Why this is the beginning of the end for Vladimir Putin - Mark Galeotti for the Telegraph - 25.02.22
The Russian president has set in train the demise of his kleptocratic regime. It will wither and die like the old Soviet Union. Putin and his generation may stay in power for years to come, but the tide is against them - younger Russians are increasingly open in their disdain.
What is being fought in the cities of Ukraine is not just a war for that country’s freedom and future, it is a conflict that will determine Russia’s, too. Win, lose or draw, Putin has guaranteed that the Cold War – a war that arguably he never stopped fighting – is back. His regime will likely decay into isolation, economic stagnation and political repression as a result.
While our intelligence services and the military analyst community were warning of an imminent, full-scale war in Ukraine, Western Putin-watchers and Russians alike had their doubts. It just seemed too dangerous, disproportionate and self-destructive. On Sunday, just before the fateful meeting of Russia’s Security Council that showed the world how isolated Putin was, and how out of touch, a Moscow-based financial analyst messaged me that he was “feeling more comfortable now – Putin’s about to pull off the biggest bluff in history”.
It was not a bluff, though, and the ambition of Putin’s gamble is becoming clear. His stated objectives – Ukraine’s “demilitarisation and de-Nazification” – suggest his goal is to install a puppet government that will ensure the country remains within Russia’s sphere of influence.
The obscene suggestion that modern Ukraine needs “de-Nazification” is not only a desperate rhetorical flourish to convince the Russian people that this is in some ways a parallel to the “Great Patriotic War” – the Second World War – but also a prelude to the mass arrests and, Western intelligence agencies claim, even executions of those who would resist.
Putin’s plan seems to rest on a naïve assumption that it is simply a matter of taking Kyiv and announcing a new government. In fact, that is the relatively easy part – any quisling administration will then need to be maintained by force against a Ukrainian population that shows no sign of being willing to accept it.
Some will fight, something that is already clear as Ukraine’s government opens up its arsenals to distribute guns among volunteers. Even those not willing or able to fight, though, will resist in other ways, from sabotage to simple, mulish non-cooperation.
As a British Ministry of Defence analyst put it to me: “This isn’t going to be Occupied France – it’ll be more like the partisan war Ukrainians fought against the Germans in the Second World War.”
Hubris and paranoia
That would be a galling parallel for the Kremlin, which has made a virtual secular state religion of the war. An equally instructive one would be the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Again, an ageing leadership in the Kremlin airily assumed that all it needed to do was take the capital and impose a new leader, make a brief show of force and withdraw, with the Afghans now cowed and obedient. Ten years and 15,000 Soviet deaths later, Moscow withdrew from a war it could not win.
The generals had been well aware that the invasion would be a terrible and dangerous blunder, but the defence minister simply refused to convey his concerns to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. We do not know what Sergei Shoigu, the current Russian defence minister, has been telling Putin, but judging by that Security Council meeting, this is not a president who welcomes or listens to naysaying.
More significantly, while the Afghan War did not bring down the Soviet system itself, it magnified a series of debilitating trends that did. The economy was already grinding towards collapse, but Western sanctions worsened it by denying access to credits and technology. The people were already disgruntled and cynical, but as boys started coming home with broken minds or bodies, or not coming home at all, their resentment towards the Kremlin only grew. It is hard to believe that Putin is seriously thinking of this parallel, but we should, because, either way, his Russia is heading in the same direction as Brezhnev’s, driven by the same combination of hubris and paranoia.
If, unlikely as it seems, Putin is able to take and hold Ukraine, even if only for a while, it will prove a Pyrrhic victory. The prospect might be that a triumphalist Russia will have pushed closer to Nato, have resisted Western pressure and be ready to unleash covert chaos on Europe if it continues to challenge the Kremlin’s claim to a sphere of influence. In the process, though, Putin will simply have re-booted the Cold War only to find himself losing it.
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