Published at 08:10 on 3 March 2022
One of my theories is that Putin is doing this simply because he is a fascist. Like all fascist leaders, he wants to rebuild the nation he leads to some imagined past era or lost greatness, and he believes this is a task that he himself is uniquely qualified to perform.
He had a much more practical formula for rebuilding the Russian empire of old, and it was working: the play-it-slow approach. The world was letting him get away with whittling off chunks of neighbouring countries. This worked before, too: the Russian Empire of old was built incrementally, over centuries.
But there was a huge problem for Putin. He is 69 years old. Time was (and is) running out for him to complete what he sees as his historic mission. Circumstances left him no choice: either dramatically speed up the pace, or give up on a cherished goal. For the past 20 years, he has gotten basically everything he wanted, and he has increasingly become isolated from reality and surrounded by yes-men, so of course he chose the former option.
If true, this means two things.
- Danger. He’s an old man with nothing to lose. (Who knows, he might even have recently been diagnosed with a terminal condition.) In his mind he has to complete his historic mission. He will risk a nuclear holocaust to do it. It will mean failure for him if it happens, but this would be no worse in his mind than dying without a nuclear holocaust and without having rebuilt a Russian empire. Either way, he will be dead and will have failed in his historic mission.
- He won’t take any offramps. Again, only one thing is acceptable to him and he is running out of time to accomplish it. Offering Putin offramps is likely to be pointless.
Instead, focus on offering Russia offramps, not Putin. Do things that encourage Putin’s overthrow. Attacking the Russian economy and in particular the foreign assets of the oligarch class is one such thing.
Putin’s claim to fame, the source of his popularity, is that he may be a corrupt authoritarian but at least the economy has grown and been relatively stable under his rule. During the Tsarist era, Russia was a backward outpost of feudalism. The Soviet Era was characterized by significant economic progress, but also significant economic chaos (there were literal famines), followed by a long period of stagnation, shortages, and decline. The immediate post-Soviet era featured an economic crash. The Putin era has been the most prosperous time in all of Russian history.
It is often the case that people will put up with a dictator as long as the economy continues growing. Taking away this trump card of a dictator can lead to his downfall. It happened to Suharto in Indonesia. Make it happen to Putin in Russia.
Suppose all of the above is wrong. Suppose Putin isn’t that crazy. In that case, Putin will take the offramp we offer to Russia. He will realize the source of his power, and act to try to avoid the fate other dictators in his situation. He will declare Ukraine “de-Nazified” by a “successful” mission and withdraw his troops.
Either way, offering Russia (and not just Putin) an offramp is the way to move forward.