Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in power for more than two decades and during that time has carefully cultivated an image of himself as a tough, strongman leader, fighting for Russia’s interests and reinstating the country as a geopolitical and economic superpower.
With his decision to invade neighboring Ukraine, however, analysts say Putin has made the biggest mistake of his political career and has weakened Russia for years to come.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, I commented that this would likely not end well for Vladimir Putin, the Russian despot who has somehow earned the cool admiration of too many American conservatives.
I was laughed at by a couple of said American conservatives, who accused me of gullibly swallowing the Ukrainian propaganda that is being regurgitated by the Western media.
Yet, here we are, a month into a humanitarian crisis that is solely Putin’s doing, and Russia isn’t much closer to toppling Kyiv or the government of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy than it was on Feb. 24, the day the first Russian tanks rolled across the border.
We don’t know the real toll this war has taken on the Russian military. If Ukrainian propaganda is to be believed, it may have already surpassed the toll of Russia’s years-long war in Afghanistan. But even if the much more conservative estimates originating from outside Kyiv are to be believed, it’s already a far-higher toll than Putin would want anyone back in Russia to believe. And it’s only going to go higher. That’s to say nothing of the economic damage that’s been inflicted on Russia through sanctions imposed by much of the Western world.
Make no mistake: the toll that this conflict has taken in Ukraine is much greater than it is in Russia. The loss of life and the damage caused are tremendous. That’s a shame, because Ukraine was the most poverty-stricken nation in Europe even before the invasion. It will take many years to recover.
But, clearly, Vladimir Putin severely under-estimated the resolve of the Ukrainian people. It seems doubtful that he under-estimated the sanctions that have been visited upon his homeland; it’s likely that he simply believed this war would end quickly enough to limit the toll that those sanctions would have on Russia’s economy. As the weeks have stretched on, Putin has become more brutal. He’s likely committed war crimes for which he should be held accountable — though he won’t be because he has nukes and isn’t afraid to use them. Yet he has been unsuccessful in breaking the will of the Ukrainians.
Putin may yet take Ukraine. He certainly still has the advantage in terms of brute strength. Unless Nato gets involved — which isn’t going to happen — it’s likely only a matter of time before Ukraine is simply overwhelmed.
But, either way, it’s hard to see how this ends as a victory for Putin and for Russia.
The best-case scenario, for Russia, seems to be that Putin wins the war, and sets up a puppet regime in Kyiv, but Russia remains isolated on the world stage, its economy takes years or even decades to recover, and Putin’s strength as a leader is forever diminished. Post-invasion Putin will never be as strong as pre-invasion Putin. That’s not a bad thing for the rest of the world.
The worst-case scenario for Putin is that he loses the war. Then what? As hard as Putin has tried to keep the Russian people from seeing the real truth on the ground in Ukraine — even going as far as shutting down what’s left of the independent press in Russia — he can’t keep his people totally in the dark. The anti-Putin sentiment is bound to continue growing among his own people, and every day that this conflict stretches on increases the possibility that Putin ultimately is ousted from power as a result of it.
Four weeks ago, most of the world was worried that we were witnessing the beginning of World War III, the start of a takeover of Eastern Europe by Putin. With those close to Putin indicating that he isn’t afraid to use genocide or launch nukes as a last resort, the worst may indeed be yet to come.
Ultimately, though, it looks like this is going to end as a victory for the West. At great cost, of course — with the Ukrainian people bearing the brunt of it, and the innocent Russian civilians also suffering — but a win nevertheless. Diminished strength for Putin is not a bad thing for the rest of the world.