Putin: Loneliness of the Tyrant
ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta
Tyrants and mad men suffer a common ailment: they are condemned to a feeling of loneliness and a routine of endless wandering in search of what they alone understand. No other world leader at the present time better illustrates this ancient folk wisdom than Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin would ordinarily qualify as a very brilliant strategist, a quality that catapulted him from the shadows of a spook into the prime light as the leader of post Soviet Russia. The former KGB officer with a fairly distinguished career record is credited with a capacity for multi- tasking and also time his strategic moves in a manner that never fails to disarm and overwhelm his adversaries. But his reputed strengths have of late begun to fail him as he bungles from one international escapade to another.
Mr. Putin has had difficulty understanding that his invasion of Ukraine has gone badly. As it turns out, his plans and projections were disastrous. His troops have been vastly decimated as they has lost territory they had previously occupied in the early stages of a war that was planned to last less than a few days. Months have rolled by. Russian casualties, including high ranking generals, have mounted. His troops are on the run as territory previously overrun have fallen under a Ukrainian counter offensive. Vast amounts of equipment and gear have been abandoned by fleeing Russian troops. Fields of human remains that loudly testify to serious war crimes have been uncovered. Domestic opinion against the war and indeed the Putin regime has begun to mount and has recently graduated into street protests are
Of course, Ukraine’s newfound battlefield successes and military mojo are the result of a combination of patriotic fervor and the sheer quantum of Western military support. The Ukrainian arsenal is bristling with a vast armada of sophisticated high precision weapons generously supplied by both the United States and other NATO member nations in the Western alliance. No one knows for how long more an isolated, over sanctioned and economically strangulated Russia can sustain its aggression on Ukraine.
The prospect of imminent defeat on the battlefield is an unthinkable nightmare for any dictator let alone one with the elephantine ego of a Vladimir Putin. There lies the greater strategic danger of the logic of the Ukrainian war. Predictably, Mr. Putin has played the dictators’ game. He has threatened the world with a nuclear holocaust if the war in Ukraine continues to go against his wish.
He carefully chose the eve of the 77th United Nations General Assembly to broadcast this grave threat. To indicate that he may not be bluffing, he disclosed the obvious fact that Russia is armed to the teeth with all classes of nuclear weapons both strategic and tactical. In addition, he unveiled a hasty plan to call up a reservist force of an additional 300,000 men to join his army of mostly conscripts in the Ukrainian operation. It did not matter to him that that additional force will need to be mobilized, trained, equipped and motivated to go into a war that many realize has entered an attrition stage. Worde still, Putin revealed a micro wave plan to hold referenda in the Donbast and Luhansk regions of Ukraine which it had previously occupied and colonized.
Besides his setbacks in the battlefield, Putin’s earlier attempt to dress up the Ukraine invasion in revisionist propaganda has since collapsed as it failed to gain traction among both Russians and the rest of the world. The Zelensky administration is far from being the Zionist collection of neo-Nazis that Putin painted them as. Instead the former comedian has turned out to be an epitome of patriotic heroism and unusual courage. Similarly, the revisionist claim that Ukraine’s sovereignty is fictitious has fallen flat on its face. But Mr. Putin needs a fake referendum in the occupied regions that favours his invasion in order to sustain the claim that his occupation of these areas is part of his obligation to defend the sovereignty of “mother Russia”.
While Putin has proceeded in earnest with his hasty mobilization and microwave referenda barely three days after they were announced, the Russian populace is reacting differently. Russians are fleeing the homeland across the borders into more friendly republics like Krigykistan, Tajikistan and others to avoid Putin’s draft. Widespread protests and demonstrations have commenced in Moscow against the draft and the entire Ukraine war. No one knows how far the opposition forces will go and what it will cost Mr. Putin in terms of his hold on power.
In response to Putin’s bluff and veiled nuclear threat, world leaders assembled in New York have heard Mr. Putin and displayed a mixture of brave reassurance and understandable trepidation. The brave face stems from the tacit assurance that NATO has the capacity to deter Putin’s nuclear threat or at worst retaliate in a manner that may leave Russia badly injured and worsted. The fear is a response to the familiar threat which insane dictators have always posed to the security of the world. It is indeed a credible and present fear that Mr. Putin, pushed to the wall as he increasingly is, is likely to plunge the world into a nuclear blitzkrieg that no one planned for. For one thing, in spite of the elaborate protocols required by the Russian system to initiate a nuclear strike, there is the fear that Putin is an outlaw at heart and is unlikely to obey the protocols which a more democratic system would have made imperative.
