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Is Putin High On His Own Supply?
If so, the war goes on
Those weird, swastikaesque Zs painted on all those destroyed Russian vehicles are evidence of a disturbing nationalist bent. What is Vladimir Putin thinking? Almost two weeks into his invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army has suffered tremendous losses and their offensives have all stalled or been repelled. The window of opportunity to conquer Kyiv without a titanic fight is shut tight, and the possibility of any assault on the city center is shutting by the day. Russian forces are trying to reorganize, but Ukrainian forces stand to inflict a monumental defeat. If Russian tanks are not inside the capital by Saturday, it is unlikely to ever happen. Nevertheless, the war will drag on. But why? Why go on? Is it petulant pride, grand strategy, or is there some other explanation that makes more sense?
Ukraine’s Greek Orthodox church has divorced the Russian one, so the whole thing reeks of abusive, controlling, self-righteous paternalism. Perhaps Putin is wasting from some disease as rumored, and mortality is making him pursue his dream of earning beatification. Sainthood would make him just like a real Tsar, you see. Religious conviction may explain the decision-making of Putin’s clique. “There’s ample evidence that such religiously-inspired apocalyptic thinking has infiltrated many minds in Moscow, including highly-placed ones, an alarming prospect which implies there will be no easy end to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” writes Dr. John Schindler. Here are two recent links to Schindler’s Substack for the reader’s consideration. Kremlinologists are free to debate the point in comments.
Listening to my sources, a general unease and sense of confusion with Russian decisions is palpable. The word “fascism” gets invoked with caveats and apologies. They mean to say “totalitarian,” of course. Fascism, whether Italian and German, was just another form of totalitarianism. It was also wildly popular. Putin’s totalitarianism remains popular with Russians for the moment. but a wartime public is often the last to know how bad things really are.
I have said from the start that Putin’s enterprise in Ukraine smacks of magical thinking. Someone spent more time and thought on the rollout of their new branding than their war plan. Ukrainian resistance clearly surprised Russians as though someone had sent them to war expecting a cakewalk based on bad information. According to one alleged FSB analyst being quoted in the western press, Putin’s team never told anyone that war was coming, or asked the kind of hard questions one might expect in a rational war decision process, even one as absurd as George W. Bush deciding to invade Iraq. As a result, Putin’s Kremlin went to war with a poor understanding of how or when western sanctions would impact the country.
That kind of planning is “good enough for government work,” as they say, but not for a Eurasian land war.
Then there is the nuclear dimension. Russian tanks rolled into Chernobyl on the first day, a move which was strikingly symbolic but operationally useless. Russian takeover of the Zaporzhzhia nuclear power facility last week seems like a political act rather than an operational achievement. Then Putin’s team wants us to believe that a new nuclear research facility in Kharkiv was on the verge of making “dirty bombs,” requiring them to bombard and destroy it. Preposterous to nuclear scientists, the episode is suggestive of what is really going on here. Imagine that Dick Cheney had never bothered to float an absurd story about aluminum tubes or Nigerian yellow cake before invading Iraq. Putin’s excuse was to be constructed after the fact, when his tanks had swiftly rolled over a prostrate Ukraine. As I say, this was magical thinking.
For many years now, Putin has developed cultural and political ties with reactionary religious politicians and parties around the world. Although it is run inside the United States, the so-called World Congress of Families, a right wing anti-gay activism network, is just one example of cultural warfare emanating from within Russia, and specifically from within Orthodox politics. What are the chances that their End Times-adjacent rhetoric represents the state of actual thinking in Moscow right now? Whiz-bang Gerasimov doctrines and hybrid warfare theories seem to have been cast aside for a strategy of brute force and faith. I don’t think Putin is reading Ivan Ilyin or Sergei Yesenin these days. If I didn’t know better, I would swear he was reading prayers.
I am not a psychologist, mind you. Historians deal with text, because it says what someone wanted the reader to have in their mind, and that does tell us something about their own minds.
There are a few observations that follow from all the above. First, concerns that NATO intervention actually might bring on global thermonuclear war are not entirely irrational. If the chances of that result are even one in a thousand, would you risk it? Be glad that Russian nuclear force control is a distributed responsibility, unlike the American system.
Second, the Russian Army appears to be suffering an epic defeat, yet Putin shows no sign of stopping. This is also consistent with magical thinking. Another attempt to surge forces into Kyiv is said to be coming in the next few days, and if so then Ukraine is ready for it, and Putin is just reinforcing failure. It is not even clear just how large of an attack he can launch with such poor logistics, and he will have to build a new army if he wants to conquer Ukraine, anyway. But build it with what? Until he has more trucks to move the food, fuel, and ammunition needed for another major operation, Putin can only launch piecemeal, local offensive actions at most. Which portends months, at least, of apparent stalemate, with Ukrainian cities turning into scenes from Aleppo.
Dig in, because this is just the end of the beginning.