the ‘Russian lands,’ no matter the cost, will remain,” Nina Khrushcheva, an international-affairs professor at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, told me. She said the Russian leader appears to “have lost all grip on reality, more so than I was willing to admit only yesterday.” She added, “I didn’t think he was suicidal, but he clearly is, and is taking the world and us with him.” She described Putin as a “ruthless megalomaniac with a giant imperialist agenda” akin to Stalin and Mao.

Others compared him to Hitler. “There are many parallels between Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, who is now at Stanford University, tweeted on Thursday. Putin no longer appears to be a rational actor on the international stage, experts say. “I hate comparing people to Hitler, but Putin’s crazy talk is making it hard to avoid,” Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia University, told me. “Did he think forcing all of his advisers to stand up on television and say, in such obvious discomfort, that they agreed with him would make the decision for war look careful and deliberate? My Russian friends suggest something different—is this guy losing it?”

Russian forces may make military progress in the short term. Biden acknowledged that the weeks or months ahead will be hard on Ukrainians, with a spillover on the world and its markets. But Putin is betting his political future on whether Russia can prevail long-term in Ukraine. “Putin’s gamble seems to be that he can be in charge of what comes next, how far and wide this spreads,” Karen J. Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, told me. “That is a foolish lack of appreciation for the power nato and the other countries have to contain his incursion—and in that lies his miscalculation.”

Holding Ukraine, given its vast size and population, will be a challenge militarily and politically. Russia has the largest land army in Europe, but it would need to send in many more troops than it already has to occupy the entire country, which is roughly the size of Texas. The Ukrainian government has called up reservists and promised weapons to civilians to form a public resistance force. They could create an insurgency challenging Russian control of part or all of Ukraine, experts predict. “It’s impossible to hold on the long term,” Marie Dumoulin, director of the wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “Whether we’re in for a long and bloody war, or whether there will be a contest inside of Russia against this decision, but I don’t see it as a realistic goal to control Ukraine.” Russia can not prevail, Biden said. “In the early days of this conflict, Russia propaganda outlets will keep trying to hide the truth and claim success for its military operation against a made-up threat,” he said. “But history has shown time and again how swift gains in territory eventually give way to grinding occupations, acts of massive mass civil disobedience, and strategic dead ends.” The first day of the invasion was just that—the first day.

Robin Wright