The reason so many Kremlinologists failed to anticipate a large-scale invasion of Ukraine was because they thought they knew him. Military analysts, working with fewer or no prior psychological assumptions, were far more prescient.
The Putin we have come to know over two decades at the helm of the Russian state was supposed to be calculating and cautious, someone not averse to taking a chance but only when the odds of winning were straightforward. Nothing indicated a dormant tendency to gamble his whole future in a roll of the dice.
And it wasn’t just prudence that could be relied upon to bring him back from the brink. It was also a certain taste for the dark arts. I often heard it said with respect to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that its success was reflective of Putin’s talents, a man educated in the intelligence services rather than the Red Army. A general would have marched straight to Kyiv.
A man of the shadows like Putin preferred “green little men” and disinformation. Everything with the annexation in 2014 was so covert and meticulous that only six people were killed in the operation. This time, however, nothing was covert or contained, and the risks remain unusually high for the Russian president. Did Putin change and if so what brought about that change?
A popular explanation in the mainstream media is that the pandemic forced him to live in almost complete isolation, a condition in which one may start to experience unusual symptoms of either euphoria or despair. This is pop psychology. A much simpler reason that Putin never behaved with this ambition and boldness in the past is that he was never able to before.
You might plausibly look at the last two decades as preparation for the present moment. A decade ago the Russian army was ill equipped to perform the way it is performing in the Ukraine campaign. By 2018 Putin was lauding the armed forces and telling the Federal Assembly that Russia possessed a “modern high-technology army”. He was also creating the political conditions that now allow him to take decisions without any concern for public opinion or the opinion of his officials. Repression of dissent was perfected and the media fell under state control.
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The same argument applies to the vulnerabilities of the Russian economy: a decade ago the fragility of the Russian economy worked as a limit on his ambition. Today, by contrast, central bank reserves are worth approximately $640bn, enough to protect Russia from any immediate shocks resulting from the economic sanctions that Western governments have just enforced. Putin’s talent is to know how far he can go, but the limits of his action have been expanding so dramatically that he is now in a position to surprise us.
The pandemic was the moment when Putin started to think that the conditions necessary for what Nietzsche called “great politics” were in place. In the domestic realm we call it constitutional politics, the politics of order. In foreign policy it is the attempt to create a new geopolitical order, a new balance between the great powers, including the arrangements by which they govern their relations.
Putin is particularly sensitive to the question of global hierarchy because he started at the bottom. Russia, a former superpower, began the new century diminished in status and subject to the whims of American power. For the first five or six years as president he played more or less duly by the rules, although it may well be that even then there was a covert plan to grow in strength without calling too much attention to the process.
[See also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]
Russia continued to grow but it was not until 2015 that Putin felt confident enough to trade in his role of the spoiler for the much more ambitious role of the policeman. The invasion of Syria was a watershed. For the first time a country other than the United States took for itself the role of setting and enforcing the rules of state organisation. It was a fateful moment in other ways as well. At that time, before the most recent stages in military modernisation, Russia was still vulnerable to a sudden interposition by American forces, denying it the capacity to enter the Syrian conflict. But Putin sensed that Obama was tired of Middle Eastern adventures and would not raise strong objections to his plans. The American president even seemed to encourage them, expressing publicly the hope that Russia had entered a quagmire.
There was no quagmire. Having acquired power over the destiny of a country so strategically important for Iran, Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Russia was suddenly receiving special treatment in their capitals. Those of us who had the Syria gambit present in our minds were certain that Putin would invade Ukraine and do so with maximum force. Syria had shown he was not the cautious and clandestine operative we thought he was.
Imagine that over the weekend Russian troops enter the government quarter in Kyiv and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, is replaced with a name concocted in the Kremlin. The city will be left in ruins, with the corpses of the innocent lining its avenues. But by succeeding in Ukraine, Putin will have realised his wildest dream, taking Russia from the bottom of the geopolitical pyramid to its pinnacle. He will have eliminated Ukraine as a state and, as he chillingly explained, as a people. In his mind Ukraine symbolises the nightmare of a Westernised Russia, the fear of disappearance, which he hopes to exorcise with a brutal invasion.
A country capable of replacing the ruling authorities in other countries is what we used to call an empire. Putin dreams of a world where nothing of great importance can be decided without asking Moscow for its opinion. In Europe this now looks frighteningly possible.
[See also: Trump shows what Putin gets right about America]
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times