What a Year of War Has Revealed of Three Leaders

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “What a year of war has revealed of three leaders”:

Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, some U.S. officials privately warned their Russian contacts against hubris. It would be easy to start this war, they cautioned, but difficult to end it successfully. All of the United States’ modern military history, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, told this humbling story. But the Russians didn’t listen.

Now, nearly a year later, we see the devastating results — for Russia, Ukraine and the whole world. Putin miscalculated what military strategists call “the order of battle” — overestimating his country’s strength and underappreciating Ukrainian and U.S. resolve. He’s caught in a trap of his own creation, which makes him desperate and dangerous but ultimately doomed to failure.

War reveals the essential traits of human character that shape events. Who could have imagined that a Ukrainian comic actor named Volodymyr Zelensky would prove to be the first truly heroic leader of the 21st century. Who would have bet that Putin, the canny and cynical ex-KGB officer, would grossly misread both intelligence and history and ransom his country to what amounted to a fairy tale about the “oneness” of Russia and Ukraine.

Perhaps most surprising of all, who would have bet that an 80-year-old U.S. president, a man who was garrulous, sentimental and sometimes appeared senescent, would turn out to the most undervalued American leader in modern times. President Biden’s brave visit Monday to Kyiv was a defining moment in his presidency. Even conservative commentators who make a living trashing him had to be stirred by the sight of him standing in St. Michael’s Square while air raid sirens wailed.

Let’s think about the architect of this disastrous war, and the sources of his error. Many wars begin with a sense of wounded pride. In Putin’s case, this vanity led him to march his nation off a cliff. On Feb. 24 last year, Putin launched the invasion with a speech that is still astonishing for its sense of victimization and desire for revenge.

Putin cast the Ukraine story as a tale of Russian innocence and Western perfidy. In expanding NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders, the United States and its allies had shown a “contemptuous and disdainful attitude” and behaved “rudely and unceremoniously from year to year.” The West had hurt Russia’s feelings, in other words.

Putin’s chief war aim, bizarrely, seemed to be greater respect. The West, rather than treating a disoriented post-Soviet Russia “professionally, smoothly, patiently,” had flaunted its power with a “state of euphoria created by the feeling of absolute superiority, a kind of modern absolutism.” NATO had talked of inviting Russian cooperation, but Putin insisted: “They have deceived us, or, to put it simply, they have played us.”

If you wonder why so many Russians still seem to support Putin, despite his catastrophic mistakes, it’s partly because they share his sense of grievance. As historian Mark Galeotti notes in his superb short history of the country, Russia’s story for centuries has been a recurring tension between West and East, Europe and Asia — between a yearning for acceptance and bitter sense of rejection and disrespect.

What has Putin learned in a year of self-inflicted mayhem? That it’s all the other guy’s fault. He claimed in his address to the nation on Tuesday: “They were the ones who started this war.” In other words, Putin learned nothing.

Zelensky’s piece of this story is a combination of raw courage and an actor’s intuitive understanding of how to play the role of his life. Those who saw him at the Munich Security Conference a year ago remember him as a “dead man walking.” Biden recalled on Monday what Zelensky told him the night of the invasion, with the sound of explosions in the background: “You said that you didn’t know when we’d be able to speak again.”

But Zelensky resisted U.S. offers of help in evacuating Kyiv. When he emerged from his bunker after the initial days of assault in his green fatigues, surrounded by his fellow ministers, you sensed a change in Earth’s gravitational field. “I’m not hiding,” he said. “And I’m not afraid of anyone.”

And finally, what of Biden, the unlikely but indisputable leader of the Western alliance? Biden has always been easy to underestimate. He doesn’t give a good speech, he talks too much, and he sometimes behaves like a grumpy Irish granddad. But like Harry S. Truman, who seems ever-more a kindred spirit, Biden knows the things you discover by getting bounced around in life and deprecated by the smart guys — and most of all, what you learn just by keeping going, through good and bad.

In the end, war is a test of wills. Putin was convinced that his cold-eyed, brutal resolve would outlast everyone else’s. But a year on, Putin’s staying power begins to look questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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