Vladimir Putin has badly miscalculated. Despite, and even perhaps because of, his obsession with Ukraine’s history, he has failed to comprehend the modern Ukrainian state. Putin has long insisted that Ukraine is not a real country, that its leadership is nothing more than a Western-imposed puppet regime. He did not believe that its armed forces would mount any real fight, or that Ukrainian civilians were prepared to die to defend their freedom and their independence.
The Russian leader has the power to devastate Ukraine. The 40-mile-long column of Russian armour bearing down on Kyiv, and the steady encirclement of the cities of Kharkiv and Mariupol, augur the terrible violence that is to come. But Putin will not be able to govern the country. Even if he was able to destroy every one of its tanks and kill every last soldier, Ukrainian citizens will never accept Kremlin proxy-rule. For generations, the Ukrainian identity will be centred on the nation’s heroic resistance to Russia during this war, and its stand against Putin in particular. The longer and more barbaric the Russian assault is, the stronger that resolve will become.
Putin also underestimated the strength and cohesion of the international response, which has seen an extraordinary array of sanctions unleashed and plunged Russia into a financial crisis on a scale not witnessed since the 1990s. Long queues are forming outside Russian banks as customers clamour to withdraw their cash. The rouble is in freefall. The central bank has hiked its interest rate to 20 per cent. Financial analysts are warning that Russia could default on its foreign debt for the first time since the crash of 1998.
Having built his appeal to Russian citizens on the idea that he had restored stability and put an end to the economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin has now imperilled the foundations of his domestic political appeal. For the past 22 years, since he first came to office in December 1999, the president’s supporters have been able to argue that he is at least better than the alternative, recalling the turbulent decade that came before, when people lost their life savings overnight and salaries and pensions went unpaid. But no more.
Instead, Putin has turned to stoking hostility against the West and fuelling historical grievances, insisting that it is Russia that is under attack. The worse the domestic economic situation gets, the more he will lash out and try to blame the West, or as he called it in a meeting with his economic advisers on 28 February, the “empire of lies”. He has already ordered his nuclear forces on alert in response to Western sanctions, which he framed as a necessary defensive step.
Over the past week, the Russian leader has also convened a series of televised meetings with senior officials and powerful businessmen, which are designed to demonstrate the extent of his power and that he has the unquestioning support of the country’s elite. He bullied and humiliated Sergei Naryshkin, the head of his foreign intelligence service, in front of the cameras, reducing one of the most powerful men in Russia to a stammering and visibly nervous wreck. But these performances have also served to demonstrate how paranoid and isolated Putin has become over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, addressing his underlings from the far end of an absurdly long table, or from the opposite side of the room, apparently afraid to come within 15 feet of his cabinet.
“We now know that we are definitely dealing with a different Putin,” said Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London, and author of The Weaponisation of Everything. “With hindsight, I think the Covid years will prove to have been significant in terms of closing down his circle yet further, leaving him brooding on the alleged mistreatment of Russia.” Politically speaking, Galeotti said, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine did not make sense, and could in fact come to represent the “start of the end of Putinism”.
Even with the dominance that Russian state television still enjoys, and the increased censorship the Kremlin has imposed, the fiction that this war is just and necessary will be difficult to sustain against the barrage of heart-rending social media posts and personal links that many Russians have with friends and relatives in Ukraine. If even a fraction of the casualties that have been reported so far are confirmed, it will also be impossible to conceal the thousands of young Russian soldiers who have already died in this war.
“It is much easier to be a popular autocrat than an unpopular one,” Timothy Frye, author of Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia, told me. “Putin’s popularity has not only protected him against popular revolts; it has also helped to insulate him against palace coups.” But by leading the country into an unwinnable war and an economic crisis, Putin’s own position has become more precarious. “We are beginning to see some cracks with two prominent oligarchs expressing doubts about the invasion due to its impact on the economy,” said Frye. “Many more elites may be re-evaluating their attitudes towards Putin, but it is difficult to see from the outside. The security elites have so far held fast, but they are more difficult to read.”
This will only reinforce Putin’s paranoia, and increase his demands for loyalty and the reluctance of his officials to tell him anything other than what they think he wants to hear. The more threatened he feels, the more he will intensify the violence against Ukraine and the repression and propaganda at home. There are darker, more dangerous days still ahead.
[See also: The truth about Putin’s “denazification” fantasy]