The writer is an FT contributing editor
States are built with hardware, but nations run on software. Which is the most indispensable to the life or death of a nation state, we are, through Ukraine’s bloody ordeal, just discovering. The hardware of state power consists of armies, bureaucracies, security police, imposing buildings, abysmal prisons. National software is something less tangible but no less powerful: the obstinacy of supposedly under extreme stress; the kinship of disaster; the surge of patriotic emotion; the fortitude of families; the swell of civic pride even as neighbors are besieged or destroyed; the inconvenient resistance of truth; and, not least, the transfiguring experience of creating, amid torment, an unforgettable national epic.
The 60km Russian convoy, stalled in the mud, hobbled by blown tires, fuel and food shortages, is the ultimate embodiment of dumb hardware: a lumbering dinosaur, inexorably destructive, fire-breathing its oxygen-sucking terror, yet also brainlessly impotent, incapable , for all its death-dealing, of achieving any politically strategic end. Which is not to say, of course, that monstrous atrocities such as depriving cities such as Mariupol of the most basic human needs – water and sanitation – will not have been committed en route to the dead end of Putinite imperialism.
Countless small acts of defiance, a daily astonishment – doubtless to the Kremlin as to the rest of the admiring world – are all over the internet: villagers draped in Ukrainian flags, impeding tanks and armored cars, leaving the soldiers who man them bewildered about what to do next with the crowd whose grateful acclaim they had been told to expect. Hatred rains down on their head rather than nosegays. Troops who have no difficulty firing missiles on faraway, unseen targets, pull up short before gunning down grandmothers and teenagers. Notwithstanding the grotesque disparity in military resources between the invaders and the invaded, there have been pitched battles where the ostensibly larger force has come off worse.
It does not, of course, to make light of the devastating firepower of the invaders, capable as it is of reducing Ukrainian cities to piles of smoking ash and rubble. The barbaric cruelty of those operations – expressly designed to terrorize a civilian population and becoming ever more monstrous as the Kremlin’s anticipated end game is frustrated – has already succeeded in producing a tidal wave of a million refugees flooding across the western borders, not to mention the desperate multitudes of the internally displaced. Yet this too will prove a pyrrhic victory, since the Ukrainian diaspora will instil the characterization of the Putin regime as genocidal murderers. Generations will neither forgive nor forget.
The hardware of the Russian invasion may well be operational but the software of its narrative has seized up. Whatever power the Putinite autocracy might have over Russian reception of the “story”, evidence flooding the internet makes the targeting of civilians indelibly clear. And did no one in the Kremlin notice that characterizing a people governed by a Jewish president as Nazis might beggar belief? And how exactly was this campaign of “denazification” furthered by a missile strike hitting the Babyn Yar holocaust memorial? Against those blunders, President Volodymyr Zelensky uncorked the lethal one-liner. Informed of the attack, his instant response was “That is Russia. Congratulations. ”
It has been calculated that each day of the invasion is costing Russia more than $ 20bn. The campaign may, in the end, expire from the haemorrhage of cash. But equally, if not more damaging to its prospects, may be the disenchantment of Putin’s conscripts. The more these troops are exposed to the raking fire and hostility of the Ukrainians, the more confused they will become. Napoleon is said to have estimated that the success of any campaign was one-quarter attributable to numbers and material and three-quarters to morale. If that holds good in Ukraine, the troubles facing Putin are just beginning. The long-term occupation, which is the only possible alternative to the failed blitzkrieg, will add to the numbers of young men returning to Russia hideously wounded or in body bags, as an intractable insurgency takes hold.
In an essay of 2021, Putin let it be known that he did not think Ukraine was actually a country at all. But the war has imprinted on Ukraine its epic identity in flesh, blood and tears in ways he could not have imagined. Not only will he fail but the failure will eat away at his domestic omnipotence. Disillusioned troops returning from the eastern front in the first world war had a crucial part to play in the revolutions of 1917. And no less astonishing and courageous than the resistance in Ukraine, has been the eruption of protests in St Petersburg and Moscow. When your credibility demands the arrest of the 77-year-old Yelena Osipova, you know you’re in trouble. It is a truism that the majority of Russians who get their news from state television will never be swayed by crowds of young people in the big cities. But as the numbers of widowed and orphaned inexorably mount, hostility to those responsible for their bereavement will morph a student revolt into popular fury.
Instead of serving up a pack of lies, the Kremlin would have done better to have ordered its conscripts, and itself, to read War and Peace. On the eve of Borodino, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky says war is not chess; “Success never depends. . . on position, on equipment, or even on numbers, and at least of all on position ”. “On what, then?” someone asks. “On the feeling that is in me and him. . . and in each soldier. ” Leo Tolstoy, who had seen the war close up, was right. Which is why, in the end, the Russian conquest of Ukraine will also be Putin’s abysmal defeat.