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The pantomime czar

David C. Innes | Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for a Russian empire are fading

Russian President Vladimir Putin waits for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko before their talks in Moscow on Friday. Associated Press/Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik (Kremlin pool)

The pantomime czar
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed President Vladimir Putin as a pantomime czar, a would-be Russian emperor whose armed forces can’t back up his ambitions.

Russia’s gross domestic product is approximately that of Canada, but per capita, it is a quarter of Canada’s size, and a large part of that is oil and other raw materials for export. Nonetheless, it has surprised even military experts that the war has gone so poorly for Putin. His invading force has underperformed. There was no significant welcome from the Russian-speaking population. Ukrainian resistance has been more spirited and effective than expected, and the Ukrainian president did not flee as the political class usually does. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” were the no-doubt immortal words of his refusal.

U.S. President Joe Biden was slow to confront the situation seriously. He announced sanctions but only after the invasion. A few days later, sanctions widened to include Putin himself and Russia’s use of the SWIFT international payment system. This was soon followed by a flow of sophisticated missiles and other lethal weaponry from NATO countries to Ukraine. The vigorous European response took Putin very much by surprise. He has threatened anyone who stands in his way with “such consequences that you have never faced in your history,” but his rhetoric vastly exceeds his capabilities.

With his massive invading army bogged down, Putin has moved Russia’s nuclear force to heightened alert status.

Rebekah Koffler, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, calls it a play for de-escalation as the invasion seems not to be going as planned both within and beyond the theatre of war. Given his subsequent turn to ever greater barbarism like targeting civilians, even hospitals, this reading has come to appear less likely. Tom Nichols at the U.S. Naval War College sees it as designed to rally support at home and shift the focus abroad.

What drove Putin to invade and to send this dreadfully inadequate force into Ukraine? He said it was security concerns over Kyiv’s desire for integration into the European Union and NATO. Then it was saving the ethnic Russians from genocide for which he gave no evidence. Then it was de-Nazification of this Slavic sister who should be reunited with her Russian family.

What once were his hopes and plans at age 50 have now become the life that wasn’t and likely never will be.

Theories are circulating that this is all a clever Putin plan to get kicked out of the world financial system, forcing Europe to pay for their Russian oil in non-U.S. currency. In cooperation with China, Putin would then establish a reserve currency as a rival to the U.S. dollar. But the look on his face and his shaking hands say otherwise.

The reason may be simpler and more personal than all of this. Putin turns 70 this year. (The life expectancy for a Russian male is currently 68.) What once were his hopes and plans at age 50 have now become the life that wasn’t and likely never will be.

In his 2005 state of the nation address, he said that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the [20th] century.” Putin has been driven all these years by resentment over the lost empire. He is the sort of Russian who cannot think of his country apart from empire. It has been his life’s goal to restore her expanse and glory. But it looks increasingly like he won’t see this restoration of empire in his lifetime by his hand. The Biden administration, four years of demonstrably weak American leadership, is his final shot.

This would explain what some have been noticing: a descent into angry bitterness and, out of that, desperate pitching and grasping. Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, dealt personally with Putin several times. She observed him “descending into something I haven’t personally seen before,” adding, “He was always calculating and cold. But this is different. He seems erratic.” Fear of his mortality—heightened by the invisible COVID threat, an enemy he cannot control, outwit, or intimidate—must haunt him. His televised meetings with his security council show him behind his desk separated from others by a 30-foot empty expanse. A similar meeting with Russian oligarchs was arranged this way.

The ambition of kings and czars, when it is not to support their people in the honest labors to which God has called them, is vexation of spirit and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17). What remains of Russia’s empire is creaking. You can see it in the old tanks that have run out of gas on Ukrainian roadsides. Putin’s mind is clouding, his frame is weakening, the oligarchs are frustrated. Thirty-three years after the sudden and shocking collapse of Russia’s communist empire, we are witnessing the beginning of the collapse of Putin’s smaller, subsequent, oligarchic empire. Beware, however, the danger of a declining power that turns desperate.

David C. Innes

David C. Innes is professor of politics in the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at The King’s College in New York City. He is author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life, The Christian Citizen: Faith Engaging Political Life, and Francis Bacon. He is also an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


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