Staunton, September 13 – Personal dictatorships can survive for a long time as long as they don’t suffer a loss abroad, Andrey Piontkovsky says; and that is why Vladimir Putin’s “fatal mistake” was not the Crimean Anschluss which he carried out in pursuit of the narrow goal of keeping Ukraine out of Europe but his unrealizable pursuit of a broader “Russian world.”
In a commentary on the Szona.org portal, he points out that “an authoritarian personalist regime cannot survive an obvious foreign policy defeat regardless of its character.” That is because “such a defeat automatically desacralizes the leader and destroys the myth about the infallibility of the leader and his entire project” (szona.org/smertelnyj-namek-na-otstuplenie/).
The same “pitiless logic” which works in criminal groups works in these cases, Piontkovsky says. A crime boss who loses isn’t a crime boss any more. And that is why Putin has destroyed the basis for his future by his actions not so much in Crimea but rather with regard to his Russian world.
The Russian analyst puts it bluntly: “The fatal mistake of the Putin regime became not so much even the annexation of Crimea as its declaration urbi et orbi in Putin’s significant speech of March 18, 2014 and his further declarations as the first step in the realization of the ambitious conception of ‘the Russian world.’”
At first, he writes, Putin has “a concrete pragmatic task” – “to block the European vector of development of Ukraine” lest it infect Russian society and undermine his form of rule. He said nothing about “the historic mission of an ingatherer of Russian lands.” His goals were “much more modest” – the destruction of the Maidan revolution.
But carried away by “the euphoria of his Crimean ‘triumph,’” “the ‘good Hitler’ became a hostage” of his own ideas about a mythical “’Russian world.,” which in large measure was “a student’s remark” of Hitler’s Third Reich with its ideas about a divided people, national traitors, genetic codes and so on.
Hitler’s “Thousand-year ‘Third Reich’ lasted 12 years” in all, and only seven years after he occupied the Sudetenland, Piontkovsky points out. Putin’s “’Russian world’” and his regime will end “significantly more quickly.”
The reasons Putin was swept away by the Crimea euphoria are obvious. At first, it appeared that March 18, 2014, was a replay of August 2, 1914, when “the entire country with flags, banners, icons, portraits of the tsar, and George tapes stood up before the residence in Novo-Ogarevo.”
And his nuclear blackmail against the West, with its cynical question “Are you ready to die for Narva?” initially appeared to be working, with few in NATO countries prepared to provide military assistance to the Baltic countries if Putin dispatched his “little green men” and other forces there.
But very rapidly “Putin’s conception suffered the most serious defeats in all other directions,” Piontkovsky says.
First and foremost, he argues, this happened in Ukraine where ethnic Russians refused to follow his lead, where a civic nation took shape and where its citizens regardless of nationality conceived what was happening as “a battle of Kievan Rus and the Golden Horde.” Putin who came to power via a war in Chechnya will thus lose power as a result of the war in Ukraine.
In addition, Putin’s nuclear blackmail against the West not only failed but backfired. Putin never intended to start a nuclear war: he simply wanted to split NATO and discredit the US as a defender of the West as “revenge for the defeat of the USSR in the Third (cold) world war, just as the second world war was an attempt by Germany at revenge for its defeat in the first.”
The Kremlin leader had reason to expect he could get away with this: today’s “hedonistic Europe” has no political figures of the stature of Churchill and Roosevelt.” But nonetheless, “the collective Western Chamberlain slowly came to an agreement and all the same found an adequate response to Moscow’s growing nuclear blackmail.”
The Western alliance put men and materiel in its eastern member states. “The size of these contingents doesn’t have great importance.” They are a trip wire, sending the message to Moscow that any move against these countries would inevitably lead to a response by the West as a whole.
As a result, “the symbolic presence of American soldiers near Narva psychologically turned the situation 180 degrees around,” Piontkovsky says. And that means that “the existential question” of Narva is “now addressed not to the West but to Putin and his closest business partners.”
“But the very most painful defeat of Putin’s ideology of ‘the Russian world’ happened in Russia itself.” It had in fact suffered that defeat a quarter of a century ago when the Russians did not fight to maintain the Soviet empire the way the Serbs fought to maintain their mini-empire, Yugoslavia.
There were some in the USSR who wanted to follow the Serbian course: indeed, the August 1991 coup is best understood “not as a communist but rather an imperialist” one; and even Gavriil Popov talked about “the fraternal dismemberment of Ukraine” in ways that anticipate Putin’s words.
But the Russian people did not follow this line, and “not only the residents of the former Soviet Union but the entire world is in many ways obliged by the wisdom and generosity of the Russian people who were not attracted by the calls of the Yanaevs and the Popovs about ‘the ingathering of immemorial Russian lands.’”
Talk about a “Russian world” now, Piontkovsky suggests, “is an insane attempt by an aging dictator to return in a time machine to 23 years ago and replay the disintegration of the Soviet Union in a Yugoslav way, prolonging the agony of his rotting kleptocracy … in the manner of Hitler’s fascism or Stalin’s communism.”
Putin’s attempt is “condemned to fail above all because the mentality of Russians has not changed over these years, the short-term euphoria of ‘Crimea is Ours’” notwithstanding. Consequently, Putin and his entire system are headed for defeat in Ukraine because of his overreaching.
“Imagine for a minute,” Piontkovsky says, “that in 1956, the Soviet Union had not been able to suppress the Hungarian anti-community uprising and that that had succeeded. The USSR would not have existed for another 35 long years – the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would have fallen within the year with obvious political consequences for Moscow.”
“Ukraine for Russia is a factor much weightier than Hungary was for the USSR,” the Russian commentator says. In addition, “the Soviet regime had convinced and ideologically motivated supporters. But Putin’s Russia, lacking mythological covers cannot have such supporters and defenders in principle.”