On the face of it, Putin’s belligerent rhetoric addressed to the United Nations is not unprecedented. Since its formation, the United Nations has always been confronted with the urgency of managing the dissenting voices of non -conformist leaders in a world that has remained divided either along ideological or temperamental lines. There is in fact an unwritten code that what has sustained the United Nations as a multinational platform is the freshness of dissenting voices and uncommon leadership types that it has had to deal with over the years. Leaders with divergent ideas, viewpoints and orientations have come to New York in previous years to hawk ideas an perspectives that do not necessarily conform to universally accepted norms.
In decades past, it was the presence of such diverse leadership types as Fidel Castro, Muammar Gadaffi, Yassir Arafat, Hugo Chavez and Thomas Sankara that alleviated the boring conformist rhetoric of the United Nations General Assembly. These dissenting voices and non -conformist personae have disappeared or become rare. The end of the Cold War and the triumph of a
Western liberal international order have joined forces to reduce or even eliminate the alleviating presence of leaders who see the world differently.
This is one sense in which Vladimir Putin becomes something of a refreshing even if toxic diversion from the humdrum proposition of a Western liberal overlordship. But in positing an alternative to a Western liberal democratic order, Mr. Putin is presenting the world with the untenable alternative of autocracy or, at best illiberal democracy. Unfortunately, with the overwhelming economic and ideological presence of China, Putin is driven to the fringes as a powerful mad man rather than a credible alternative to the Western liberal order. Even if Putin’s Russia intended it, it lacks the economic power and ideological coherence to convince anyone else in the world that it can pose a credible counter force to the liberal democratic order that has gripped most of the world. At best, the Russian voice of dissent deserves to be heard but it needs to re-jig its message to make sense to the rest of humanity. For now, Russia’s voice is being heard in all the wrong ways. Threatening the world with nuclear holocaust is not the best way to posit an alternative worldview to a peaceful liberal international order.
Rewind to 20th February, 2022 when the latest Russia-Ukraine war began.
From the onset of the Ukrainian invasion, Mr. Putin has never managed to conceal the fact that he may have become a bit unhinged of late. At the onset of the war, Putin’s Foreign Minister, Mr. Sergei Lavrov warned that a Third World War between Russia and NATO is possible and that it would be a nuclear war. On the same day, Russian artillery fire set off a blaze at a Ukrainian nuclear facility, the largest in Europe. Luckily, before dawn, Ukrainian fire fighters had put out the fire. Still on the same day, French President Emmanuel Macron after a telephone conversation with Putin cautioned that: ”the worst is yet to come.” Later in the day, it was a visibly jittery and troubled Putin that addressed Russians and the world to affirm that the invasion of Ukraine was going well according to his plan. Instructively, the broadcast was interrupted twice as Putin stood up in front of global television to adjust his ill-fitting jacket, all the time shying from eye contact with the audience in spite of a teleprompter ahead of him.
There are enough reasons why Mr. Putin could become more dangerous to us all. An unpredictable autocrat presiding over a nuclear super power is not exactly a pleasant playmate. An autocrat who is easily the richest man in the world can acquire the mindset of a God figure with the power of life and death over the rest of humanity. An ex-KGB officer with an inscrutable face and shadowy family life may not worry much about the familiar moral qualms of regular mortals about human lives and ultimate tragedy. Worse still, a man with a permanent nostalgia for the defunct great USSR and the days of Cold War sabre rattling can pursue his obsession at the expense of others if events keep pushing him to the brinks of sanity.
When such a man is encircled, his country isolated, his military rendered ineffectual and his private fortunes threatened, it is uncertain how far he can go in seeking revenge against those he sees as his traducers. Throughout history, the mind of a typical autocratic demagogue has been an area of darkness, full of uncanny possibilities. On hindsight, I shudder to think of what could have become of the world if Hitler had access to the codes of a nuclear weapons system. In the isolated seclusion of his bunker, he ordered some of the most massive military assaults that humanity has known during the Second World War. The body count meant nothing to him.
