My favorite quote about the war in Ukraine comes not from Volodomyr Zelensky—though the Ukrainian president had some bangers—but from a local official in the country’s south. “We are fighting against f—ing idiots. It’s good for us,” he told the Guardian last month before the Ukrainian army’s lightning advance in the northeast. “But they have nuclear weapons. Russia is like a monkey with a hand grenade. It’s a problem for the whole world.”
That metaphor resonates, and not just because its evocative absurdity appeals to a writer’s sensibility. It’s because a monkey with a hand grenade is as likely to destroy itself as it is anyone else.
I write with humility about war, having never served and lacking any qualification resembling expertise on military matters. But a remarkable thing about Russia’s folly in Ukraine was how quickly it revealed itself as folly even to rank amateurs like me.
There are receipts. On day three of the war I wrote that it seemed already to have the makings of a strategic debacle, with Putin having gambled his prestige on two dubious propositions. First, that Ukrainian civil society would disintegrate upon contact with Russian military might. Zelensky would flee, bureaucrats would switch sides, and the army would offer token resistance before capitulating. Second, that the Ukrainian people would welcome their captors as liberators, to borrow a phrase. Experts judged at the time that the Russian force of 200,000 men was grossly insufficient to pacify a hostile population of 44 million. But if the population turned out not to be hostile, if it too capitulated out of fear or residual Russian patriotism from its days as a Soviet state, the force was more than adequate. Two hundred thousand men to quell a rebellion is plenty if the rebellion never begins.