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Russia Has a Bad News Problem
If Ukraine breaks through, how will Putin know?
Russian leaders have a habit of ignoring bad news. In June 1941, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, treating accurate reports of the attack as disinformation. He thought that the nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany would hold. On June 30, eight days after the attack started, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov led a delegation from the Politburo to Stalin's dacha, where he had been holed up for almost two days, not answering the phone and drinking heavily. "Why have you come?" Stalin asked, fearing being arrested. He finally addressed the nation about the invasion on July 3.
On April 26, 1986, a nuclear meltdown and explosion occurred in Chernobyl, causing a fire and spewing massive amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not address the nation until May 14. The news of the disaster traveled slowly up the chain. Journalist David Hoffman wrote in his 2009 book, The Dead Hand, "But the reason for the lack of information was the Soviet system itself, which reflexively buried the truth. At each level of authority, lies were passed up and down the chain; the population was left in the dark; and scapegoats were found. Gorbachev was at the top of this decrepit system; his biggest failure was that he did not break through the pattern of coverup right away."
In the age of social media, we can observe the historic problem of leadership accepting bad news happening in real time. Gen. Ivan Popov, who was fighting the Ukrainians in a critical region of the counteroffensive, was recently fired. On July 12, Russian lawmaker Andrei Gurulyov posted to Telegram an audio recording of Popov, musing about his sacking. (It's unclear when the recording was made or if Popov intended it to be public.) In the recording, Popov outlines the choice he faced: "It was necessary either to keep quiet and be a coward or to say it the way it is…I had no right to lie in the name of you, in the name of my fallen comrades in arms, so I outlined all the problems which exist." He proceeds to detail problems with high casualties of Russian soldiers and a lack of artillery support. He says that his raising of those problems led to his ouster: "Apparently, in connection with this, the senior commanders felt some kind of danger in me and swiftly, in a single day’s light, concocted an order from the Minister of Defense [Sergei Shoigu] that removed me from the deployment and got rid of me.” Popov says that while he had been holding off the Ukrainians for three weeks, he wasn't getting the support he needed: "We were hit in the rear by our senior commander [an apparent reference to Armed Forces chief Valery Gerasimov], treacherously and vilely decapitat[ing] our army at the most difficult and tense moment."
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The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Popov’s protests “if true, may support ISW's previous assessments that Russian forces lack operational reserves that would allow them to carry out rotations of personnel defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives and that Russian defensive lines may be brittle.”
In his June 24 video, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin also complained about leadership not accepting bad news; however, the warlord is prone to exaggeration, hysteria, and lying. Popov's tone was more serious -- and coming from someone inside the military.
That Popov was apparently fired for criticizing Putin's generals, Shoigu and Gerasimov, illustrates a problem with the Russian regime: bringing criticism up the chain puts one at risk for being fired. This dysfunction makes it less likely that bad news will travel up the chain. Thus, the people who rise in the system tend to be sycophantic and not very smart. Shoigu and Gerasimov failed utterly in their initial plans to invade Ukraine; however, they remained in their positions while Popov was fired. That leads to dysfunctional policymaking, as the people who are more in touch with facts on the ground leave and those concerned with their job security stay.
It's not just Russia that has this problem, it is endemic to autocratic regimes. Another recent example is In China, Xi Jinping pursued the "Zero COVID" strategy far beyond its initial utility, strangling the economy, until protests rocked the country and threatened the regime.
Nineteenth-century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder observed that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy. Mike Tyson expressed the same sentiment on boxing: "Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time." For Putin, the question remains, if and when Ukrainian forces break through, will Russia's structural problems with handling bad news hamper their ability to react? Popov's firing and the endemic problems of Russian leadership indicate that the answer is yes. That's good news for Ukraine, which has been deft in its strategy, but it still has to punch through miles of mined and booby-trapped Russian lines without air support from Western planes.
For the vast majority of its history, Russia has been an autocracy run by a small number of people, who grow fewer as the leader ages. In World War II and Chernobyl, that style of leadership proved ill-equipped to handle disasters and acted belatedly only after multiple warnings. It's true that Stalin eventually defeated Hitler and Gorbachev eventually accepted Western help with the cleanup; however, the costs of both disasters were much higher because of delays. The Ukraine war is more obviously self-inflicted by Putin than either of those events. However, history suggests that his response to a Ukrainian breakthrough would be slow and chaotic.
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