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Putin in a Time Warp
Invading Ukraine was a dumb move.
The Ukraine crisis is a hinge of history. One of the biggest questions of our time is whether the hinge opens the gate to more democracy or swings back toward Russia’s autocratic past, where war and repression are the historical norm. While it's too early to know for sure, I think Tsar Putin is going to lose his bet on backwardness. He's stuck in a time warp that places him not in the company of Peter the Great but of petty dictators who overreach.
For all of his tactical military strength, Putin is now operating from a position of strategic weakness. The bitter ironies for him abound. Almost the entire international community stands against him, creating the exact Western unity he has spent two decades trying to undermine. He has reinvigorated—even saved— NATO, which just two years ago looked obsolete. We’re likely to see permanent U.S. troop deployments in Poland, Rumania and the Baltic states—exactly the outcome Putin says he is trying to prevent. And from the start, Ukraine has put up stiffer resistance than Putin expected, inspiring the world with its plucky David vs. Goliath story.
Even after Putin prevails militarily, forcibly removes Volodymyr Zelensky as president and installs a new puppet in Kyiv (Ukranian-preferred spelling), his problems will be just beginning. Unlike reformers in many former Soviet states, the Ukrainians have experience dispatching puppets, as they did in 2014 during the peaceful Maidan Revolution. It's hard to see how the new thug in charge would stand much of a chance. But the big surpise so far is the resistance inside Russia. Despite stern warnings that taking part in antiwar demonstrations would be on their records “for life,” tens thousands of Russian protesters in 53 Russian cities took to the streets on the first day of the invasion. So much for rallying around the flag. Even in open societies, it usually takes years for an antiwar movement to gather steam. In Russia, it took only hours.
Surprisingly, Putin has muffed the psyops dimension to the crisis, watching his false flags shot down by an impressively-proactive Biden Administration that is redefining the use of intelligence. Instead of hoarding it as policymakers have done for centuries, Biden skillfully declassified and released good intel about Putin’s intentions to keep him off-balance in the run-up to the invasion. The U.S. is showing how those prebuttals can often go viral, undermining even the most aggressive propaganda. So now the old KGB man's reputation as a master of disinformation is taking a beating. Russia’s endless attempts to lie about the invasion are not getting traction anywhere. Just when we thought the internet echo chamber was a menace to democracy, its basic transparency has helped bring misinformation to light. And with social media ubiquitous, the power of state-run media to keep people in the dark is waning.
In the past, Putin hasn’t much cared about public opinion inside Russia. He didn’t blink at surveys earlier this month showing fewer than ten percent of Russians supporting an invasion of Ukraine. But upbeat state media reports about the kindness of Russians toward Ukrainians amid the military operation (the Russian government is not calling it a “war”) suggest he is already on the defensive. He knows the political danger of watching Russian boys come home in body bags. And Biden’s harsh new economic sanctions will inflict well-deserved punishment even if they don’t provide much deterrence. I’m looking forward to seeing oligarchs complain about losing their yachts and fancy London and Sunny Isles apartments.
To get a bit closer to how historians may some day view the Ukraine Crisis, let’s look at Soviet invasions that this one does not resemble:
This is not 1945, when the Red Army occupied Eastern Europe and easily threw out non-communist leaders because those countries had just been through World War II and were too worn out to fight; the Ukrainians always intended to battle the Russians, even if Putin was too arrogant and isolated to grasp that.
It’s not 1956, when poorly-armed Hungarian freedom-fighters could only hold out for five days before being crushed by Soviet tanks; Ukrainian insurgents will be killing Russians for as long as they or their strongman stooges are occupying their country.
It’s not 1968, when the independent Czech communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, told his people during the Prague Spring that they should submit to the invading Soviet forces to prevent bloodshed; this time, the death toll will quickly mount into the thousands and likely go a lot higher.
And it’s not 2015, when Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula without resistance, in large part because that region was majority-Russian and viewed by millions as legitimately Russian. Ukraine is a much bigger meal, and one that Putin is already having a harder time swallowing. He is so isolated from honest advice that he seemed blindsided by early events.
The best comparison might be to 1980, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Soviet operatives killed the Afghan president and installed a puppet. The Carter Administration imposed sanctions—including a grain embargo and Olympics boycott—that were initially very popular in the U.S. but became much less so over time, as the shock of the invasion wore off. That will likely happen this time, too. But consider what happened next: a nine-year U.S.-backed insurgency that bled the Soviets dry and contributed heavily to the demise of their empire.
Putin loathes how Lenin and Stalin gave Ukraine more cultural identity than he thinks it deserved. But he nonetheless feels personally embarrassed by the demise of the Soviet Union. Shame is a powerful motivator, even if the shamed must wait decades to exact their revenge. So it’s no surprise that the Cold War conditions everything he does, from preposterous propaganda (calling for the “de-Nazification” of a country with a Jewish president) to making lists of enemies to be seized (including Zelensky, who would immediately become a global martyr if he’s killed), to brandishing nuclear weapons, as he did in his reckless speech this week.
But he nonetheless feels personally embarrassed by the demise of the Soviet Union. Shame is a powerful motivator, even if the shamed must wait decades to exact their revenge.
That takes the New Cold War into dangerous territory. As NATO forces line up directly across from Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, the chances for miscalculation increase.
But if the world can avoid a cataclysmic superpower confrontation, the Ukraine crisis has a chance to eventually end in a positive way, with the global struggle between autocracy and democracy moving back toward freedom. That doesn’t necessarily mean Putin gets deposed, but it suggests that the hinge might be swinging in the right direction.