Vladimir Putin is beginning to understand the immense difficulty of the war he cavalierly launched in Ukraine. He knows now that his corrupt and time-serving generals lied to him about the effectiveness of the military machine they had built. He knows that the flattering “experts” who reinforced his prejudices about the weakness of Ukrainian national identity were talking through their hats. He knows that even German fecklessness has limits and that Americans still know how to fight cold wars. He has no illusions now about the power of Western economic sanctions, and he knows that families all over Russia will soon be mourning their sons as the death toll mounts in Ukraine.
He is no doubt dismayed by the cascade of bad news but appears determined to fight on. This should not surprise us. Mr. Putin also knows that his future in power, his freedom and quite possibly his life depend on the outcome of this war.
And there is something else he knows, or thinks he knows, that many in the West discount. Westerners and especially Americans believe that freedom always wins in the end. That implies Mr. Putin will fail in Ukraine and Putinism will ultimately fail in Russia because that is the way history works.
From where Mr. Putin sits in the Kremlin, however, history seems to teach a different lesson. The empire of the czars was not built on freedom, nor did freedom result when it fell. The Soviet Union that rose from the ruins of Romanov power was not based on the idea of human freedom. Stalin wasn’t deposed by Russians hungry for freedom; he died in bed. The feeble liberals who tried to introduce Western-style democracy into post-Soviet Russia were soon sidelined in the power struggles of the Yeltsin era. Mr. Putin simply does not think that “freedom always wins” and his likely reaction to the failure of his initial strategy for the absorption of Ukraine into his domain will be to double down on repression.
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We should not underestimate the power of his belief in the efficacy of the iron fist. He has seen it work in Tibet, Xinjiang and, most recently, Hong Kong. Mr. Putin knows how ugly and effective the process of restoring Bashar al-Assad’s rule across most of Syria has been. He notes that Nicolás Maduro still rules Venezuela, that the Castroite state retains its hold on Cuba, and that North Korea has defied decades of American sanctions. He recalls last year’s democratic rising in Belarus, and he remembers how easy it was for Alexander Lukashenko to crush it. Mr. Putin is unlikely to give up his ambitions in Ukraine, much less his power in Moscow, without giving repression every chance to succeed.
We should not delude ourselves about how far Mr. Putin could go. Since the outbreak of the war, he has been cracking down in Russia—closing the last remnants of a free press, arresting critics and tightening the laws against protest and dissent. But the Soviet era saw much more totalitarian controls and much greater terror than anything that exists in Russia today.
Would Mr. Putin rebuild the Gulag Archipelago and re-create the terror through which Stalin ruled Ukraine? If the alternative is to flee Moscow in disgrace and pass the remaining years of his life as a state pensioner in China, he will almost certainly move in that direction. Mr. Putin cemented his hold on power by deploying ruthless violence against civilians in Grozny to crush the Chechen drive for independence. Why would he yield power without using every available method to hold on?
The question is whether he can succeed. On the one hand, Mr. Putin’s state and the Russian bureaucracy today lack the ideological commitment and the experience of civil war that made Stalin’s Communist Party such an effective instrument of mass repression and terror. Today’s security agency, the FSB, is less powerful than the KGB, much less is it a match for the NKVD of Stalin’s time. There is also a question of how far into the darkness Mr. Putin’s allies are ready to travel with him.
Yet the technologies deployed across China under Xi Jinping make repression and social control much easier than ever. It is in any case easier to build an effective police state than to build a modern army, and the men who enabled Mr. Putin’s march into Ukraine may well continue to support him as he marches deeper into the Russian past.
Mr. Putin’s political career demonstrates three unwavering commitments: to his personal power, to the expansion of Russia, and to the superiority of authoritarian society over the liberal West. Unfortunately for the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, these principles will likely shape his decisions in the days and weeks to come.