Apr 8, 2022 Anders Åslund
Ukraine’s recent successes in repelling Russian forces have highlighted the sclerosis of Russia’s supposedly formidable military. Having bet everything on war and conquest, Vladimir Putin’s regime is now politically bankrupt, presiding over a modern-day Sparta that cannot even win on the battlefield.
STOCKHOLM – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has been exposed as an extraordinary – and extraordinarily brutal – folly. So immense is his blunder that he may now have rendered Russia a failed state, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as one where the “political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control.”
That definition already appears to describe Russia’s current condition, and we can expect the war to continue to weaken the Kremlin’s authority. Putin is about to be beaten militarily by Ukraine, and that defeat will signal that Russia is not even a “regional power,” as former US President Barack Obama once dismissively described it. According to the Ukrainians, they have taken out 50 of the 120 Russian battalion tactical groups deployed to Ukraine; and Russia has only 170 such groups in total.
Ukraine owes its success in repelling Russia’s conventional military force not only to the heroism and skill of its soldiers, but also to the pervasive corruption of Putin’s regime. The Russian military has clearly been rotting from within for years.
This failure is all the more conspicuous because Putin has created a state that exists only for warfare – like ancient Sparta. The high points of its 22-year existence have been a five-day war against tiny Georgia in August 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. But the failed assault on Ukraine has put an end to the illusion. Far from the small, quick war that he intended, Putin is now facing something akin to the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, when Russia’s defeat unleashed a revolution at home.
Putin already cannot govern Russia in any conventional sense. Since 2003, he has systematically undermined all state institutions – eliminating democratic processes, checks and balances, and the rule of law – and installed an authoritarian kleptocracy in their place. He and a narrow elite of cronies have been stealing on an epic scale while doing nothing for Russia’s citizens. The entire fragile edifice now depends wholly on mounting repression.
Since 2012, Putin has shown no interest in Russia’s economic development. The economy has not grown since Western sanctions were imposed in 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea, and Russian standards of living have plummeted by 10%, leading to widespread misery. But Putin couldn’t care less, because he lives in a hermetically sealed chamber of lies and propaganda.
As historian Timothy Snyder has shown, Putin is a proto-fascist who has created a shallow nationalistic ideology to justify his continued hold on power. Putinism amounts to insisting that Russia is great and then trying to prove it by beating smaller powers with force. Mussolini’s fascism seems profound by comparison.
In 2007, Russia’s first post-communist prime minister (and my good friend), Yegor Gaidar, published Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, in which he warned Russians against the “post-imperial syndrome” that Putin has come to represent. That path would lead only to ruin. And so it has.
At a time when the Russian economy was recovering after the dismantling of centralized control, Gaidar feared that bitterness over the demise of the Soviet Union would lead to revanchist authoritarianism. He saw many parallels between Putin’s rule and the budding Nazi regime: “Few remember that the imperial state regalia and symbols were restored in Germany eight years after the empire’s collapse, in 1926, and in Russia after nine years, in 2000.”
Responding to Putin’s famous statement describing the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century,” Gaidar warned that, “Trying to make Russia an empire again means imperiling its existence. The risk of movement in that direction is high. That is why it is so important to understand the empires of previous centuries, why they collapsed, and the problems relating to their disintegration.”
The key to avoiding a revanchist, neo-fascist future, Gaidar argued, was to tell the truth about the past. “The unwillingness of the government of the Weimar Republic to tell the truth of the start of World War I was one of the main factors leading to its collapse,” Gaidar wrote. “The truth about the reasons for and mechanisms of the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been told in a systematic way.”
He then attacked Putin’s narrative: “The legend of a flourishing and mighty country destroyed by foreign enemies is a myth dangerous to the country’s future.” Gaidar always feared that Putin would do exactly what he is doing now in Ukraine. He was right, but he was right too soon, and his warnings went unheeded. He died unhappy in 2009, at the age of 53, and now Russia’s future has been cast into doubt by the madness he identified.
Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners.
To be sure, now that Putin has destroyed one-third of Russia’s military, his only remaining argument is that he has nuclear weapons. But the West has nukes, too, and it simply needs to make clear to Putin and to those who would be pulling the trigger that any use of nuclear weapons will bring about a full retaliatory response. Tough language worked with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it will work now, because it is the only language Putin understands. The West’s policy should be to help Russians make President Joe Biden’s wise words a reality: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”