Outside, rain is falling, and all America is waking to the news that Vladimir Putin is sending troops into sovereign Ukraine, having concocted an excuse that the world is too savvy to believe. It’s a deadly serious day for Ukraine, which has been moving fitfully toward genuine self-government. For Americans, the challenge is to disregard the media hype Putin is deliberately stoking and to see his aggression as the desperate, go-for-broke gesture that it is. If Americans start thinking that Ukraine is our fight, we fall into a trap that proves Putin’s point.
Putin can’t tolerate the shape of the post-Soviet world. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of Russia’s former satellite states have gotten used to being self-governing. They enjoy more autonomy; their citizens have more civic and economic freedom. Do they want to end up under Russia’s thumb again? No.
Inside Russia, Putin struggles to turn back the clock politically, cracking down on pro-democracy NGOs and on opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny. Navalny enraged Putin by exposing how Putin’s United Russia party enriches itself at the people’s expense, famously branding it “a party of crooks and thieves.” Despite having all the resources of the Russian state at his disposal, Putin can’t tolerate Navalny’s inconvenient truths. For the past several years, Putin has gone to grotesque lengths to torment Navalny, going so far as to order the KGB to attempt Navalny’s assassination by putting a Soviet-era nerve agent in his underpants. At this point, Navalny’s death (the poor man remains imprisoned) would likely undermine Putin’s already doubtful popularity, just as the latter seeks re-election, in hopes of remaining president for 12 more years.
Russia is shrinking all over, thanks to Putin’s crooked and cowardly authoritarian rule. He chose to turn the nation toward oligarchy and repression, instead of being “a river to his people” and empowering them to become creative, healthy, and autonomous. Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and natural gas, a narrow base of support for the nation’s population of 144 million people, a population that’s shrinking dramatically and is estimated to have lost nearly a million people in the last year alone.
Russia’s global prestige derives mainly from its military might, but this comes at a high social cost. Its military comprises some 900,000 personnel. A war in Ukraine will have require significant manpower, imposing a heavy burden on Russian families. The population of Russian men aged 20 to 34 is estimated to have been just 14.25 million in 2020. Russia’s failure to pacify the Donbass region, echoing the Soviet Union’s failure to prevail in its 9-year war of agression in Afghanistan in the 1980s, testifies to how limited Russia’s concrete military successes have been. Some observers have noted that, when true crises call for a demonstration of leadership, Putin tends to disappear from view. His decision to send troops into Ukraine will further burden the Russian people and continue to hamstring the Russian economy.
All this needs to be kept in mind as American journalists compare Putin to Hitler and carelessly compare the current moment to WWII. Russia in 2022 is not Germany in 1939; Putin is not Hitler. Russian sentiment is not mobilized around the unwarranted aggression against Ukraine that Putin is bent on. Putin is using a very tired playbook from earlier times, largely because he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his once pre-eminent nation from sliding down to a secondary position in a changing world.
Image: from this source.