The Ukraine situation, fifth observation
It was a colossal bet. Really, as wagers go, it was the bet of a lifetime. The stakes were high: an empire and a legacy or disgrace. Vladimir Putin had apparently been working up to this gamble for the better part of 40 years. If I was staking my career and my legacy — everything I’d worked for in my adult life — on anything less than an odds-on favorite, I’d spend decades preparing, too.
The problem is Putin didn’t hedge. Like Ozymandias, he dared those who would oppose him to look on his works and despair.
For now, Putin retains his office. But I am convinced his days are numbered — it’s fitting that today is the 105th anniversary of the fall of the last tsar. Even if I’m wrong, what Putin has lost already is staggering.
Russia spent decades working to attain a measure of respect in the eyes of the world, particularly the West. Post perestroika, Russia realized strength could be measured in terms other than martial. It soon turned out the stoic communists weren’t immune from neighbor-envy after all as ordinary Russians raced to keep up with the Joneses. The Motherland, itself, felt it needed the luxury car, nice clothes, membership in the country club, all the perks enjoyed in Europe and North America. International respectability lay in economic leverage, most-favored nation trading status, membership in respectable organizations like the Council of Europe.
Russians took to their Big Macs, iPhones, Levis and Pepsi-Cola like they’d never been without. Longtime managers of state-run factories were allowed to privatize their enterprises, giving birth to the infamous Russian oligarchy, often marked by gaudy excess.
Although a level of government oversight remained in place that Americans would find oppressive, the new Russia was never locked down as tight as China. Younger Russians got comfortable surfing the internet, engaging in social media, exploring Europe. This was problematic when Putin clamped down at the onset of his invasion, only too late realizing a good portion of the younger population was aware of events in Ukraine at odds with the government’s version. Putin controlled the television news but he seemed to forget about pervasive social media.
The most powerful monarch remains enthroned only at the pleasure of his people. If the emperor loses favor with his subjects, only a loyal army willing to attack its own people will let his majesty keep his crown.
In the Western mind, we know the people can overthrow the king and we don’t see why the Russians don’t just rise up and oust Putin. But the Russian mind doesn’t see the issue through a Western lens. Russians born in the 1970s and earlier were raised under the Soviet fugue, a totalitarian all-or-nothing system that had the proletariat cowed and obedient, convinced their government wouldn’t hesitate to banish them to the Lubyanka, Siberian hard labor or worse. Before perestroika and glasnost, the militia, the secret police and the Red Army loomed, all-powerful and terrifying. The people would never act en masse against their government.
The other half of the Soviet equation was one we find familiar: the threat of nuclear war. When you live under the atomic cloud, you’re keenly aware of your enemies. Russians could imagine these enemies — the U.S. or NATO — removing their government. But from 100 years of post-revolution mandatory good behavior, Russians do not rise up against their leaders.
The megalomaniacal whims of one man have brought down unspeakable suffering and destruction on Ukraine. When Russian armed forces demonstrated a lackluster willingness and ability to invade this neighboring country, an embarrassed Putin shifted the plan from a blitzkrieg that badly overestimated the army’s readiness, to incessant and widespread artillery attacks, targeting civilian areas. Too late, Putin knows he can’t win this war he started — but he can cause so much destruction and death that he hopes Ukraine will say enough.
The Russian people have it in their power to stop this travesty by rising up in massive numbers, condemning the evil being committed in their name.
The entire world knew what kind of man they had in Putin but Russia had come so far from its grim and grimy Soviet days, the world relaxed and began to welcome the New Russia as one of its own. Putin was treated like a statesman, given the respectful deference shown the head of state of a major player.
In just a week, Putin has lost everything he had except his office. He has set his country back decades and put it on the path to a catastrophic recession or worse. Russia will default on its debt, making the 1998 “Russian Flu” crisis look like a little sneeze. Russia’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status is being revoked. The country is being labeled a terrorist state and Putin a war criminal.
Putin lost his gamble.
Like Ozymandias, Putin does not yet understand the transitory nature of hubris.
“…round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Photograph © 2022 Don Fontijn via Unsplash