Faced with a declining and aging population, enormous economic punishment, a failed military, and a host of internal challenges, Putin has only hastened the Russian “Century of Humiliation.”
When I think of Vladimir Putin, I think of a particular exchange of words in the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones. Tywin Lannister—the most powerful man in the fictional continent of Westeros—is accused by his daughter, Cersei, of not trusting her more due to sexism. Tywin has a good reply: “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman; I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.” This aptly applies to Vladimir Putin, who—much like Cersei—has his council full of sycophants and “yes men.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was in part encouraged by the “Horseshoe Theory” crew in the West—in addition to “liberal democratic” politicians. But he is also a poor historian, which has doomed his country to what will probably amount to at least two centuries of ruin and failure.
One of the biggest mistakes modern analysts make is believing that Putin wants to “resurrect the Soviet Empire.” He does not. Putin loathes communism and has regularly blamed communist leaders for the humiliation and ruin of Russia. He and his closest allies have gotten rich off of crony capitalism. Indeed, Putin blamed Lenin and other Soviet leaders for Ukraine gaining autonomy. Putin sees himself as the heir to the Russian Monarchy. He longs for the days of the Russian Empire, roughly 110 years ago. As usual, the officials in the White House, Foggy Bottom, Brussels, and elsewhere have ignored pre-World War II history—and thus failed to read Putin’s motives.
The Kremlin has insisted that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and therefore Ukraine doesn’t have the right to be an independent state. His statements that Ukraine is led by drug-addicted neo-Nazis—when Kyiv is governed by a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister—are ludicrous. And so far, thousands of Russian protestors and troops have also believed this, setting down their arms and surrendering or being arrested for protesting this foolish war.
So why did Putin invade? How was this “genius” who was described by Western media (and not just by former President Trump) as a “master strategist” able to miscalculate so much in this war? It is simple. For one, he is an amateur historian. Secondly, he has surrounded himself by “yes men” and sycophants who are too terrified to give him the real facts. Just look at how Putin humiliated his own spy chief when he dared to question him. And finally, Putin has forgotten that while Russia’s governments have been able to suppress dissent, the Russian people have a history of bloodily “dealing with” leaders who do not provide for them, or who outlive their usefulness for the good of the nation.
Putin’s economy and demographics were already suffering heavily. Due to human rights abuses and its occupation of Crimea and Donbass, Russia was already dealing with a variety of sanctions that added to its existing economic regime of corruption, cronyism, and incompetence. The coronavirus pandemic has further decimated the Russian economy, as has a shrinking workforce. Russia has one of the world’s lowest birthrates and highest abortion rates. Its population faces rapid aging and a declining lifespan. Both the war and the pandemic have killed more than a million Russians, further endangering its political, economic, and military might. And the country has failed—to put it lightly—to attract new immigrants to offset this, given the emergence of extreme far-right nationalist movements that are unwelcoming to foreigners. By sending many of his youngest military members to a futile Ukrainian war, Putin is sacrificing yet even more of his shrinking workforce, military, and the Russian future as a whole. Not only is Putin sending waves of young Russians to die for nothing—he is singlehandedly destroying his country’s economy, international image, and military industrial complex.
The Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022 has led to enormous and unprecedented Western support for Kyiv on a scale perhaps previously unimaginable. Indeed, the West has long been seen as impotent and Chamberlainian in its appeasement of tyranny since the 2000s. Yet Germany boosting its defense spending as well as key Western allies sending huge shipments of military aid to Ukraine speaks volumes to the fact that the West, perhaps finally, has woken up. The advanced Western weaponry has so far destroyed columns of the newest Russian tanks and armored vehicles. What’s more, these defenses have laid waste to Russian aircraft and knocked Russian missiles and rockets out of the air. Russia has taken enormous casualties in part because its long-respected military modernization campaign has been exposed as impotent. While the Western media and “analysts” have long trembled before Russia’s militarization campaign of the last two decades, they shouldn’t have. Russia’s 2008 Georgian invasion might have resulted in victory in the end, but it also displayed that Russia had severe logistical and technological setbacks. This is why Moscow has used proxies and mercenaries in its wars in Libya and Syria ever since, let alone in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, Donbass, and Transnistria.
Russian arms have proven incompetent in Syria in defending against Israeli drones and jets, and Russian-made military equipment in Armenia was easily wiped out by Israeli and Turkish military equipment. Making these points isn’t to brag—it is to point out that Russia’s military won’t be able to make the same sales to other countries that it once would. Moscow has lost an important source of revenue in a time of devastating sanctions because its military equipment has proven impotent. Even worse for Putin is that many of its former clients will likely purchase weapons from NATO and Israeli sources—Putin’s rivals—instead, due to their better quality on the battlefield. Russia has spent money it simply doesn’t have on a failing war, all the while racking up sanctions.
All of this has led to a restive and rebellious Russian population internally, which could lead to Putin holding back some forces from the invasion to quash protests and riots. Putin may also be forced to call back forces from Armenia, Libya, and Syria and bring them home or to Ukraine. This would effectively surrender to Egyptian-Gulf-French-Israeli-Greek interests in Libya, and to Israeli-Turkish-Western designs on Syria. By being bogged down in Ukraine, Russia could also see its allies in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia being invaded and defeated by Moldovan and Georgian military forces, which would undoubtedly receive Western support. Putin would be further diplomatically isolated and humiliated.
The Chinese government has also not come to Putin’s aid as expected. They have called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, called for an “end to Cold War mentality,” and asked for Ukraine’s sovereignty to be respected. No doubt Beijing—already seeing an aging population and low birth rate—doesn’t want to suffer the economic penalties that being affiliated with Russia entails. Furthermore, Beijing is already diplomatically isolated due to the Xinjiang issue, Hong Kong crackdowns, and violations of Taiwanese airspace. The coronavirus pandemic and human rights violations in general have already cast China in a poor light and led to businesses fleeing back home, or to rival countries such as India and Vietnam. Having seen the West’s furious and quick response to the Ukraine invasion, China is no doubt second-guessing military action in Taiwan. Furthermore, the Chinese may have blamed NATO for Ukraine, but they have an interest in a weakened Russia. China has a history of border clashes with imperialist Russia and sees a revamped Russia as a threat to its desired future as a superpower. A distracted, impoverished, and militarily destitute Russia focused on its western border serves its interests. China won’t come to Russia’s rescue, either. Its own economy is slowing, and it will be better placed to bargain down the price of Russian gas and oil. At best, this will help Russia cover the costs of the war itself, but not offset the prices of Western sanctions. Speculation that China and Russia can overcome SWIFT are hypothetical and not totally proven, similar to Europe’s mechanism to bypass U.S. sanctions on Tehran, which quickly failed. Even if it could succeed, it would take many years to create, by which time the damage would already be done.
In short, Putin has done more than NATO, terrorism, the EU, or the U.S. to destroy his country’s future as a great power—the very thing he wished to restore. His population is restive and largely disagrees with the war—they will not stand for a nuclear war, for destructive sanctions, injured family members coming home from Kyiv, or for their sons returning in body bags. The oligarchs will not be content to see their wealth waste away just for one little man’s misguided political career. His country has already seen enough economic and human loss through the pandemic and proxy wars. Now he is wasting away what little is left of his economy through an expensive war and sanctions. Putin also is sending the few generations of young Russians to die in Ukraine. His country is being delegitimized and isolated from international cultural competitions and events, which Russian youth and oligarchs enjoy. Vladimir Putin has indeed brought about a Soviet-era system to his country—one of poverty, instability, isolation, and bread lines. He has also—like the Japanese Empire 80 years ago—awakened a Sleeping Giant.