But here we are today with Mr. Putin, a real autocrat with a record of serial murders of his opponents. He is in control of the world’s second largest arsenal of lethal and nuclear weapons. How far could he go to hurt the rest of the world just to assuage his injured ego? How far will Putin go just to prove to the world that he is not necessarily weak and will not go down in humiliation? Could Vladimir Putin become further demented by frustration of his territorial ambition in Ukraine and beyond as to do the kind of irrational things that dictators have done in history?
Russia as an isolated rogue state is not the best prospect in a world dominated by aspiring democracies. Over 85% of the nations of the world are now democracies or aspiring democracies. In that world, an illiberal democracy or fringe autocracy such as Russia is not your favourite next door neighbor. Worse still, a nuclear super power presided over by an unstable dictator with an injured ego and threatened financial fortunes is a nightmare that could blow up in our faces. As we speak, Mr. Putin has placed his most strategic military units including his nuclear command, at alert and in an active disposition. Lethal weapons banned by the Geneva Convention have already been generously used in this war.
The best way out of this possible nightmare is to show Mr. Putin clearly marked exit points to escape from the consequences of his disastrous judgment. Clearly, he miscalculated his chances in the Ukraine mission. He probably underestimated the extent to which Ukrainians detest and even hate the Russians. You cannot sustain a massive military campaign in a terrain where the occupying force is so despised. Also, Mr. Putin never estimated the groundswell of international opposition that his invasion of Ukraine would attract. More tragically, he probably did not calculate the character of Russia’s post war relations with the European states and former Soviet republics that Russia has to live with in perpetuity.
Peace is the only antithesis to war. Therefor, every war inevitably ends in peace. The best prosecutors of wars are also the most creative seekers of peace. Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine were at first an encouraging sign. The talks that led to the resumption of exports of Ukrainian wheat to the rest of the world were an encouraging sign. The recent prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia point to what is still possible on the avenue of peace. But Mr. Putin would rather negotiate with Ukraine as a conqueror hence his recently announced new mobilization. It is doubtful if the two parallel lines will meet somewhere in a bombed out Ukraine. Putin would probably find more satisfaction in being a party and also a guarantor of the kind of peace he desires.
The West can help Mr. Putin find a convenient exit point out of the cage he has built around himself. But the interest of a more enduring world peace is not served by the present attitude and rhetoric of the US and the West. It is a good thing to marshal a global coalition against a menacing adversary of the international rule- based order. It is also in order to contain a belligerent autocrat who tramples on the sovereignty of less powerful nations. It is quite understandable to pile up crushing sanctions to bend such a determined aggressor.
The object of the war is the protection of the sovereign integrity of independent states from the aggression and deliberate belligerence of more powerful nations. It is of course in the enlightened self -interest of the US and the West to contain Russian influence and Putin’s territorial ambitions. But in the end, the world still needs a powerful stable Russia as a bulwark against the excesses of the West just as much as we need a wealthy Europe and the US to demonstrate the relative advantages of liberal democracy and the power of the free market.
For those who are desirous or anxious about how this war will end, there are a few certainties. First, Russia can neither crush nor annihilate Ukraine. Second, Russia will not be able to prevail against a coalition of the US, NATO and the rest of the free world. Third, the coalition of pro-Ukrainian forces will not be able to defeat Russia and exclude it from the international system. A humiliated Russia is an unlikely historical oddity.
There is a new way out. Both China and India have recently shown open reservations about Russia’s war aims. They have hinted at reservations about the continuation of hostilities. Both nations exert tremendous influence with Russia and are respected by the US and the Western alliance. Both of them believe in the inviolability of the sovereignty of nations. A joint peace initiative by China and India with definite guarantees from both sides would be acceptable to the warring parties. A peace process brokered by both and guaranteed by the United Nations is perhaps the best way out of the Ukraine quagmire.
Beyond the tragic temptations of his injured ego, Vladimir Putin understands the consequences of pursuing this war to conclusion. His political career could become a casualty of this untenable war. The costs are already monumental. They include international isolation, crushing sanctions and Russia’s inevitable encirclement by states that are bound to be hostile and perennially suspicious neighbours and at best uneasy allies. No leader, no matter his mindset, can wish his nation such catastrophe.