The end of Putin

Right now, all that matters is for the destruction to cease

Make no mistake: At dawn on February 24, when Russian soldiers marched into Ukraine, Putin also signed a warrant for his own end. Sadly, that end can’t come fast enough for the Ukrainians. They will suffer immense losses. But so will Russia. 

Many pundits have promptly declared that Putin has become deranged. At the same time, a class of more manque pundits, mainly from the Global Left and the Global South, are parroting the Russian propaganda: they had it coming (due to flirtations with NATO); they are not a real nation; etcetera.  

While the West had callously waded too deep into Warsaw Pact countries post-Berlin Wall, there was no active process to induct Ukraine into NATO. If we are going to raise infractions of agreements, written or implicit, Ukraine too had given up its nuclear weapons on the promise of security from Russia. 

Moreover, fearing NATO expansion, Putin had already invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. He’s illegally holding chunks of territory from both countries. It was warning enough for the West to back off, which they did. And nothing new had happened in the recent past in this regard. So, for Putin to choose this moment for invasion is wantonly willful and his excuses just that -- excuses. 

What’s even more galling is apologists who repeat the canard about Ukraine not being a legitimate enough nation. This argument seems to hinge on the fact that for large swathes of history Ukraine was part of Russia. By that reasoning most nations would lose their right to sovereignty overnight. 

Human suffering of the Ukrainians is reason enough to try to stop this war. But there is a point of principle -- sovereignty -- that makes this war different. As unjustified as America’s war on Iraq was, from the get-go it was clear that it was not a war of acquisition. This is of little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died and millions more whose lives have been wrecked. But America is no longer present in Iraq. Russia intends to stay in Ukraine, as it already does in parts of Georgia, and indeed Ukraine.  

I feel appalled when I see Bangladeshis indulging in Putinist apologia, seemingly without appreciation of what it means for a modest military power like our country. As a Bangladeshi I find myself in a most ironic position. During the War of Liberation of my own country in 1971, America was very much on the wrong side, giving aid to genocidal Pakistani generals. And it was the erstwhile Soviet Union which had stood by us then. But I cannot support any action that violates the sovereign rights of nations in such a primitive manner. 

Indeed, the contention that the West’s diplomatic overtures provoked Putin could not be more misguided. If anything, Putin has been emboldened by meek Western responses during earlier adventures: Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. He expected another walkover and is now shocked by both the strength of Ukrainian resistance and the stiffness of Western response. 

Let’s not also ignore the fact that many Russians are also appalled by this egregious war. Thousands of Russians have left their country soon as this war broke out. They don’t feel part of Putin’s war. They don’t want to suffer the economic collapse that’s coming. Or to be held again behind an Iron Curtain and under conditions tantamount to martial law. 

How did Putin miscalculate so badly? With age and length of tenure, like most strongmen, he’s become more intolerant. So, he received increasingly poor intelligence. And became blind to glaring shifts in context. He forgot that Biden is no Bush or Obama or Trump (all three foreign policy disasters, albeit for very different reasons). Biden is one of the most seasoned foreign policy players among world leaders today. And with America fully withdrawn from both Iraq and Afghanistan, he has more bandwidth and resources for a tough response, even of non-military kinds. 

Calls for more muscular, even military, response from NATO is understandable. But if the West had gone that route, they’d be blamed for escalating! Their sanctions may just do the job, even if it takes longer. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas is holding back how far and how fast the embargoes can go, but the sanctions already in place are beyond what was imaginable just weeks ago.

The tragedy here is that Putin won’t back down no matter the cost to his people. That’s the prerogative of a dictatorial ruler. Tanks will very likely roll into Kyiv in the coming days or weeks. Russia may be able to take military control of much of Ukrainian territory too. But that win will come at a price that is so high that it may end Putin’s rule. 

Putin has been driven forever by a single desire: Respect. He is shaped by the humiliations he and his nation experienced after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had restored Russia to a state of desired prestige and power. How ironic that his unnecessary overreach has consigned Russia overnight to a pariah state and will plunge back to penury too.

The Russian people alone can’t bring about change at the top. But they are not the only deciders in Russia. It is well-known that the vast apparatus of national security and defense and their leaders -- the siloviki -- remain a factor. Putin has lost sight of the fact that economic ruin can cause an upheaval even in a repressive state. But the siloviki are less likely to be so blinded to risks to their positions of privilege and power. 

With half their foreign reserves frozen, Russia is on the brink of debt default. As the economy shrinks, so will treasury receipts. Eventually, the government will struggle to pay pensions and salaries. Last time that happened, the Soviet Union crumbled. The siloviki are unlikely to let things go that far. 

And Putin could accelerate his forced retirement if he acts even more recklessly. Reaching for the nuclear button or plans to strike NATO directly may well exceed the risk appetites of everyone else who matters. Besides, Putin has already sacked a couple of intelligence heads blaming them for things not going as per plans -- or his personal fantasies -- in Ukraine. Will others in the system wait around to be sacked or decide at some point that they don’t fancy being scapegoated for Putin’s folly? 

One can only hope that a few brave and sensible Russian power elite will step up sooner rather than later. There is a chorus of global justice-seekers who’d want to see Putin at the Hague. But that’s a pipedream (and if him, then why not Bush?). If Putin’s successors have any sense of humor, they will confine him to a dacha outside Sochi. And that would consign him to a fate he fears, and deserves, more than death: Irrelevance. 

Make no mistake though: Putin won’t be replaced by a throng of pro-West reformers. And that’s fine. All we want, and need, ASAP, is for this mindless destruction to end. First, a ceasefire. And then a compromise that makes no one fully happy but promises a more durable peace. 

Dr Kazi Anis Ahmed is Publisher, Dhaka Tribune.