My near-universal experience of people from Eastern Bloc countries is that their hatred of the Soviet Union has everything to do with its relative egalitarianism and really nothing to do with its authoritarianism. So it has not been surprising to me to see how much the Russian people love Vladimir Putin.
Now I understand that a lot of it is simply that after the Soviet Union fell, things were really bad economically in Russia. And it’s clear that the West should have gone in and flooded them with aid. But instead, we allowed the same old disaster capitalism to take place. And the vast majority of the people suffered while a very small number of the worst people on earth thrived. Things are better under Putin, so the people like him for that alone.
But there is no doubt that the Russian people have a strong tendency towards authoritarianism. But I cannot say that it’s any stronger than it is in the United States where it seems about 40% of the people want nothing so much as an authoritarian they can follow. The idea that the Russian people will turn on Putin because he’s an authoritarian is absurd.
Danger of Trapping an Authoritarian
But given that Putin is an authoritarian, I’m very concerned with the way that we are approaching his invasion of Ukraine. Many of the people who I consider allies are saying things that bother me. I see a lot of people wanting to see Putin destroyed the same way that Hitler was. That strikes me as unlikely.
At the same time, no one is particularly keen on going to war. And while I have been impressed with the economic war that is being waged against Russia, the West is doing surprisingly little to support Ukraine militarily. Yes, some weapons and other military aid are being shipped there. But it doesn’t strike me as being up to the situation.
The truth is that if we continue how we’re going, Ukraine will fall. All those brave men and women that we are applauding on Twitter can do is to slow down that conclusion. That’s it. They can’t win without outside help.
So what can we do to stop it? I don’t think that economics is going to do the work that needs done. In the short term of the next 6 months or year, sanctions will just make the Russian people love Putin more because the truth is the West is attacking Russia. And let us not forget they are attacking Russia for doing something that the US did in Iraq less than 20 years ago with even less justification.
We can play the long game and hope that our economic war will lead to Putin’s ouster over the next 5 years. But even if that happens, it’s not at all clear that Russia will get a leader we like more. But to the point itself, defeating Putin in 5 years will not save Ukraine this year.
Saving Authoritarian Faces
The only thing that will save Ukraine is for Putin to reverse course. And since the West is not willing to wage a physical war with Russia, the only option seems to be to give Putin an out. We need to find some way to allow him to save face in this matter.
And that doesn’t seem all that hard. The truth is Russia’s invasion has gone reasonably well. And there’s no doubt if they stick it out, they will win this war. So it’s just the case of creating the framing that Putin never wanted all of Ukraine and that he sent a message to the West. And it’s all good.
Back in 2002 during the lead-up to the Iraq War, there was one thing above all others that made me realize that the Bush administration was disingenuous. They weren’t actually trying to accomplish the goals they claimed. Yes, they were asking for UN inspectors and so on but they were doing it in a way that required Saddam Hussein to be publicly humiliated. They were not providing him with any way to get out of the situation he was in.
And it was clear to me, certainly by October, that it was their intent to invade and that was the only thing they were going to do and everything else was just propaganda. They were just making the case to the American people for a war they were definitely going to start.
Well, the Bush administration was both bloodthirsty and incompetent. I think much more highly of the Biden administration. But I fear the worst. I know they can find a way out of this. But at what cost? Losing the mid-terms because the Republicans (and let’s face it: the “liberal” media) will scream about Democrats being weak?
The Price of Justice
And look. I understand that this is a mess Putin made. Sure he has his reasons. And he has concerns. And some of them are even valid. But ultimately this is his mess.
I, of course, despise the man. But I would give him a fluffy kitten and lollypop if it would make the world better. But right now, we seem to be gambling on the chance we can remove him from power eventually and that we are willing to pay the price of thousands of dead Ukrainians and the whole country’s subjugation.
I really hope more is going on here than I see and that somehow this gets turned around.
Just to be clear here on a few points. First, I do hope the Ukrainians can stop the Russians. That doesn’t seem possible but stranger things have happened. Second, politics is always complicated and just because Russia might have some real concerns about Ukraine becoming too closely tied to the West doesn’t make the Russian invasion acceptable in the least. And third, I am aware of Russian protestors. Not everyone in the country backs Putin. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that he isn’t really popular.
Image cropped from Consequences of a Shelling During Russian Invasion of Ukraine by State Emergency Service of Ukraine under CC BY 4.0.