Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man

Why did so many observers misjudge Putin and Zelensky?

Illustration of Vladimir Putin
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Anagnorisis is that moment of recognition when a character in a play finally understands their predicament and who they really are. It is Shakespeare’s Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII realizing that he has “ventured … this many summers in a sea of glory, But far beyond my depth,” or Richard II saying, “I have wasted time and now doth time waste me.” It happens in war all the time, and it is happening now as Russia pushes forward with its invasion of Ukraine.

The surprises come thick and fast. Vladimir Putin was supposed to be a master chess player, but he has shown himself to be erratic, grandiose, and willful in a self-destructive way. Instead of taking Ukraine one bite at a time, a strategy the NATO powers might have found difficult to cope with, he launched a massive invasion that has left his country isolated in ways unimaginable two weeks ago. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was supposed to be out of his depth. But the former comic is an inspirational war leader, at home and abroad.

The Russian army, supplied with new weapons and coming off of (exaggerated) successes in Georgia, Crimea, Syria, and elsewhere, has revealed itself as a mediocre military, filled with bewildered 18- and 19-year-olds, inept at protecting its supply lines, and seemingly incompetent at combined-arms warfare on the tactical level. General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, who has served for a decade, has long been treated with respect in the West as a major conceptualizer of modern hybrid warfare. Yet he finds himself in a war in the information domain in which victories have gone to Western intelligence agencies (accurately predicting every move) and Ukrainian public-relations experts who shame their enemy by letting captured soldiers call their mothers, while inspiring their countrymen with videos of civilians confronting the uneasy invaders.

The European states, paralyzed, some thought, by greed and naivete, turn out to have remarkable willpower: The Swedes are shipping thousands of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, while Germany—pacific, commercial, Russia-understanding Germany—has announced that it will cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arm Ukraine, and pour more than twice its annual defense budget into that country’s rearmament. Above all, the United States, under the leadership of a supposedly failing and confused old man, whose team botched the withdrawal from Afghanistan, has brilliantly assembled a European and indeed a global coalition to punish and isolate Russia. Asian countries, including Taiwan, Australia, and Japan, are joining in, and the Kenyan representative to the United Nations gave a viral speech denouncing the Russian invasion.

One should not make too much of the mere fact of surprise. As Henry Adams noted in his acidic memoirs discussing the Civil War and beyond, “In all great emergencies he commonly found that everyone was more or less wrong.” Even so, these misjudgments are worth analyzing. Why did so many highly intelligent and educated observers get so much wrong?

Three explanations loom. One has to do with personalities and characters. Putin’s behavior shocked many people because they bought into his image as a grand master of intricate policy maneuvers, which assumes intentionality, adroitness, and cunning. A more accurate judgment followed from saying to oneself: This is an aging dictator, who after 20 years of absolute power gets no pushback; who is paranoid, dismissive, and brutal; who has physically isolated himself from other people (particularly in the past two years) and surrounded himself with flunkies. Most important, he is someone who has deteriorated both physically and—as seen in his delivery of rambling, querulous speeches—mentally. Shakespeare might have been a better guide here: In the first three acts of Richard III, the murderous aspiring king is clever and indirect even as his minions kill his enemies. Once he has been crowned, he orders the murder of his nephews with blunt relish: “I wish the bastards dead; And I would have it suddenly performed.” It is the beginning of the end for him, as he resorts to crude and open violence that only provokes those who will eventually take him down.

Some observers missed the power of personality in a different way, thanks to a belief in structural causes and forces—what passes for “realism,” which is indeed often highly unrealistic. The personality of the Ukrainian president has made all the difference. Volodymyr Zelensky is an Everyman hero: reluctant, initially unsure, but patriotic and courageous. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the saying goes, and so it was.

A second explanation is narrower. It has to do with military analysts’ focus on technology at the expense of the human element in war. Again, less international-relations theory and more Carl von Clausewitz would have helped. His teachings in his classic On War are as true today as they were when written two centuries ago: War is a contest of wills; it is unpredictable; it is the domain of accident and contingency; nothing goes as planned; and events are smothered in a fog created by misinformation and fear. Patriotic fervor, hatred of the invader, and knowledge of place and home weigh a great deal, and thus far so they have.

Finally, the democratic pessimism of the past two decades has obscured from many the extraordinary power of freedom, and the innate resilience of liberal-democratic countries and institutions. Here too, grand simplicities are at work. The Russian military and intelligence services are great at lying—no one is better. But that weapon, which has played a minor role in confounding American domestic politics (among others), is infinitely weaker than the truth. Some history might have helped here: The BBC during World War II, and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty afterward, were powerful because they told the truth. A culture of lies is corrosive, breeding cynicism and eventually self-doubt. Truth is not only more powerful but open to all of us, hence Václav Havel’s dictum that the way to resist tyranny is to live in truth.

The people of Ukraine are suffering terribly under Russian missiles and shells; they will probably suffer more. But Zelensky was right to tell European leaders that his countrymen and -women were fighting not only for Ukrainian values and rights, but for European—that is, liberal-democratic—values and rights. And when he said that, he opened the floodgates of aid.

This war is a humanitarian catastrophe for Ukraine, and we owe its people a deep debt, which should be paid in every form of aid, beginning with military assistance. But Ukraine’s losses are purchasing for the rest of us confidence in fundamental convictions that had not vanished, but rather were dormant. We are living in one of the moments when—unforeseen and astonishingly—the hinge of history creaks and moves, and that is an awe-inspiring spectacle. That should not cause the free world to be complacent, but should give it hope.