A Drunken Grandfather Goes to War

The Russian assault on Ukraine changes everything

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Russia has experienced a difficult thirty years searching for its place among nations. The US hasn’t made it easier, inducting the former East European satellites of the USSR into NATO, bullying Russia’s former client-states along the country’s southern rim and around the Mediterranean. China, which maintained Communist-party control while opening its economy to the world, has rocketed past its rival.

Boris Yeltsin anointed Vladimir Putin as his successor because the former KGB officer-turned-civil-servant was “thoughtful, democratic, and innovative – yet steadfast in the military manner.” And for or twenty-two years, Vladimir Putin has done a pretty good job of rebuilding the social fabric, economic infrastructure, and military forces of his country, while navigating the narrow corridor between authoritarian rule and anarchy – until last week.

But as New York Times Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski wrote Thursday,

His attack on Ukraine negated that image, and revealed him as an altogether different leader: one dragging the nuclear superpower he helms into a war with no foreseeable conclusion, one that by all appearances will end Russia’s attempts over its three post-Soviet decades to find a place in a peaceful world order.

The war on its neighbor Ukraine is a tragedy, for all involved, most all for Russia.  Fred Weir of The Christian Science Monitor, a special correspondent and long-time Moscow resident, supplied the clearest view.  The assault “amounts to a war of regime change,” patterned on America’s war against Iraq. Weir wrote:

Very few Russian security analysts were picking up their phones Thursday. It seems many have been blindsided by the speed with which Mr. Putin has acted after spelling out his grievances in a lengthy speech officially recognizing two east Ukrainian rebel republics barely three days earlier.

But those who did claimed that the operation – which none will call an “invasion” – was going well, that Russia has established dominance in the air, that much of Ukraine’s military and command-and-control infrastructure had already been greatly reduced, the Ukrainian army in the Donbass region surrounded, and many strategic points seized by Russian special forces.

That doesn’t square with reports on the ground from the first three days of the war.   Ukrainian soldiers and citizens have put up determined resistance. The US invasion of Iraq isn’t parallel for a variety of reasons. Besides, that war was a disaster. The arguments about NATO encroachment that Putin had used before to good effect, in 2007 and 2014, didn’t work this time; instead the four-term Russian president sounded demented.

No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.

Nor did domestic propaganda and suppression of dissent make his case stronger. Evoked instead are memories of East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Berlin in 1961, and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

It all makes it seem more likely that something has happened to Putin’s judgement. Speculation is rampant about what might have led to an elevated appetite for risk.  Alexei Navalny, the Russia dissident who has been sentenced to two years in prison (with more trials yet to come), remains free enough to have tweeted that Putin’s conduct resembles that of a drunken grandfather who spoils family celebrations. (See the bottom of a very good story by Robyn Dixon and Paul Sonne of The Washington Post.)

The problem of US swagger is more widely recognized today, at home and aboard, even though its sources have yet to be carefully examined. Now the question of succession, in Russia, as in the US, has become the more interesting story.

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Giving up on someone for whom you’ve had a fair amount of sympathy for twenty years is a dispiriting experience. Putin gave a speech on Thursday, as expected; some of the grievances he enumerated were real enough, at least in some degree; in no way do they justify the measures taken. There is absolutely nothing to be said for Putin’s decision to wage war against Ukraine.