Putin’s Gathering Nightmare
It is never easy to be laughed at. How much harder it must be when almost the entire world is jeering.
Last week at a meeting of the G20 nations (which account for “more than 85% of the global GDP, over 75% of the global trade, and about two-thirds of the world population”), the attendees erupted in derisive laughter when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed “the war, which we are trying to stop, was launched against us using the Ukrainian people.”
This is only the latest humiliation faced by Vladimir Putin and the sycophants, delusional liars, and ultra-nationalists surrounding and enabling him as he seeks to destroy a peaceful neighbor.
Putin’s war has been a colossal disaster for the Kremlin. The non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report last month which estimates the total number of Russian soldiers killed or missing-in-action at between 60,000-70,000. This could well be a low number; the Ukraine military’s General Staff claims that its forces have “liquidated” more than 150,000 personnel of the Russian army as of March 2, 2023. These numbers do not include the scores of thousands of wounded soldiers.
The economic pain to Russia is also growing. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the first two months of this year, “oil and gas revenues fell by 46% … compared with the same period last year.” Similarly, government expenses have risen by more than 50% since February 2022. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, an “oligarch” who captured much of his country’s aluminum market during the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union, is warning that as of 2024, “There will be no money … we need foreign investors.” This appears less than likely, since “Western countries have announced more than 11,300 sanctions since the February 2022 invasion and frozen some $300 billion of Russia’s foreign reserves.”
When oligarchs like Deripaska, who are central to Putin’s hold on power, go public with their dismay, it is reasonable to wonder if Putin’s authoritarianism is beginning to ebb.
It is in light of these things that Vladimir Putin appears to be descending into an almost hallucinogenic state. In January, he again accused Ukraine of “crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing and punitive actions organized by neo-Nazis.” According to Putin, “It is against that evil that our soldiers are bravely fighting.” A couple of weeks ago, Putin “spent some two hours unloading a barrage of lies, grievances, and bizarre historical revisions in his attempt to justify the bloodletting he began a year ago.”
As noted by journalist Tom Nichols, the Russian leader is “frantic and lashing out in defeat.” Putin even claimed that “Western elites” want to destroy Russia and said he would suspend Russia’s participation in nuclear weapons limitation efforts.
Paranoid, enraged, shocked: These are the best terms to describe a dictator who thought an assault on a weaker power would be like the Nazi march in Poland in 1939. He was not counting on American aid to an ally which has proven — not just resilient and courageous — but militarily wily and devastatingly effective.
Why the invasion in the first place? As Robert Person, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy, and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul have written, Putin knows that NATO imposes no threat to Russian sovereignty. Instead, he is “threatened by a flourishing democracy in Ukraine. He cannot tolerate a successful and democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That would undermine the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocratic state leadership.”
Putin also has a deep-seated resentment over the West’s triumph in the Cold War. “Above all,” he said in 2005, “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century.” Putin is not a patriot; he loves his country but holds it as the embodiment of a kind of mystical superiority. That it had to surrender its control of the nations it had conquered and for generations controlled and used is, to Putin, an affront to his conception of reality: that the Russian state is a living entity, one that merits not just loyalty but near-worship.
There is no good endgame here. Putin biographer Philip Short argues that the “likeliest outcome” is “an armistice or an informal line of separation — under which Russia will hold enough occupied Ukrainian territory for Putin to claim a modicum of success, while the U.S. will be able to argue that its support was decisive in enabling Ukraine to resist Russia’s attempts at subjugation.” Similarly, Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan suggests that “the prospect of [a] stalemate could open the door to a diplomatic settlement, and Ukraine and its NATO supporters should be ready to capitalize on that opportunity.”
Whatever happens, the fighting will eventually conclude and Putin’s dream of Ukraine as a client-state of a revitalized Russia will end in the nightmare it has become. And instead of laughter, this should bring only tears.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.