The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a year of war has revealed of three leaders

President Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, some U.S. officials privately warned their Russian contacts against hubris. It would be easy to start this war, they cautioned, but difficult to end it successfully. All of the United States’ modern military history, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, told this humbling story. But the Russians didn’t listen.

Now, nearly a year later, we see the devastating results — for Russia, Ukraine and the whole world. Putin miscalculated what military strategists call “the order of battle” — overestimating his country’s strength and underappreciating Ukrainian and U.S. resolve. He’s caught in a trap of his own creation, which makes him desperate and dangerous but ultimately doomed to failure.

War reveals the essential traits of human character that shape events. Who could have imagined that a Ukrainian comic actor named Volodymyr Zelensky would prove to be the first truly heroic leader of the 21st century. Who would have bet that Putin, the canny and cynical ex-KGB officer, would grossly misread both intelligence and history and ransom his country to what amounted to a fairy tale about the “oneness” of Russia and Ukraine.

Perhaps most surprising of all, who would have bet that an 80-year-old U.S. president, a man who was garrulous, sentimental and sometimes appeared senescent, would turn out to be the most undervalued American leader in modern times. President Biden’s brave visit Monday to Kyiv was a defining moment in his presidency. Even conservative commentators who make a living trashing him had to be stirred by the sight of him standing in St. Michael’s Square while air raid sirens wailed.

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Let’s think about the architect of this disastrous war, and the sources of his error. Many wars begin with a sense of wounded pride. In Putin’s case, this vanity led him to march his nation off a cliff. On Feb. 24 last year, Putin launched the invasion with a speech that is still astonishing for its sense of victimization and desire for revenge.

Putin cast the Ukraine story as a tale of Russian innocence and Western perfidy. In expanding NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders, the United States and its allies had shown a “contemptuous and disdainful attitude” and behaved “rudely and unceremoniously from year to year.” The West had hurt Russia’s feelings, in other words.

Putin’s chief war aim, bizarrely, seemed to be greater respect. The West, rather than treating a disoriented post-Soviet Russia “professionally, smoothly, patiently,” had flaunted its power with a “state of euphoria created by the feeling of absolute superiority, a kind of modern absolutism.” NATO had talked of inviting Russian cooperation, but Putin insisted: “They have deceived us, or, to put it simply, they have played us.”

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Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


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If you wonder why so many Russians still seem to support Putin, despite his catastrophic mistakes, it’s partly because they share his sense of grievance. As historian Mark Galeotti notes in his superb short history of the country, Russia’s story for centuries has been a recurring tension between West and East, Europe and Asia — between a yearning for acceptance and bitter sense of rejection and disrespect.

What has Putin learned in a year of self-inflicted mayhem? That it’s all the other guy’s fault. He claimed in his address to the nation on Tuesday: “They were the ones who started this war.” In other words, Putin learned nothing.

Zelensky’s piece of this story is a combination of raw courage and an actor’s intuitive understanding of how to play the role of his life. Those who saw him at the Munich Security Conference a year ago remember him as a “dead man walking.” Biden recalled on Monday what Zelensky told him the night of the invasion, with the sound of explosions in the background: “You said that you didn’t know when we’d be able to speak again.”

But Zelensky resisted U.S. offers of help in evacuating Kyiv. When he emerged from his bunker after the initial days of assault in his green fatigues, surrounded by his fellow ministers, you sensed a change in Earth’s gravitational field. “I’m not hiding,” he said. “And I’m not afraid of anyone.”

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

And finally, what of Biden, the unlikely but indisputable leader of the Western alliance? Biden has always been easy to underestimate. He doesn’t give a good speech, he talks too much, and he sometimes behaves like a grumpy Irish granddad. But like Harry S. Truman, who seems ever-more a kindred spirit, Biden knows the things you discover by getting bounced around in life and deprecated by the smart guys — and most of all, what you learn just by keeping going, through good and bad.

In the end, war is a test of wills. Putin was convinced that his cold-eyed, brutal resolve would outlast everyone else’s. But a year on, Putin’s staying power begins to look questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.