At first it was almost a dare. Then it was a threat. And then the hammer of Russian military power came down on what Vladimir Putin apparently believed would be a shell-shocked Ukrainian leadership and populace, ready and willing to cut and run or surrender.
Instead, an inspired, heroic response from embattled president Volodymyr Zelensky and a fast-growing number of freshly armed everyday citizens has created a very different type of conflict. It took days for the Russians to capture a single Ukrainian city, and ordinary citizens, far from trembling in fear, are subduing the Russian advance in hand-to-hand fighting in the streets, and even openly mocking Russian soldiers. “The Russians are in shock at the fierce resistance they encountered,” tweeted Riho Terras, former commander of defense forces in Estonia and member of the European Parliament, “Putin is furious, he thought the whole war would be easy and everything would be done in 1-4 days.” Terras concludes that the Russians “didn’t have a tactical plan” to meet Ukrainian resistance.
This begs what should be the question of the hour: has Vladimir Putin made a grave miscalculation, one which might change the course of history?
Based on credible reports indicating that Putin placed his nuclear forces on high alert Sunday, the answer would appear to be yes. Would the Russian president have undertaken a project of this magnitude if he believed the ultimate weapons – or the threat of them – would be necessary to achieve his objective? He is hardly a rational actor, as his unprovoked invasion of a peaceful neighbor to start a war of choice made clear. But the removal of Zelensky and installation of a puppet regime similar to the one now ensconced in Belarus, the nation just to the north of Ukraine, now looks far more difficult than he might have imagined. And that raises the unthinkable specter of nuclear conflict.
So, instead of asking whether Putin has strengthened his hand and expanded his power with this war, perhaps we should be asking if he has just tossed the first shovelfuls of dirt on his own grave. The strongest sanction regime in history has now been put in place by the U.S. and its western allies. Germany, the second greatest military power in Europe behind France, has announced a round of arms deliveries to Ukraine and a massive increase in defense spending. Millions across the world are protesting – tens of thousands in Berlin alone over the weekend.
At the same time, Putin had long asserted, or implied, that the long-suffering Russian people were as outraged by the crumbling of the Soviet empire as Germans were at the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and thus were behind his efforts to rebuild the empire. But instead, brave dissenters have defied Russia’s strict protest laws, with more than 5,000 arrests to date tamping down a wider rebellion. Rank and file Russians appear anything but enamored at the brute force exercised by their president against a peaceful neighbor which represents no military threat.
This evident disconnect between the president and his people is a result of Putin’s entirely insular view of the world, forged over the many years he spent in the comfortable communist hierarchical bubble. He was a KGB implant in Dresden, East Germany in the waning years of the Soviet’s seven-decade-long occupation of eastern Europe – and of course, the 14 republics beyond Russia annexed by the Soviet regime before their liberation in 1991. By all accounts, he was staggered by – and never could understand – the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he later expressed in his famous remark about the demise of the Soviet Union representing the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
At the same time, Putin’s bubble is enlarged by his legendary personal security forces, and a staggering net worth – reported by credible sources as more than $25 billion. In fact, as Joe Biden considers whether to sanction Putin himself, a Fortune magazine headline summed up the issue: “Mystery of Russian president’s net worth complicates Biden’s decision to sanction him.”
Has Putin placed himself in such insular self-protective custody that he is unable to understand the momentous consequences of his actions from the viewpoint of virtually the entire planet? Even opposed by a western alliance which could hardly be described as steel-spined, the level of aggression unleashed by the Russian strongman was bound to provoke a powerful response. But much like the failure of him and his fellow Soviets to understand the fall of the wall that divided freedom from tyranny, rest assured that the irrational, bubble-bound Vladimir Putin cannot, or will not, grasp the consequences of his actions until it is too late.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.
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