The trouble is, he has no particular gifts as an actor, and the more stone-faced he becomes, the more observers are inclined to associate his inner animus with external clues. Take for example the recent spate of Russian business and military figures who have mysteriously fallen to their deaths from hotel windows, or those who, having crossed him in some way, have ended up imprisoned for decades on obscure charges or poisoned by various exotic means. The most recent evidence of this sort of behavior may be seen in his decision, in February of this year, to launch a “special military operation” in Ukraine, where his penchant for killing has come out into the open, even if its causes remain obscure.
Nevertheless, with the Eurasian steppe frozen solid, conditions were right for the rapid advance of his formidable tank battalions in what he no doubt imagined would be a quick and easy conquest of Ukrainian territory. In order to win the support of the Russian people, he began referring to the Ukrainian freedom fighters who resisted the invasion as Nazis, invoking the memory of Russia’s victory over Germany in World War II. A more specious comparison could scarcely be imagined, however, and if anyone’s behavior mirrored that of the Nazis, it was Putin’s own Goebbels-like reliance on propaganda.
Had he cared to think about it, a much more relevant historical analogy might have occured to him from World War I, when Tsarist Russia faced off against Germany under many of the same assumptions that Putin entertained in his invasion of Ukraine, including a firm belief in the superior might of the Russian Empire over a beleaguered foe. As a member of the Allied Powers, Russia had the support of France and Great Britain on the Western Front, forcing the Germans to fight in two directions at once. Despite this advantage, however, the Russians suffered a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Tannenberg (August, 1914) in which their numerical superiority was effectively negated by superior German mobility and firepower. Worse yet, their defeat incited a deeply disaffected Russian population to rise up against the manifest incompetence of the ruling regime.
In the ensuing Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II was taken captive by the revolutionaries and spirited away to the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg. Here, in the dark of night, he and his wife and five children were lined up against a basement wall and summarily gunned down by an ad hoc firing squad. Such was the fate of an all-powerful Russian leader who failed at war, a fate Putin would have done well to consider before invading Ukraine.
Instead, he sent his tanks forward only to be destroyed in their hundreds by shoulder-fired Javelin missiles. Most recently, having clearly lost the initiative, he has been forced to withdraw his troops south of the Dnieper River, and the coming winter, far from restoring a tactical advantage, threatens to magnify many times over the logistical problems associated with mounting a counter-offensive against the heroic Ukrainians.
Putin’s response has been to call for hundreds of thousands of new recruits in a move that only promises to create conditions similar to those that emerged in the aftermath of Tannenberg. With their economy in free-fall as a result of the war, the Russian people now face the loss of additional tens of thousands of dead and wounded with no clear path to victory. Once again, a single, deeply-compromised leader is all that lies between them and a chance to restore some semblance of normality, and signs of domestic unrest are mounting with every passing day.
Then too, it can hardly be comforting for Putin to discover that the political turmoil he helped create in the United States during the election of 2016 has turned a corner in the recent midterms. A year ago, prior to his invasion of Ukraine, he could look back with some satisfaction at the ongoing agitation caused by his “useful idiot,” Donald Trump, who publicly befriended him in 2018 at a farcical summit in Helsinki. But those days are over, and both men, it seems, are now destined to share similarly ignominious fates.
Meanwhile, Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine continues to confirm his reputation as a murderous thug masquerading as a world leader. A thin disguise of imperturbability can no longer hide his long-simmering anger at Russia’s steady decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. At this point, he stands all but alone against the march of history, which is about to trample him in its progress.
The lessons to be drawn from all of this are clear and unequivocal: that autocratic rulers, no matter how rich, high-born or practiced in the art of mass deception, are answerable to the will of the people every bit as much today as they have been in the past; that it is the obligation of citizens of modern societies to compel their leaders to serve the interests of the many rather than the few; and that no leader should be allowed to remain in office through force or the threat of force.