What was supposed to take four days has turned into four weeks, and still Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine marches on. As a campaign designed for shock and awe descends into a quagmire – the parade of Russian military might stalled in northern Ukraine even as it continues a plodding advance in the south – Mr. Putin has undoubtedly crossed something of a Rubicon, his point of no return, with his own survival now at issue.
But will another provocative statement by the US president, delivered then swiftly corrected, seeming to demand a regime change in Moscow, simplify or complicate Putin’s fate? After labeling the Russian strongman a “butcher” and a “war criminal” in recent days, Joe Biden delivered a shot heard ‘round the world in a speech over the weekend in Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Whether that remarkably incendiary statement was scripted, or on-the-fly is unclear but the White House cleanup crew, likely billing for overtime in recent days, quickly tried to claim Biden did not mean what he so clearly said, trying to tamp down the effect of a statement which could provoke World War III.
Is it wise to taunt a wounded and cornered animal, or to just go about the business of putting him out of his misery? Is it helpful to needlessly provoke a tyrant armed to the teeth with nukes who has proven willing to target and bomb the hell out of helpless civilians as he explicitly threatens the use of weapons of mass destruction? And if, on the other hand, there are actual plans in the works to take Putin out, why would the leader of the free world telegraph it?
It now appears virtually inconceivable that the Russian tyrant can any longer maintain even minimal standing in the global community, meaning the ability of his country to do business with the rest of the world – vital to Mother Russia given its overwhelming dependence on selling oil on the international market – will be crippled. In refusing the opportunity to reverse course on his unprovoked, ill-conceived – and failed – invasion of a peaceful neighbor, he has now turned his nation once more into a worldwide pariah, sure to be sanctioned into obscurity, if not beaten into submission, unless and until Putin is removed from power and replaced with someone at least posturing as a peace-loving democrat.
Chances of Victory Fading
Putin’s chances of success in his ultimate mission of overthrowing the Zelensky government in favor of a puppet regime taking orders directly from Moscow are diminishing by the day, unless the Russian leader resorts to chemical or nuclear weapons, the use of which would swiftly boomerang on him and assure the abrupt expiration of his regime. He still possesses the live option of settling for the territories he conquered along the Russian border in the early days of the incursion, establishing “the land bridge” he is seeking along Ukraine’s southern corridor, proclaiming that Ukraine has been successfully de-Nazified and disarmed, declaring victory and going home. But even if he opts to bail out, the damage he has wrought is now substantial enough to assure his demise far sooner than he might have imagined.
His fate may well rest in the hands of the billionaire oligarchs who prop up his regime, and who are now suffering all manner of indignities as a result of his war, including the seizure of their yachts, planes, homes, cars, and cash. How long will they stand for it? Then there are the people, everyday Russians who are subject to Putin’s propaganda about the war, but who also are witness to thousands of their loved ones returning home in body bags – if they even return at all. Remember that Russians have twice revolted against the existing order in just the last century. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 forced Czar Nicholas to abdicate, and the Soviet government which replaced it dissolved under its own leaden weight in 1991 – making a third revolution an open possibility.
Remember also what a shock this war has been to a world just now recovering from a deadly pandemic that killed millions across the planet. It has been 60 years, since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, that the active threat of nuclear weapons has been invoked, and almost 80 years since the world witnessed a kinetic war of this magnitude. The entire world, except for a small number of officially neutral countries, is united against the Russian president, making his odds of survival smaller with each passing day.
Students of history will find it hard to ignore the parallels between Putin and the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte – beyond their common slightness of stature which supposedly and famously provoked the French emperor to prove his greatness. Napoleon had fought ferociously for 23 years to expand the French empire until, after his escape from exile in 1815, his growing visions of grandeur brought him to Waterloo – and his demise. In the same exact time frame – 23 years – since rising to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin has used brute force to re-establish the Soviet empire of days gone by. He steamrolled smaller territories; Chechnya, then Georgia, then Crimea. But in expanding his horizons to the far less conquerable Ukraine, has Putin finally met his Waterloo?
~ Read more from Tim Donner.