“If you go to war, a great empire will fall.” According to legend, those were the words spoken to King Croesus in 550BC by the Oracle of Delphi before he marched his forces into Persia. Riding high from years of victory, he assumed the prophecy applied to his enemies, but could only watch on as his own armies were then destroyed and his reign cut short.
It’s impossible to know what the analysts and soothsayers in the Kremlin were telling Russian President Vladimir Putin in the lead up to 24 February last year, but his supreme confidence in victory if he invaded Ukraine has had similarly catastrophic consequences.
Over the past year, his forces have left a trail of destruction throughout the neighbouring country, murdering, torturing and humiliating the civilians they were supposedly sent there to protect, looting homes and razing entire cities into rubble.
But, at the same time, the Russian army has crumbled under the pressure of having to fight an actual war against Western weaponry, rather than simply parading up and down Red Square. Endemic corruption, it turned out, has left its hardware in a sorry state and its once-dreaded elite units were repeatedly sent into kill zones by incompetent commanders, unprepared for the invasion and unable to challenge orders from on high.
The motivation for the atrocities was always clear. Putin has long bemoaned the fall of the brutal Soviet Union in which he grew up and, at the age of 70, was evidently running out of time to complete his lifelong project of returning Russia to superpower status. Without the resource-rich industrial regions of Ukraine, that was never really possible – and the fact it had, from 2014 onwards, chosen a different, more democratic, pro-Western path was a challenge to the entire system of corruption, repression and nostalgia that he had presided over.
In the minds of the Kremlin advisors who told their President the Ukrainian army would collapse within hours of a massive Russian onslaught, Kyiv’s liberty and self-determination was simply part of a Western ploy to divide the two historically-linked nations. Nobody would die for Ukraine, they thought, when being Ukrainian was an invented label designed to drive a wedge between two historically unified people. They were obviously wrong. Instead, the divides that post-independence Ukraine did have over language, politics and identity have been pushed to the side in the face of a threat to the country’s very existence.
Even relatively pro-Russian mayors have put aside their differences with Kyiv and taken up arms to defend their homes against Moscow’s aggression. President Volodymyr Zelensky has overnight gone from being just another politician fighting domestic battles to a global symbol of liberty and resistance. The army has been buoyed by Western weaponry, advanced training and by the determination that comes with being forced to fight for survival. Despite the tragedies unfolding daily on its soil, Ukraine has never been in a stronger position in modern history.
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Russia, meanwhile, has descended into chaos. While Putin’s rule had long eroded the foundations of the modern democratic state, the past year has taken things to a new level entirely. Where once there was a restricted but flourishing group of independent media outlets holding the government to account, there is now nothing but arrests, emigrating journalists and orders for outlets to be closed. Among opposition politicians, it is clear that the dissent that was previously tolerated is now enough to see them hounded out of office and jailed.
The war, Putin said, was against fascism and Nazism. But Russia’s schools now dress up children as soldiers, wearing cardboard boxes painted like tanks and planes, singing songs about how “Donbass is ours and god is with us.” The ominous pro-war Z symbol is daubed on buildings and billboards. Nobody knows where it came from, but many are willing to go along with it in the name of patriotism – an almost perfect metaphor for how many Russians have come to think about a war that few ever thought would happen.
Whereas once the prospect of Russia without Putin was relatively easy to comprehend, it is now impossible to imagine a future where the system of personal control he has installed is handed over peacefully. At the same time though, the likelihood that Putin will find himself on the wrong side of infighting and opportunism grows with every day that the so-called special military operation flounders.
Much as how the fall of the Soviet Union reduced Russia to ruin and sparked national soul searching – one that sowed the seeds for the Kremlin’s imperialism today – the end of Putin’s rule, as inevitable as it is, is likely to plunge the country into chaos. While a year of war has cost the lives of thousands of talented and brave young Ukrainians, the victory that they gave everything for will cement their country’s future. Across the border though, a generation of Russians might soon be living through the same uncertainty, poverty and repression that Putin had promised to lift their parents’ generation out of.
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