Vladimir Putin was generally welcomed in the West as the president who would restore order and pursue reform when he replaced a tired and discredited Yeltsin in 2000. Few then sensed that he might instead lead the Russian people towards the tragedy that now hangs over them.
The Russian president’s determined pursuit of two interlocking political strands has betrayed his constitutional duties and his people’s interests: first, by the centralization of power into his hands and second by his obsession with what he sees as the right of Russia under his rule by threat and violence to restore it as a power treated as one parallel to that of the United States in the way it was during the Cold War.
Both purposes have been there from the beginning of Putin’s election in 2000 with their damaging consequences becoming still more evident in recent years. Putin has by now become a leader effectively beyond available restraint and impervious to disinterested advice.
Those who thought differently from Putin were threatened, punished into silence or driven to pre-emptive exile even before 24 February. All the more so now. But such personal power makes for pitfalls that the leader will insist shall be dug still deeper, from fear that his judgement or willpower might otherwise seem weak.
Putin and his still tighter regime have by now suffocated Russia. The effective destruction of the country’s autonomous institutions of government has given Putin and his committed loyalists immediate powers of action but denied them the weight of considered argument which might otherwise have made their decisions adequately informed, let alone arrived at in answer to public debate or sentiment.
Rule by extra legal ‘understandings’ may look more convenient in the Kremlin than rule by laws which bind both governments and subjects. But it also feeds the power and spread of quasi-legitimate organs of rule.
Flexible rules over property rights coupled with a commitment to a prevailing preference for state-backed natural resource enterprises will never make future innovative investment tempting. The regime’s dependence on propaganda which includes obvious lies will not make for lasting public obedience, whatever the penalties laid on those who reject them.
Only concrete and solid achievements that might underpin public hopes for the future would point that way. Even before 24 February, there were growing symptoms of frailty, emptiness, and potential for chaos that affected the confidence of the regime and Russia’s public as to its future. Again, the more so now.
Putin’s antidotes developed by further constitutional disintegration from January 2020 to the present day were meant to counter the prospect of the drab future for his country that his reign of 20 years had fostered. But somehow legitimating the possibility of his staying in office for the foreseeable future had to mean forcing Russia’s restive people into continuing obedience to the limited, narrowing, and ageing group at its head.
The price of the destructive wave of repression has been further to undermine what suppositions Russia’s citizens may once have had of what their future might be – with Putin or after him. A further price has been to increase the number of its citizens who feel still more licensed by such uncertainty to violence and corruption.
Russia as a great power?
Putin’s regime had managed – in the eyes of Russia’s people and much of the world – to reaffirm its international weight by its rearmament and deployment in different theatres of significantly strengthened armed forces. That fitted persuasively into the Kremlin’s enduring messages of past injustices and the existence of a present threat from the West to Russia. If the polls speak the truth, then most Russians continue to believe that, by fighting in Ukraine, they are protecting ‘Mother Russia’. NATO’s support for Kyiv has been called on as proof of that conviction.
The Kremlin however has a great deal to hide that will one day come to light, notably the startling inadequacy of the Russian armed forces, the scale of their losses, and Putin’s responsibility for it all. Those directing and operating the system Putin has nurtured over the years and who have remained obedient to its demands, or profited from them, will rest accountable.
What has been happening in Ukraine is a demonstration of Russia’s absence of a promising future while a ‘putinist’ regime may remain. Russian people as a whole will in some way need to reflect on the delusions that have led their country into its failure once more to mature an accountable and effective form of government. Without building that, Russia will not become both inventive propersous and stable as others in Europe have managed to do. Wrecking Ukraine and killing its people is no path to glory and respect.
‘Winning’ in Ukraine as a Great Power is out of Russia’s reach. The incompetence of the Russian armed forces and their leadership by Putin, as well as the commitment shown by Ukraine and its allies, make a complete victory improbable. But even if that is over-optimistic and the present fighting in Donbas leads to a Russian ‘triumph’, Putin’s rash and ill-considered adventure will prove a lasting defeat.
Ukrainians can never forget or forgive what Russia has already done, let alone work with Putin’s agents as part of a new and larger Russia governed as Russia today is governed. Nor can Putin’s Russia pay for Ukraine’s restoration from the ruin it has visited on it. Ukraine’s neighbours, including those seen by Moscow as part of Russia’s security zone, will not have been blind to what has already happened in Ukraine or ignorant of the brutality and weaknesses of Russia’s armed forces.
For Russia’s people to take over
Russia’s tragedy is that Putin and his entourage will not, and cannot, change their rule or the policies that have grown out of it. The regime’s reaction to what has been a disaster created by itself will very likely be to double down domestically and, in the event of defeat, to look for the chance to resume its international ambitions as the opportunity may redevelop, particularly with regard to Ukraine. A question is how the Russian public will come to understand what their rulers have done to them and their country.