Putin, Russia and War
Robert A. Levine March 22, 2022
When the Iron Curtain finally came down in 1991, it appeared that a new dawn had arisen for mankind, with autocracy trending downward and democracy on an upswing. Certainly, China was still on an autocratic path, but its economic interdependence with America and the West offered some possibility of liberalization in the future. And with the Soviet Union having disintegrated, Russia under Boris Yeltsin provided hope for the establishment of democratic change. And all the Soviet vassal states were now free, with most of them opting for a liberal democratic form of government.
However, those who saw the future ascension of liberal democracy in the world were grievously mistaken. Democracy in Russia was a mirage, with deep corruption as state assets were sold off to private businesses and individuals in converting to a capitalist-style country. Wealthy oligarchs became engrained in the system of government with the majority of the populace neglected. Yeltsin turned out to be an incompetent drunkard who was unable grasp the power inherent in his position and what he could do to stabilize and improve governing. One of his advisors was Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer. Finally, in 2000, Yeltsin surrendered his position and handed the reins of government to Putin who was approved by the Duma (Russian Parliament).
From the moment Putin assumed the presidency of Russia, its flight from democracy accelerated with an autocratic, personalist ruler in change. Since Putin became Russia’s leader, he has tightened his rope around the neck of any dissenting forces, assassinating some opponents and imprisoning others. Freedom of speech and anti-government rhetoric has gradually been banned, with long prison terms for those who flout the law. With term limits in the Russian constitution, Putin allowed his associate Dimitri Medvedev to be president for one term in 2008, with Putin as prime minister. Putin was reelected president in 2012, being perceived as in charge of the Russian state for over two decades, for even while Medvedev was nominally president, Putin held the power. A referendum in 2021, allowed Russian presidents to remain in office for more than two consecutive terms, which means Putin will likely be Russia’s leader until he dies or is deposed, the latter very unlikely.
Putin sees himself as someone in a long line of strong Russian leaders going back to Czarist times and including Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin and himself. He has said that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century and he is trying to reverse its effects through military action. In 1994, Russian troops invaded Chechnya, a breakaway republic, to return it to Russian control. In 20 months of war, an estimated 100,000 Chechnyans were killed. Yeltsin was nominally in charge then and Putin’s role is unclear. However, the second Chechnyan War occurred under Putin from 1999 to 2009, with Islamists calling it a holy war. Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya was leveled and the war waxed and waned for a decade, with tens of thousands or more of Chechnyan civilians killed as well as numerous soldiers on both sides.
Georgia was next for Putin in 2008, with a short destructive war and seizure of the regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia, claiming Georgian genocide against the two republics. Disinformation from Russia was rampant with statements that the Russians were peacekeepers who had come to save Russian citizens. Putin also launched cyberattacks and blamed Georgia for starting the war.
In 2014, he grabbed Crimea from Ukraine and sent Russian troops into Donetask and Luhansk, to fight the Ukrainians, often disguising his military fighters as volunteers or local soldiers. Putin claimed he was protecting ethnic Russians and his troops were peacekeepers.
Then in 2015, after supplying the Syrian government with weapons since 2011, he had Russian forces enter the conflict on the side of the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. The Russian Air Force and missiles pounded the opponents of al Assad as well as civilian populations, hospitals and medical facilities. In addition, either the Russians or Syrian forces or both attacked civilians and opposing fighters with chemical weapons. Will Putin follow this formula in Ukraine?
The recent invasion of Ukraine which Putin calls a special military operation employed the same pattern of lies and destructive tactics he has used elsewhere. However, Putin did not expect to meet such fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops. Unable to capture any cities thus far except Kherson, Russian troops have targeted civilians, destroying residential buildings and non-military structures to try and break the will of the Ukrainian population. He talks of de-nazification of the country when a Jew is the president and seems not to care how many of his own troops and Ukrainian civilians are killed.
The question that must be asked is what will Putin do if his troops continue to be stalemated by the Ukrainians. Will he turn to chemical or biological weapons, or even consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield or against Ukrainian cities? Here is a man dedicated to restoring Russia’s empire, an imperialist who considers himself a great leader. Can he handle the thought of losing in Ukraine without resorting to even more horrific tactics? And how will he deal with nations in the West who support Ukraine with weapons and financial sanctions? It is hard to read the mind of a paranoid narcissist.
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