Russia and the Goliath syndrome

The Old Testament teaches that strength does not always guarantee victory. David beat Goliath. And history is rich in examples: the Roman legions were defeated in Mesopotamia, the Americans lost the Vietnam War, the Afghan tribes prevailed over the British, Soviets and North Americans.

Will the invasion of Ukraine be the last blow of a declining Russian empire? Has Putin miscalculated the capabilities of his armed forces? Paul Kennedy, in his monumental work The rise and fall of the great powers (1988), developed the concept of imperial Overstretch, of covering too much, of falling into the trap of arrogance.


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Placid Garcia-Planas | odessa

There is a very broad consensus among Western experts on Russia that the military campaign is not going according to the plans envisioned by the Kremlin, despite its propaganda to the contrary. The theoretical second most powerful army on the planet advances slowly and, although it is difficult to verify the information, there are indications of serious logistical problems and insufficient morale of the troops, especially of the young levy soldiers who have been surprised to find themselves suddenly in war in the neighboring country.

“I think that many overestimated the effectiveness of Putin’s reconstruction of the army after the Georgian war (2008),” he points out. The vanguard from Washington, Anglo-American professor Angela Stent, author of Putin’s world. Russia against the West and with the rest. “It seems that they did not prepare well for the invasion because they planned to conquer Kyiv in 48 hours and they have been stuck, with a lack of food and fuel,” adds this great scholar of Russia. It’s amazing. The Russians have been effective in places like Syria, but they were more limited deployments. This is a massive operation in a very large country.”


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Fernando Garcia | Washington

Zelensky on screen during his zoom meeting with US senators

Like other analysts, Stent is skeptical about the Russians’ chances of lastingly subjugating Ukraine. “If they manage to conquer Kyiv and install a puppet government, they will have to occupy the country because no puppet government will last even a day if the troops leave,” the academic concludes. They do not have enough forces for that occupation and they have underestimated the will of the Ukrainians to resist”.

Even more specific is Pavel Baev, a former researcher at the Russian Ministry of Defense and today a professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). In a virtual colloquium organized by the Brookings Institution, the prestigious thinktank A liberal American, Baev found that in Ukraine “the (Kremlin’s) strategy is not working and there is no plan B.” A main problem is the supply lines, which are too long. Pavel also questioned the morale of the levy troops. “A lot of motivation is needed for urban combat,” he said. I think morale is eroding rapidly.”

“A puppet government in Kyiv will not last a day if Russian troops leave,” warns the author of ‘Putin’s world’

Since the beginning of the offensive, news abounds, not easy to contrast, of Russian soldiers leaving their damaged vehicles abandoned, stores looting in search of food and gas stations being assaulted. According to Ukrainian intelligence sources cited by Le Parisian, soldiers were deprived of mobile phones to prevent them from talking to their families and getting information. It seems that one of his priorities now is to steal cell phones. This lack of communication contrasts with the Ukrainian forces, very well connected to social networks. The mobile phone and the internet are today almost as vital for a combatant as the rifle.

“There is a contradiction between the Russian bombing capabilities, to destroy from a distance, which are enormous, and the troops on the ground, who have no combat experience,” says Michel Foucher, a geographer, Russia expert and former French ambassador to Latvia. His fear is that the Russians use the tactic of destroying cities, with incessant bombing, as they did in Grozny (Chechnya) or Aleppo (Syria). “In Kyiv the goal is political, behead the government, kill President Zelensky or take him prisoner and take him to Moscow for trial,” continues Foucher.


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Gonzalo Aragones | Moscow

Dmytro cries next to the grave of his father Volodymyr Nezhenets, 54, during his funeral in the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, March 4, 2022. A small group of reservists are burying their comrade, 54-year-old Volodymyr Nezhenets, who was one of three killed on Feb. 26 in an ambush Ukrainian authorities say was caused by Russian 'saboteurs'.  (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

According to the former diplomat, there must be a greater use of airborne and special forces, as happened in Syria and recently in Kazakhstan. Foucher advises taking the nuclear threat seriously, as the use of a tactical weapon is still part of Russian military doctrine. He believes that Putin, if he fears a humiliating outcome, could use it in western Ukraine to make it impossible for weapons to arrive from Poland and Romania. “We are facing the sum of autocracy and paranoia,” he insists. There is a delusional factor.”

Other specialists, such as Paev, question the nuclear option. They recall that Russian tactical weapons have been stored for at least thirty years and must be removed from warehouses and placed on planes or missiles, “with a colossal risk of accident” while being handled.

Russia has more than enough conventional arsenal to lay waste to Ukraine. Together with artillery –a national specialty, since Stalin’s time– and aerial bombardment, it can use –if it hasn’t already done so– devastating thermobaric bombs, which act in three phases: they explode, they release a gas that in turn it also bursts and creates a vacuum that absorbs oxygen. They are considered the deadliest after nuclear.

Not all observers are convinced that Putin is seeking absolute control of the country. “I don’t think Russia’s objective is to occupy all of Ukraine, but rather the main cities in the south and east, and eventually Kyiv,” says Emmanuel Dreyfus, from the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (IRSEM). I don’t see the west of the country as a military target because the population is even more anti-Russian. Most likely, they want to control the south, with Crimea and the shores of the Sea of ​​Azov and the Black Sea”.

The fear is that incessant bombing will be used to destroy cities, as in Chechnya and Syria

Beyond conjecture, ten days after the invasion began, the only thing that is clear is that Putin has taken great risks, as never before in his career, and that Russia, despite its military supremacy, is by no means assured of a good outcome to this war adventure. Goliath syndrome is a real threat, like so many times in history.