Wladimir Putin‘S Russia is a sham democracy that simulates the form but not the substance of popular power. Despite wielding autocratic power and promoting a cult of personality for two decades, the Russian president took no chances.
Grandmaster Garry Kasparov put it this way: “In chess the rules are fixed and the outcome is unpredictable, while in Putin’s Russia the rules are unpredictable and the outcome is certain.”
Elections are rituals performed to reaffirm belief in Putin’s regime, while the country’s laws are designed to protect the president from the people, and not the other way around.
His recent speeches reveal an obsession with the past. What Putin intends is less a bloody revolution in international affairs and more the restoration, by any means necessary, of what he sees as Russia’s rightful place in the world.
As the most populous and westernmost of the former Soviet republics, Ukraine is key to this mission. If Putin cannot prevent it from leaving the Kremlin’s self-proclaimed sphere of influence, it does not bode well for Russia’s reputation in the region and beyond.
Furthermore, a stable, prosperous, democratic and peaceful Ukraine embedded in Western alliances could be a beacon for the Russians.
Far from saving the country from chaos as the Kremlin narrative proclaims, no one has done more to undermine Ukraine than Vladimir Putin. The Russian President is an arsonist who now presents himself as a firefighter.
Putin is very much a product of Cold War strategic thinking. He sees expanded EU and NATO membership as an attempt to encircle Russia. He never asks why so many states previously under Kremlin rule have sought refuge with these organizations.
After all, NATO and the EU have expanded their ranks at the request and invitation of sovereign democratic governments, sometimes after years of protracted negotiations, when potential members “earn” the right to join the club. Russia, on the other hand, is expanding with violence and brutal invasion.
The Kremlin’s EU and NATO rivals, the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, are mostly composed of related dictatorships. In January, for example, Russia sent troops to save the autocracy in Kazakhstan from its own people.
The Kremlin has always relied on hard power over soft influence to achieve its goals. His role in the region is that of a gangster, a regime that creates a threat and then demands its reduction.
The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the less the Russian public believes Moscow’s description of this “special military operation”.
Putin is on the back foot and increasingly desperate. So on Wednesday he delivered a Stalinist speech in which he lashed out at “scum,” “traitors,” and “fifth columnists.” He urged the Russians to “just spit them out, like a mosquito that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
The West, he said, was conspiring with domestic enemies to bring about “the destruction of Russia.” In a chilling twist, he promised a “natural and necessary purification of society.”
Up until this war, Putin had proved adept at using conflict and international antagonisms to bolster his popularity in Russia. The annexation of Crimea, for example, provoked hostile reactions abroad but was popular at home. In contrast, the current invasion of Ukraine is unpredictable and could provoke widespread domestic discontent, especially if crippling sanctions remain in place.
In dictatorships, life cycles rather than election cycles determine the length of a leader’s reign. Trained in Soviet-style democracy, Putin aspires to occupy a prominent place in his country’s history. Putin can think of no other way to realize his ambitions and secure his legacy.
Unlike his Western peers, who in retirement are doomed only to lecture tours, writing memoirs and spending more time with their families, Putin cannot relinquish power and knows he risks losing his fortune and perhaps his life if he does he is expelled.
The Ukrainian government claims to have killed more than 14,000 Russian soldiers since the war began just over three weeks ago. To put that number in perspective, the Kremlin lost roughly the same number in its 10-year struggle to conquer Afghanistan, a defeat that hastened regime change in Moscow.
Putin has overextended himself in Ukraine, and his miscalculation is already proving very costly. A failure could be fatal for his regime.
He never “de-escalated” in war without first achieving his goals. Unfamiliar with the concept of the “off ramp”, more used to smashing others’ faces than saving his own.
If you look at his track record, any deal with Ukraine will be of little value. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine inherited the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It gave them up in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the US and Britain to protect and respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Ukraine was militarily non-aligned and had only an ailing army when Russia invaded and occupied its territory in 2014. It was Ukraine’s perceived weakness that prompted the invasion, not its strength.
Putin favors Thucydides’ millennia-old aphorism that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
But there is a more modern maxim relevant here, that of Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, who died on hunger strike in 1920. MacSwiney demonstrated that “it is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can endure the most who will triumph”.
Ukrainians have suffered through civil wars, world wars, tyranny, gulags, and famine, and yet they miraculously persevered. No wonder the national anthem defiantly proclaims that “Ukraine is not dead yet.” Ukraine will survive this war and prosper; The same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University’s School of Law and Government
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/terence-macswineys-words-are-made-for-ukraine-those-who-can-endure-most-will-conquer-41463792.html Terence MacSwiney’s words are for Ukraine – those who can endure the most will win