An Aging Vladimir Putin Hopes War Can Make a Sagging Empire Rise Again

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

There are few things more dangerous than the nostalgia of old men.

We see the consequences of their longing for time gone by wherever we look around the globe today. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro seems to yearn for a country more like that of his youth, when he was a freshly-minted artillery officer and a military junta ruled without the slightest concern for the will of the people. India’s 71-year-old prime minister Narendra Modi spent his youth as a member of a right wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization that drew its inspiration from the Italian Fascist Party and its imprint can be seen clearly as Modi has led the country throughout his tenure toward nationalism and away from democracy. Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party approved a resolution late last year that framed him as one of the country’s era-defining leaders alongside the two dominant leaders of his youth, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. From Erdogan in Turkey to Orban in Hungary to Trump in America, we have seen leaders seeking to turn a celebration of traditional values into a form of political Viagra.

Right now, the greatest danger the world faces from such a leader comes from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The 69-year-old Putin has long been seen as a man so insecure about his fading virility that he has engineered sometimes comical macho displays from ill-considered shots of him riding horseback shirtless through the Russian countryside to hockey games in which his side always wins thanks to a tsunami of goal-scoring by a Gretzky-like Vlad.

In some ways the most poignant of all of Putin’s efforts to turn back the clock would be his vain attempts to restore Russia’s place in the world to a status akin to that of the Soviet Union in which he was raised and for which he worked as KGB officer from 1975 until 1991, when he resigned following a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin has called the collapse of the USSR and its empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Putin’s New Rival: Stalin

In a speech in 2005, Putin described that as “a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” In the years since, he has weaponized his nostalgia into a near calamity for the planet. He has done so by returning the country more toward Soviet-style authoritarianism, crushing opponents in brutal ways of which Stalin might be proud. He has turned Russia into a geopolitical spoiler and maintained a military far beyond what the country could afford.

And he has systematically sought to reassert Russian control over lands and peoples it once oversaw. In 2008, Russian troops reclaimed a slice of Georgia. In 2014, Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea. His pretext was to respond to the will of ethnic Russians being maltreated by the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Fighting in Ukraine’s Donbas region has continued ever since. But today, with 100,000 Russian troops having been moved to Ukraine’s border, it seems that Putin’s desire to restore Russia’s former glory could not only lead to an escalation of that lingering conflict but to Europe’s largest land war since the end of World War II.

This week, U.S. officials warned that “Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine” with the purpose of creating a pretext for unleashing a full-scale invasion of Russia’s neighbor. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan commented, “We saw this playbook in 2014. They are preparing this playbook again.” U.S. intelligence estimates suggest that the invasion could commence in the next month.

The U.S. and NATO allies have been locked in intensive discussions to ensure they present an effective and coordinated response to the Russian threats. That response could include the provision of military equipment to Ukraine, forward deployment of NATO forces to other member states along the alliance’s Eastern frontier, and stringent economic and political sanctions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has led a generally well-coordinated chorus of NATO leaders warning the Russians not to invade, and assuring them that the consequences would be “severe” if they did.

Three rounds of negotiations this past week between the Russians, the US and Europeans have been unsuccessful in reducing tensions between Moscow, Ukraine and NATO. The Russians wanted the Western alliance to promise not to enlarge further around its borders. They asserted that former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker had promised long ago that we would not expand NATO into Eastern Europe. Baker himself has denied this and evidence suggests the Russians are twisting the truth of what really happened.But the truth has never been much valued by Putin (as his attraction to false-flag operations illustrates).

Fortunately and appropriately, the Biden foreign policy and national security team and our NATO allies have been absolutely clear that there would be no capitulation to Russian demands about the size of NATO, troop levels in member nations near Russia’s borders or alliance support for Ukraine. Conceding any ground on any of these areas would have set a disastrous precedent, suggesting that an alliance that exists in large part to defend the West from Russia could be intimidated into weakening itself by threats of Russian aggression.

It is likely that Putin thought that in the wake of America’s pull-out from Afghanistan and in the midst of political upheaval in the U.S., the Biden administration might be weak or disinclined to play the traditional U.S. leadership role within NATO. That has already proven to be a serious miscalculation. From the tough negotiations led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to constant, in-depth coordination with allies to a comprehensive and sophisticated public diplomacy campaign in which the U.S. and allies have maintained a unified front and consistently called out Russian misstatements and malign intentions, the Biden team has expertly managed this crisis thus far. Indeed, it seems that their actions have been informed and elevated by their experiences over the past year. But it also must be said that Biden, Blinken, Sullivan and their team have deep experience in trans-Atlantic relations and in dealing with Putin, and that is showing in their handling of events to date.

The stand-off is, however, far from over. In the past few days, Russia has turned up the heat. In addition to the intelligence about moving in assets to prepare the predicate for war, Russia has stepped naval activity in the Baltic and has even threatened to deploy military assets to Cuba or Venezuela.

In the midst of this and their own media campaign to justify their actions, Putin’s government is acting on his wish to be, as the Beatles put it, “back in the USSR.” Putin’s foreign minister made this clear when he argued NATO existed only to take over “territories orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.” Orphaned? That captures the Putin view perfectly. Like so many old men, he is sentimentalizing the dominant role played in his psyche by his dear old Motherland.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, Putin’s psychodrama is likely to continue to play out at their expense. It seems unlikely Putin can back down at this point without looking weak. That said, a protracted conflict in Ukraine would be hugely costly for Russia—beginning with harsh economic sanctions and once again being seen as a pariah state and continuing through to the harsh costs of war. As a consequence, perhaps the most likely outcome is a military action that seeks modest gains, some additional land, perhaps gaining control of the land bridge to Crimea and other measures that they believe weaken the government in Kyiv. These could include cyber attacks—which may in fact have commenced this week.

If NATO maintains its resolve and quickly imposes a heavy price on Russia for such an invasion, perhaps the consequences of this current Putin adventure can be limited and fears of escalation assuaged. But the threat posed by Putin and his toxic nostalgia will not end with this episode.

On the day that Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet era ended, one of the biggest hits in the world was a song whose title suggests Putin’s mindset ever since, George Michael and Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

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