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The Mental Siege of Vladimir Putin
Life in the Kremlin bunker
The military record of former KGB spy turned autocrat Vladimir Putin has four major bullet points. Now that he has put Russian nuclear forces on alert, we must all hope he does not add a fifth, and that peace talks on the Belorussian border produce a swift end to hostilities.
Putin’s first war against Chechnya (Russia’s second) in 1999 succeeded in placing a puppet, Ramzan Kadyrov, in charge of the breakaway province at the cost of more than 7,000 Russian lives over nine months. A follow-on insurgency in the northern Caucasus region lasted until 2017, killing more than 1,000 additional Russians.
His second war with Georgia lasted twelve days, cost less than 100 Russian lives, and defeated the much smaller, weaker Soviet breakaway state in South Ossetia. It is worth noting that Georgia had no European borders or advanced western weaponry.
Alone on this list, Syria is a former Soviet satellite state beyond Russia’s borders where Russian troops have not played the leading role in a war. Syria bears mention because it was also not vital to Russian national interests or security interests. What these conflicts have in common with Ukraine is the dissolution of the Soviet empire, the Cold War outcome that Putin has never accepted, that his entire career has been about reversing.
Poland is not allowed to quit Russia. Belorussia is not allowed to quit Russia. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are just temporarily separated from their true and benevolent Motherland, Russia. Syrians are not allowed to quit Bashar al-Assad, friend of Russia since the Cold War days, which is why all of Syria’s chemical weapon engineers have degrees printed in Cyrillic. And so on. Ukraine is just another abused child-state fighting to escape a control freak.
How is life in the Kremlin bunker, now? How many officers are exchanging anxious glances in the Russian strategic nuclear command system? What steps are they taking to walk back their supreme leader from the brink? Is anyone making up a Plan B, or hastily arranging backup plans of any kind? We have to ask ourselves these questions now. That is the new world that Ukraine’s brave defense has made. On Day Four of Putin’s offensive, he had to arrange a cease-fire because his army can’t seem to fight anymore.
I said last night that Russian forces were overextended and vulnerable, that Ukraine would begin counterattacking soon. It appears I was right. This piss-poor performance cuts straight to the matter of who is in charge of Russia and its army. When you surround yourself with bureaucratic sycophants, you invite military disaster by attacking an organized, prepared defender. Does Putin want to suffer a Highway of Death scenario? Because this is how you get a Highway of Death scenario, right here. An army run by pros would not do this.
Vladimir Putin is not an effective war leader. It took a Jewish comedian just four days to make him cry “uncle.” The whole world sees it, and he sees that we all see it, and as with any bully who gets embarrassed by their mark, this episode has Putin huddled in a dangerous mental corner. We should not try to divorce the political from the personal: successful isolation of Russia is indistinguishable from the personal isolation of Russia’s leader. To embarrass Russian forces is to embarrass Putin. Potentially, his ego death is the actual death of millions.
Let us start from a generous position and grant the larger critiques of western policy since 1992 here. Let’s assume Putin’s view of the world is valid, and take as given that Russia is surrounded by hostile powers, including an expansive NATO alliance. Seems paranoid, but okay.
Does this scene — Russian forces in defeat, with Putin rattling a nuclear saber — convince anyone in the world that this view is the right one, and they should kowtow to his supremacy?
I would argue the contrary. Strategies of self-defeat seldom fail. Rather than serve as proof NATO should be disbanded, or retreat from Russia, Putin has practically guaranteed the alliance will expand. He has reduced the fear anyone at the periphery of his ambition might feel about Russian intervention. Putin had intended to snuff out Ukrainian nationhood; instead he has forged a nation out of Ukraine. Slow clap, ladies and gentlemen. Slow, slow clap.