Russia. The word still evokes images of conspiracy behind gray concrete blocks, while a strong military marches through the streets in a tour de force of the iron hand that rules the harsh country. The Kremlin was working hard to ensure that this stereotype, of influential and ruthless Soviet toughness, is exaggerated. Disinformation, ostentatious secret service operations and bellicose rhetoric all served this illusion.
A lie works best if those who tell it believe it themselves. It seems the Russian illusion worked so well that even Putin believed it. However, as soon as the illusion met reality and was put to the test, it immediately shattered.
The Russian war machine waited at the border with Ukraine to begin its unstoppable and efficient progress westward, followed a few days later by a smoking wreck if metal skeletons flashing to the side of the road.
Putin has lost his face in front of his cadre, before whom he posed as a hardliner. Now for his more bloodthirsty ex-KGB group, he is not ruthless enough. For most, he is a loose cannon, not a cold and effective precision weapon.
This is one of the many systemic errors of an authoritarian regime. In the case of civilian oversight, you have to answer to the public, that is, to many people, each with their own motives and interests. On the other hand, in an authoritarian regime, you have to answer ultimately to the leader. It is easier to cover up a lie to one person than to many when the entire regime is based on lies. Lies benefit everyone: Putin is happy that everything works, military leaders and businessmen are happy that Putin is happy with the lies, and they are left with funds they can embezzle.
However, when put to the test, it quickly falls apart: the equipment is much worse and they have far less then reportered. The extra funds vanished. The economy is not doing so well after all, the money pumped into it cannot be found. There is a shortage of people for the military and the economy, there are far fewer people than reported. This was also a factor in the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Military failure against a much smaller country is not unknown in Russian history. The Winter War with Finland was not the spectacular victory the Soviets hoped for. Nor was the Cold War, which ultimately ended in defeat and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia might reorganize itself. It can still claim minor victories. And yet, the War in Ukraine has shown the weaknesses of the regime, and one thing Putin cannot afford is to show weakness.