Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 2 March 2022

The Putin Endgame

His regime is destroying itself over a fictional threat of NATO aggression.


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, March 1.


Modern signals monitoring means U.S. spooks can hardly store all the information they collect. So when Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted this week about intelligence he can’t describe that shed doubt on Vladimir Putin’s mental state, he may not have been referring to the work of CIA profilers but what Mr. Putin’s colleagues are saying in their undoubtedly copious exchanges.

Mr. Rubio has become our designated declassifier. He was the vehicle for a fleeting and obviously purposeful airing of Mr. Putin’s dirtiest, most secret laundry (to which I will return at the end) during a 2017 confirmation hearing with Rex Tillerson.

I’ve been wondering for weeks now how Mr. Putin can survive his Ukraine gambit. His basic bet failed a month ago, when Volodymyr Zelensky, Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz refused to concede Ukraine’s independence to appease the Russian dictator. That ended any chance of an outcome that actually strengthens him.

A military victory in Ukraine now will be indistinguishable from defeat. If Mr. Putin is sentient, he will look for ways to limit the costs of his miscalculation, which I doubt the U.S and its allies will afford him. He will have to slaughter his way to Kyiv and Western public opinion will make sure economic sanctions are a one-way ratchet. Ukrainians will fight on and suffer more, with the consolation that a great nation is being born. (Meanwhile, if you thought China, which could have prevented all this, was ready for global responsibility, you’re over that now.)

Mr. Putin’s retreat into solipsism didn’t begin with Covid but the Arab Spring, which he saw as harbinger of his own ending. He saw everyone around him as a potential enemy and the feeling became mutual. When he showed a video of Russian helicopters battling militants in Syria to a visiting Oliver Stone, it was video of U.S. helicopters lifted from YouTube. I doubt his aides informed him of the, um, embarrassment.

But he knows one thing: This day was coming. He planned for it. Like his role model, he exploited the Olympics for their internationalist sheen, then launched a discordant drumbeat about how Russia is surrounded by enemies.

Like his role model, his military spendfest in the 2010s wasn’t for signaling purposes but to implement a deliberate plan for staying in power.

His speech last week was redolent of Hitler gambler phrases: No choice. No option. “We could not act otherwise.”

Hitler, before his Poland invasion, said: “It is easy for us to make decisions. We have nothing to lose. . . . Our economic situation is such that we can only hold out for a few more years.”

Choices always exist, just not for a Hitler or Putin. They need to drag the world into disaster to secure their own positions.

Mr. Putin’s isolation and miscalculation make him dangerous but they also make him vulnerable. Seventeen years ago, I wrote the West didn’t realize Mr. Putin “fancied himself a conqueror, an empire builder, a man of destiny,” like another figure in the news at the time—Saddam Hussein. The two men’s paths were oddly similar, and anybody who saw Mr. Putin’s televised bullying of aides last week might have thought of Saddam’s televised Baath Party purge before the Iran war.

Except with a difference: Saddam’s untrusted associates were dragged off to his dungeons to be tortured and executed. Mr. Putin, after his bitchy treatment, had to let his march out of the room with one more reason to relish his eventual comeuppance.

These cronies have a chance to earn their billions. They aren’t fools. Would any of this be happening if not for Vladimir Putin? Would it continue one second longer if Vladimir Putin were not around? Do they really want Russia in harm’s way as Mr. Putin continues his desperate, flailing campaign, now with nuclear threats, to save himself from his Ukraine blunders?

Events can be momentous without meriting grandiloquent description. There can’t be a new cold war because the Russia of today can’t sustain a cold war. It’s not the U.S.S.R. Economically, it’s not even Spain. Operative all along hasn’t been Russia’s historical and geographic imperatives, but the grotty nature of the current regime. A kleptocracy is reaching its natural ending. It couldn’t create a stable governance model any more than the one-man 1970s African dictatorships it resembles. Mr. Putin’s geopolitical posturing is absurd. His regime is destroying itself over an entirely fictional threat of NATO aggression from Ukraine.

The sanction that might help Kremlin decision makers come to the right decision today is the truth. Open the CIA’s files about his regime’s murders and thefts and bizarre corruption. Open the files about Ryazan. That’s the city where a spate of murderous apartment-block bombings by Chechen terrorists came to an end in 1999. They stopped after then-presidential candidate Putin’s own intelligence agents were caught unloading sacks of explosive into the basement of a large apartment complex. 

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