Russia has one major advantage over the Ukraine: 25-30% of the Ukraine’s population is Russian—or regard themselves as such, anyway. In war, cohesion (morale) is the lynchpin; if you can break a group’s cohesion—make them feel dispirited—you can easily dominate them. The Ukraine’s major liability is that almost half the population in her territory is not loyal to the Ukraine, feels somewhat oppressed by her; and probably a further 10-20% is apathetic and could swing either way, back the strong horse. You can tell the Ukrainians are very frightened about their internal divisions because they early on moved to suppress all media organisations and political parties that are sympathetic to Russia—and several politicians from these parties have subsequently had “accidents”.
However, Russia failed to exploit this advantage. Within 24 hours of the invasion, Russian-friendly politicians and parties should have had their people in the streets for “peace” marches—and surely Russian infiltrators on the ground could have helped to facilitate these (and provoked the police into a violent response). The ideal scenario would have been for Zelensky’s police to open fire on these demonstrations. If there had been headlines within the first 48 hours that ran, “Zelensky’s police kill 12 at pro-Russian ‘peace’ demonstration,” a major crack would have been opened in Ukrainian morale. What the Russians needed to do was to sow maximum suspicion, so that when Zelensky said “we’re in this together” people scoffed (“Like those 12 protesters you just had shot?”).
The demonstrations would force Zelensky to immediately suppress pro-Russian parties and organisations, so making it harder to present himself as a chubby and cheerful “liberal democrat”—what happened in practice was that these organisations were quietly suppressed a few weeks into the war, with nobody in the West really cognisant it had happened. If the West had seen demonstrations broken up it would have made it harder to make the case for intervention: “How can you say Zelensky represents Ukraine when his police shot at a demonstration and he just banned several opposition parties?”
The Ukrainian hardliners would put this down to Russian provocation, but such operations are not designed to reach hardliners—such operations are designed to discourage the mass. However, Zelensky has successfully gotten away with presenting the Ukraine as “fully united” behind him and as a single unit—and that helped build support for intervention and strengthen the Ukraine’s fighting spirit. Additionally, the Russians have fought so slowly—as in Mariupol—that even if you were pro-Russia you would probably fear “liberation” when in practice “liberation” means house-to-house fighting that flattens your home.
The Russians should have hit Kiev hard, particularly presidential palaces and government buildings, in order to drive Zelensky to Lvov and safety. This city has a particular historic resonance, being deep in “Ukrainian Ukraine” and also connected to the German occupation; it would have allowed Russia to present Zelensky as “president of the NATO puppet regime in Lvov” (and to foreground their favourite justification for the war, “deNazification”), so cracking the notion that there is a unitary “Ukrainian nation” in the fight against Russia—another blow to Ukrainian morale and the story sold around the world. It would make it clear, per the Russian communications strategy, that Zelensky only speaks for a rump Ukraine dominated by neo-Nazi nutcases and oppressive Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, and that he is really a marginal figure for most Ukrainians.
As it stands, Zelensky has remained in Kiev—a city with a substantial pro-Russian minority—and entertained a series of foreign leaders, successfully presenting himself as “leader of a united Ukraine”. Russia still has the advantage that the Ukraine is fundamentally not united, whereas Russia has managed to bind her heterogeneous peoples (even her former foes, the Chechens) into her army; yet the window has really passed—Ukraine looks like a unitary sovereign state with a united population that has been violated by another state, not like a freakish and oppressive creation roped together by ultra-nationalist fanatics.
Finally, there is another obvious course that Russia did not pursue to divide the Ukrainians. Zelensky is a Jew, he is from a different racial group to most Ukrainians. This is significant in two ways: firstly, unlike in the West, Slavic anti-Jewish sentiment was fostered during the Cold War because the USSR aligned with the Arab world—hence traditional anti-Jewish attitudes were sustained by “anti-Zionist” propaganda, often deploying long-standing anti-Jewish tropes; secondly, Zelensky relies on ultra-nationalists and literal Hitlerites (Azov) to sustain his rule—it is obviously easy to drive a wedge between Hitlerite troops and a Jewish leader. There are many ways Russia could achieve this goal, from highlighting that Zelensky has a ready retreat to Israel to starting false Azov-istic splinter groups to encourage the main body of men to turn on “the enemy within”.
Why has Russia failed to utilise this obvious strategy? The reason is structural, not due to a mistake by Putin. Russia basically subscribes to “Boomer multiculturalism”, and this is “reasonable” multiculturalism without “woke nonsense” (mosques in Moscow, okay; trannies, not okay). Russia is about where the West was as regards its progressivism in the 1990s: sensible suburban dad multiculturalism, “I’ve got nothing against ‘em so long as they follow the law and it’s not pushed down our throats”. Putin is not bin Laden: he is a practical leader who understands that common-sense family values and mild ethnocentrism make sense; hence he would not countenance the “anti-semitic” route—it would contradict the ideas upon which his legitimacy depends.
Secondarily, Russia has close links to Israel—many Russians emigrated to Israel to escape the post-Soviet collapse (not all were Jews); and, finally, such a strategy might raise the ire of the powerful American Jewish community. Nevertheless, it would certainly be possible to drive a wedge between Azov and Zelensky, and perhaps Russian intelligence has carried out schemes to do so. However, substantially, the Russians have failed to divide the Ukrainians—and this should have been relatively easy and a priority.