Putin’s drive to realise ambitions of Russia’s global power is now risking the destruction of Russia’s infrastructure. It is the inevitable consequence of his inability to clearly understand the mechanisms needed to create a superpower in the 21st century.
It starts with a vision. Like the Roman emperors, who aspired to become immortal gods after their deaths, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin may want to seek immortality in the history books as the man that made Russia great again. By expanding Russia’s borders to its historical high, he wants to create a bipolar world where Russia and America dictate to the world. The world will respect Russia and Vladimir Vladimirovich at its apogee. Or perhaps, as an (ex) KGB man, he is merely fulfilling the messianic role of destroying all enemies or perceived enemies by whatever means, foul or fouler.
If this is so, he is failing miserably. Thanks to his efforts, he has now made Russia an economic, political and ethical pariah, grudgingly respected by other global pariahs.
That he has failed should really not come as a surprise. His past strategies have never seemed to work out in the way they were intended. What has characterised Putin’s foreign policy is his ability to react to short term opportunities while suffering longer term consequences. He has failed to correctly predict the reactions of his actions. Moreover, even the short term aims outside its borders have never been realised but have been spun cleverly to make a failure seem like a victory.
The attempt to bring Georgia into the fold resulted only in the annexation of two peripheral provinces of Georgia and a strengthened resolve on the part of the Georgians to be closer to the West. Younger Georgians are now learning English and shunning Russian with a vengeance.
In Ukraine in 2014, the abortive attempt to keep pro-Russian President Yanukovich in power created a momentum that has culminated into current events. A little bit of Russian patience would have quite possibly resulted in Ukrainians becoming discontented with his successor and paved the way for a new pro-Russian leader. The East-West pendulum used to swing that way in Ukrainian politics, before Putin moved in to nudge it irrevocably Westwards. Shortly after Yanukovich fled to Russia, the Russian authorities proclaimed their project of annexing large swathes of southern Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya’. This plan was quietly shelved, and they ended up with two budget-sucking mini-provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk.
The annexation of Crimea was more successful but has turned a largely pro-Russian – or at least not anti-Russian – population of Ukraine into avowed enemies of their erstwhile colonial master. A major catalyst for consolidating Ukrainian national identity has been Putin himself.
Likewise in Belarus, Russian support for the immensely unpopular Lukashenko has tipped a largely complacent younger generation into active support for Western influence, growing resentment of Russia itself and renewed interest in the Belarusian language and Belarusian national symbols. All this makes it virtually impossible to voluntary incorporate Belarus back into the Russian empire.
Now comes the Mother of all Failures. Against all expectations, the Russian invasion of 24th February 2022 is faltering. Putin underestimated Ukrainian resolve and overestimated Russian firepower and morale in a crescendo of state-sponsored hubris. A lifetime of bending reality and communicating this false reality to his own people has bounced back to him in the form of self-delusion. Accustomed to spinning success out of failure, it will be difficult to put a positive spin on this one.
Hamstrung by an increasing inability to disassociate himself from a world of fantasy and wishful thinking, Putin has fallen into a number of traps over the years of his reign.
Firstly, as the USA and China demonstrate, military power and global influence are consequences of economic power, not the other way around. The world buys American brands and Chinese production which fund their military power. In contrast, Putin’s Russia has produced nothing that the world wants to buy, except raw materials extracted from the ground and weaponry. For the former, there is no Russian added value. They are struggling to maintain the world’s second largest armed force on an economy no bigger than that of Italy. For the latter, the loss of faith in Russian weaponry due to its port showing in battle, the need to use all that they can produce to sustain the war and the lack of imported computer chips are all contributing to a nosedive in exports. The other weapons producers and exporters, India and China are beating the Russians at their own game.
Secondly, in the twenty first century, mature countries join together because each can benefit from the association. Eastern European countries wanted to share the prosperity of the EU and, indeed, gained from it after accession. Russia has nothing to offer. It could offer a lot more if it had a government clever enough to harness the immense human talent of its population. Indeed, tomorrow’s adults are either fleeing the country or dying on the battlefield. Even the Russian elite shun their own education system – preferring their children to be educated abroad – and Russian products – preferring to shop for in London or Paris and to holiday in Western resorts or on Western-built yachts. If their own rich people eschew what Russian has to offer, it is not surprising that Russia’s ‘near abroad’ also refuse it. Neighbours respond to positive role models, Mr Putin, not to threats and invasions. The sell-by date for treating neighbours as vassals has long expired.
Thirdly, Putin confuses fear with respect. Putin famously issues threats to get what he wants like a dysfunctional teenage bully in the playground. Each threat diminishes his standing on the international stage, especially when he has no longer anything to threaten with. The only thing he has got left are nuclear bombs. The truculent teenger says, ‘if I can’t get my own way, nobody can and I will press the button.’ While he still feels that playing the role of a latter-day Ivan the Terrible in the 21st century is credible, others see his methods as outdated, pathetic and even embarrassing.
Fourthly, Putin has a rather old-fashioned view of how the world works. He imagines we are still in the era of an 1815 Congress of Vienna, a 1918 Versailles or a 1945 Yalta, when big countries decided the fate of small countries. What he hasn’t realised is that these days small countries have a voice. Moreover, the world is sometimes inclined to listen to these voices. Zelensky’s successful PR drive, talking to the European Union and to the the parliaments of countries across the globe as well as international organisations such as the UN and the G-20 has shown that sometimes smaller countries have louder voices than big countries.
In the case of Russia, they are having to use social media to drive their point through because nobody is listening to them anymore through conventional means. When their veteran foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, addressed the United Nations a week after the invasion, most delegates walked out. Even mildly sympathetic leaders such as Modri of India and Xi of China are guarded and openly lukewarm in their support. The leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, India and Kyrgyzstan kept Putin waiting at the SCO summit in Kazakhstan, something that Putin himself famously used to do when he met western leaders. Indeed, Putin did not attend the G-20 summit in Bali, knowing the embarrassingly hostile reception he would receive. Gradually, any respectable Western leader now really doesn’t expect any benefit talking to members of the current Russian government. They still do so only in order to show to their own electorate that they are doing something.
Finally, Putin continually talks about putting the clock back. The trouble is, it may not go back to where he wants it to go. There is a danger that the default goes to 1848, where nationalist uprisings led to the eventual break up of Turkish Balkans and Austro Hungary some years later. If the Russian Federation disintegrates into its constituent parts because of the toxic combination of further repression and a weak central power, this may be the real legacy of Putin’s reign. Far from being the man that made Russia greater, future Russian historians will look on Putin as the man that shrank Russia to Pre-Peter the Great. This will be a culmination of a lifetime of failures. He will be remembered, not as a god, but as a mortal who spun a god-like aura but in the end, was completely out of his depth when it comes to building a healthy society.
Two thousand years ago, the deification of Roman emperors was possible only if the deceased ruler had male heirs. Apparently, that box has been ticked for Putin. But the main condition was that the Roman emperor did not stain himself with some bloody abomination during his life.
That prerequisite was probably still-born for Putin long before he became President. It’s certainly not going to happen now.