Has Vladimir Putin amassed more power than anyone else in the world? Forbes magazine picked him as the world’s most powerful person three years in a row (from 2013 to 2015). A 2018 CNN documentary portrayed him in the same way.
But the war in Ukraine that has gone awry for Russia since its very start calls for a reassessment of Putin’s might. Time magazine’s readers did not include his name in the top five most influential people of 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came first.
A powerful person is able “to carry out his own will despite resistance,” said German sociologist Max Weber in the 1920s. Keith Dowding, a British political philosopher, compares a powerful person to a lucky one. The latter gets what he wants “without trying” and without facing resistance.
The war waged by Russia against Ukraine helps clearly differentiate power from luck, which has practical consequences.
Differences between power and luck can be easily perceived in a card game. A player can win either because he has trump cards or because he uses a sophisticated strategy regardless of the cards. In the first case, the player is lucky. In the second case, he is powerful.
The card-game metaphor is emblematic of Russian culture. Fyodor Dostoevsky devoted his novel The Gambler to the card player’s psychology. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and an insightful interpreter of Dostoevsky, explains that when much is at stake in a card game, the player “feels himself on the threshold.” Good luck makes everything possible for him. Bad luck leads him to lose everything.
Some card games, the game of roulette or, in the extreme case, Russian roulette, are pure games of chance. In others, a good memory and a well-thought-out strategy help win.
Ukraine is Putin’s ultimate game, one that put his power to the test. This explains his intention to win at any price.
At the start of the war, Putin seemed to have all trump cards in his hands. He had at his disposal the military manpower deemed to be the second most potent in the world. He inherited from the Soviet Union the status of a nuclear superpower and expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Russia’s possession of nuclear weapons, in fact, gives it a crucial advantage. It nullifies the effects of wrong moves to a significant extent. It comes as no surprise that Putin put Russia’s nuclear force on high alert as soon as the war in Ukraine started to run into problems.
Putin also inherited a natural-resources bounty, a big part of Russia’s influence. Europe has traditionally depended on energy supplies from Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Europe continued to import oil and gas from the Soviet Union even as it officially condemned the Russian invasion of Afghanistan four decades ago.
In 2019, 41.3% of all European imports of natural gas, 26.9% of all European imports of crude oil and 46.8% of all European imports of hard coal came from Russia.
The contemplated European ban on Russian oil imports aims to lessen this dependence. But the prohibition of the purchase, import or transfer of crude oil and certain petroleum products from Russia has multiple exemptions, limiting its effectiveness. Europe is not ready for a ban on Russian natural gas either.
But Russia’s initial advantages had to be used wisely if the war was to be won. A strong military and abundant natural resources alone won’t beat an opponent without a well-conceived strategy and tactics. A careless player is unable to prevail, even if he has trump cards in his hand.
Ukraine represents an opposite situation in many respects. In 1994, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for “security assurances.” But those assurances turned out not to be binding. Russia, the other signatory of the Budapest Memorandum – an agreement that ostensibly assured Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from Russia – chose to violate it and use military force against Ukraine.
Ukraine had no other option but to rely on its less than impressive arsenal of conventional weapons, especially in the early stages of the invasion. In 2021, Ukraine’s military strength was ranked 22nd in the world, well behind Russia’s. Until defense talks were held in Germany in late April among 40 countries supporting Ukraine, Ukrainians did not have access to Western heavy weaponry.
Ukraine has scant natural resources. Total natural resources rents represented just 1.8% of its GDP in 2019. Rents extracted from natural resources – oil and gas being the prime example – represent 13.1% of Russia’s GDP.
Underestimating the will to fight
When assessing Ukraine’s chances to contain Russia’s invasion, the US intelligence community used a resource-based approach that deemed Ukrainians had little hope of winning. The will to fight – a key ingredient of power as opposed to luck – was overlooked.
The fact that Russia’s war has not been unfolding as Putin expected is indicative of a series of strategic and tactical errors he has made. Probably for the first time since his ascension to power 1999, he has likely felt at times like a gambler on the threshold of losing everything.
To break Ukrainian defenses, Putin needed to complement luck with power. The control of resources no longer suffices. Upon closer inspection, Putin’s ability to get what he wants has been due more to structural and dispositional factors – they underpin his “luck” – than to his qualities as a strategist. True power is impossible without strategy.
Ukraine’s formidable resistance to Russia’s military and economic might, on the other hand, has been a manifestation of its power. It led the US intelligence community to conduct an internal review into how it assesses the fighting power of foreign militaries by factoring the will to fight into predictions.
Russia’s war in Ukraine suggests that Zelensky and the people of Ukraine may be more powerful than Putin. Resistance makes a difference. To ultimately confirm their power, however, the Ukrainians need to go beyond resistance. They need to win the war.