“Oh, so how would you have defeated Ukraine, Mr. Military Genius?”. Look, it’s easy to commentate, but I can give you two options—but before that, it would have been helpful if Putin had a plan in case his lightning strike on Kiev failed; he didn’t, he had no Plan B. The old dictum: “the organism continues the behaviour that granted it success in the past.” The con artist uses the routine that worked before, the man who has to lie defaults to whatever lie style worked on his parents, the man looking for a new gf uses the same chat-up lines as before—it saves energy, I suppose; we just never do anything new unless we’re forced to.
So Putin found that he could get away with small wars—Georgia, Crimea—and get what he wanted, so he thought he could do it again “Special Military Operation” (a title that now looks like a sick joke, like all these military euphemisms—like all euphemisms eventually become some ironic judgement on the situation). Anyway, it worked before—Ukraine was weak before (in Crimea)—so do the same again. It’s not stupid—why try something new when it worked before (although, yes, in such a dynamic situation it might be worth investigating if the Ukrainians had learned from their experience…)?
Because there was no consideration that it might go tits up, Putin fell right into cognitive dissonance (with a side order of sunk-cost fallacy). Again, humans do this all the time (I know I do). An event transpires contrary to expectations—you just double-down and deny it. The UFOs didn’t come to take you into the heavens, “Ascension Day” in Ruby, Nevada was a wash-out. But they’ll be back next week—or perhaps you did ascend (on the spiritual plane, I mean your body is still here but…).
So the Russians just carried on as if the Ukrainians were about to crack “any day now”—some 555 days into the war (sorry, “SMO”) our would-be UFOnauts still say “any day now”. In the meantime, good money is thrown after bad and Peter is robbed to pay Paul—and all those hackneyed (yet true) folk sayings—as the conscripts are put into various “meat-grinders” (delighted in by both sides, with no one yet quite cognisant how this will be remembered, with its trench warfare and stalemates, as eerily like WWI—which is famously remembered for stupid generalship and “waste”). So all the mutual hand-rubbing over “meat-grinders” (for thee, not for me) will look foolish and callous post-war.
Anyway, that was why Putin didn’t revise his strategy—entirely common human reasons that happen all the time, it’s not a reflection on him in particular (smart people do this too). Plus, Putin is Libra—he’s all about balance; so he has remained judicious throughout—he doesn’t switch to full war-time economy because that would be unbalanced, disharmonious (so he lets the domestic events carry on—there’s a parallel there to Hitler, in that Hitler kept up “luxury” production on the home front and refused to put women in factories, while his opponents went to full mobilisation).
Here’s what I would have done when that first assault on Kiev failed: first option, drop a tactical nuke on Kiev, not to flatten the city but just to take out the government and the communications infrastructure. The point would have been to knock out all Ukrainian coordination in those early days and also to break their morale (a small nuke, but it would have to have a mushroom cloud—just to get the psychology right).
This would psychologically compensate for the failed assault on Kiev, and it would also ward the West off—particularly the Europeans. It was vital for Russia to keep the West out, and a tactical nuke would have said “Putin’s gone mad, he’s frothing at the mouth—we daren’t send more than humanitarian aid, who knows how far he would go…”.
But it would make Russia look bad! Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, m’dear (to break out the just-plain-folks wisdom again). Russia’s international reputation went down the toilet when she went over the border in force—and right now it is as in the toilet as if she had nuked the Ukrainians (with no benefit).
Option two: treat the SMO as exactly what it claimed to be—an SMO. Once it was clear, three weeks in, that Ukraine would not capitulate just call a ceasefire. Putin could have come out and said, “The SMO has achieved its objectives, the neo-Nazi terrorists in Kiev have been shown that they cannot terrorise our people in the Donbass with impunity. Russia will not be terrorised!”. Nobody would buy that. Frankly, that would have been a petty lie in the “Russian government lie” stakes—just look at the impudent way they lied about Prigozhin’s death, it’s just an embarrassment.
People would have bought “SMO complete—mission accomplished”; hell, the Russians could even hold on to whatever land they’d grabbed in the interim around Donetsk or wherever. It would have been accepted, even if everyone knew the truth—like when you commit some indiscretion but you’re vital for the team so everyone explains it away as some eccentric foible or “mistake” (months later, when the police have your hard drive, however…).
I think both strategies would have worked—but it was a classic sunk-cost situation, all those units lined up in their staging positions (“We’ve got to use them!”—of course, no, you don’t “have to” at all, especially since every previous wave failed; but human nature says you’re gonna do it—for two or three years, perhaps; “meat-grinder”). It’s so hard to stop once you’ve made a commitment—and, of course, Putin is this cautious creature, so Libran, so he takes ages to make any decision. He undoubtedly agonised over the decision to invade, and once it started was in no way going to change strategy without glacial judicious ruminations.