The Russian president’s hubris and dream of rebuilding the Soviet Union will doom him.
By Jack Devine
Vladimir Putin believes he is resurrecting Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Union. He has established an organized state with vast oil wealth, $635 billion in cash reserves, a largely autonomous economy, and a new and historic strategic accord with China.
Through his aggressive record of Russian intelligence interference in Western politics, this spymaster president has honed his covert-action playbook. Whether through Moscow-incubated separatist movements, oligarch-funded mercenaries, false-flag attacks, cyberattacks or propaganda, Mr. Putin has many tools to subjugate Ukraine. A robust dark-money network, likely owned in large part by Mr. Putin, funnels capital into the hands of Russian oligarchs, blunting the effectiveness of Western sanctions. With these factors in his favor, Mr. Putin believes now is his moment to reclaim a lost jewel in Russia’s imperial crown, cementing his historical legacy.
It is more likely that Mr. Putin reached his apogee in the days before he invaded Ukraine. His hubris is predicated on a profound misunderstanding of the power of liberal democracies. He sees the West’s contention over key policy issues as weakness and harbors contempt for the democratic process. He fails to understand that these inefficiencies are the result of a real strength—a political system responsive to the will of the people. Mr. Putin’s disdain for the will of the Ukrainian people and others in Eastern Europe has led Russia into a new cold war, which Russia will lose as it did the first one.
When I was chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Afghan Task Force in 1986 we knew two things as we worked to counter Soviet aggression: The Afghan people were prepared to fight against occupation, and that made it extremely expensive for the Soviets to build and run an empire. The U.S. didn’t have to win, we only needed to keep Russia from winning. It’s ironic that America’s own disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan spurred Mr. Putin to enter another unwinnable war.
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Financing a war is harder now that Mr. Putin is an international outcast. Russia, if it had access to its cash reserves, could burn through $635 billion quickly as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization galvanizes and Russia is ostracized from the world economy. The West must hold the line and support Ukraine. The threat posed by Mr. Putin’s ambitions for a Russian sphere of influence will continue to fuel the West’s resolve as his self-destructive behavior wreaks its deleterious effects on his own country.
Mr. Putin has sown the seeds of his own destruction by invading Ukraine, but his downfall ultimately depends on the will of the Russian people. Faced with harsh economic and diplomatic wounds, Russia will start to creak and crumble, and before long its citizens will grow weary of his sclerotic, autocratic governance. They will find ways to get their money out of the country and vote with their feet; Mr. Putin’s loyal oligarchs will falter with their assets on the line, and things will start to feel far lonelier for him.
China may provide economic assistance, but Beijing’s help won’t be cost-free and will be inadequate to fill the shortfall from cash outflows. And as Mr. Putin’s star begins to fade, the Chinese will cut their losses and distance themselves from him. Chinese state banks have already begun limiting the financing on Russian commodities.
The end date of the Putin age is still uncertain, but against the unified resistance of the free world, his hubris and disdain for the will of his people will bring him down. His position of strength will transform to a place of historical ignominy.
Mr. Devine is a former acting CIA director of operations and president of the Arkin Group, a New York City based international intelligence and investigative company. He is the author of “Spymasters’ Prism.”