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Putin, Ukraine, and the Preservation of Power


Vladimir Putin presents himself to his citizens and to the world as the standard-bearer of a modern counter-enlightenment. He has declared liberal democracy “obsolete,” a political arrangement that has “outlived its purpose.” One of his historical role models is said to be Alexander III, a reactionary tsar in the Romanov dynasty who instituted draconian restrictions on the press, sought to “Russify” his multi-ethnic empire, and mobilized against internal and external threats. Four years ago, Putin expressed his deep admiration for the tsar while visiting the Crimean Peninsula, a substantial and distinctly unthreatening parcel of Ukraine that Russia invaded in 2014 and has occupied ever since.

Illustration by João Fazenda

Once more, Putin is poised to invade Ukraine. His weapons include military hardware, malware, and propaganda. The last time he invaded, he did so with utmost stealth, employing the “little green men” of the special forces as temporary cover in the court of public opinion while seizing Simferopol, Yalta, and Sevastopol. Now he wants the West, distracted and in disarray, to know that Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, in the industrial east, and even Kyiv, the capital, are potentially in his sights.

For weeks, Putin’s deputies and propaganda outlets have delivered contradictory pronouncements, at once denying any intention to invade and amplifying his urge to roll back what he sees as the galling encroachments of the West since the end of the Cold War. “NATO Is a Cancer: Shall We Cure It?” was the headline last week in one pro-Kremlin newspaper, Argumenti i Fakty. In Literaturnaya Gazeta, Konstantin Sivkov, a military analyst, said, “Russia must take unconventional steps. Harsh ones. If we don’t, our ‘partners’ might think they can wipe their feet on Russia.” He wondered about the possible need to create warheads that could “strike Yellowstone Park” or set off a “deadly tsunami with waves hundreds of metres high that would sweep away everything in their path.”

Few leaders have leveraged inscrutability the way Putin has. His propagandists, kleptocratic allies, and secret services never know precisely what he will do next. But his general imperative is obvious: the preservation of power. As a trained K.G.B. officer, Putin senses threats in countless corners, and he is schooled in the history of challenges to Kremlin authority. He knows, for instance, that at around noon on August 25, 1968, four days after the Soviet Army moved into Czechoslovakia to crush the reformist movement known as the Prague Spring, eight Moscow intellectuals went to Red Square and briefly hoisted signs with such slogans as “For Your Freedom and Ours!” The poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya reached into a baby carriage and pulled out a Czech flag. This “anti-Soviet outburst,” as a secret report to the Communist Party Central Committee described it, lasted only as long as it took for K.G.B. guards to set upon the demonstrators, beat them, and arrest them.

But that fleeting protest had profound consequences. Vadim Delaunay, one of the Red Square demonstrators, said in court that his “five minutes of freedom” had been worth the thrashing and the prison sentence that was sure to come. He could not have known just how right he was. There were many factors that led Mikhail Gorbachev to propose the reforms known as glasnost and perestroika: the expense of empire, a shrivelling domestic economy, intellectual and scientific isolation, and the public’s indifference to Communist ideology. The dissident movement that took the Red Square demonstrators as an inspiration, though never large in numbers, was a powerful generator of free thought and possibility. By the late nineteen-eighties, even Gorbachev, as the General Secretary of the Communist Party, paid uneasy tribute to the movement’s most eminent leader, Andrei Sakharov.

Over and over, Putin has learned a singular lesson: crowds rarely come to the public square demanding more autocracy. At the May Day parade in 1990, citizen groups marched in front of the Communist Party leadership assembled atop Lenin’s tomb and aired their grievances with slogans and signs: “Down with the Politburo! Resign!” “Down with the Empire and Red Fascism!” A year and a half later, the Soviet Union dissolved—an event that Putin has declared the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Since then, he has regarded opposition demonstrations—such as those in Moscow, on Bolotnaya Square, in 2011, or in various states within the former Soviet “sphere of influence,” including Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan––as an intimation of mortality. And so, increasingly, he has become the philosopher and enforcer of authoritarian rule.

Enforcement comes with episodes of brutal intolerance. In August, 2020, Putin’s security services used the nerve agent Novichok to poison Alexey Navalny, the regime’s most prominent and impudent opponent. When Navalny survived, the authorities arrested him and, after a trial worthy of Kafka, locked him away in a prison camp near the city of Vladimir. Elections have been rendered a farce, courts a sham, parliament a plaything of the President. Various politicians, activists, and journalists deemed inconvenient to the regime have been murdered, assaulted, imprisoned, or forced into exile—not en masse, as in the days of Stalin, but often enough so that the limits of public life are made chillingly plain. The authorities have harassed human-rights organizations and liberal media outlets, such as Meduza and TV Rain, branding them “foreign agents.” Memorial, an organization devoted to the restoration of historical truth, has been ordered to close.

Putin is particularly expert at exploiting the vulnerabilities, hypocrisies, and mistakes of his opponents. He plays a weak hand to maximal tactical advantage, and, at the moment, his high cards are Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and the destabilization of democracy abroad, particularly in the United States. Donald Trump’s Presidency, the January 6th insurrection, and the retreat from Afghanistan were especially gratifying to him. So is the fact that the supposed beacon of what used to be called “the free world” has millions of citizens who say they believe that their current President was elevated through a rigged ballot and ought to be turned out by force. It is a great deal easier to engage in a propaganda war with an opponent that is divided, dispirited, and worried about civil strife.

Ukraine is a sovereign nation of more than forty million people. It has been independent of Moscow rule for three decades. The country suffers from its own domestic crises––corruption, political division––but younger Ukrainians have been born into a far less autocratic political culture than have their Russian counterparts. It is not a sure thing that Putin will invade Ukraine. What is certain is that any attempt to occupy that nation will provoke resistance and lead to bloody disaster. ♦



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