Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine defies any and all political logic, even his own hardened authoritarian reasoning. With his unprovoked assault, Putin joins a long line of irrational tyrants, not least Joseph Stalin, who believed that sustaining his power required a constant expansion of it. That logic led Stalin to commit horrific atrocities against his own people, including causing a famine that starved millions of Ukrainians to death.
Another twentieth-century mass murderer, Mao Zedong, famously declared that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun – or, it seemed, a nuclear missile. Mao demanded that my great-grandfather, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, provide China with nuclear weapons, so that Mao could effectively hold his adversaries, foreign and domestic, hostage.
Only similar thinking can explain Putin’s actions in Ukraine. He says that he wants to “denazify” Ukraine, but the senselessness of that claim should be obvious, not least because Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. So, what is Putin’s endgame? Does he want to punish NATO by destroying Ukraine’s military infrastructure? Does he hope to install a puppet government, whether by replacing Zelensky or by turning him into a Ukrainian Philippe Pétain, France’s collaborationist leader during World War II?
The answer to these questions might be yes. But Putin’s real reason for invading Ukraine is far less pragmatic, and more alarming. Putin seems to have succumbed to his ego-driven obsession with restoring Russia’s status as a great power with its own clearly defined sphere of influence.
Putin dreams of a conference like Yalta and Potsdam, where he and his fellow great-power leaders, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, divide the world among themselves. There, he and his new ally Xi would presumably join forces to reduce the West’s domain – and drastically expand Russia’s.
Like the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Putin has long indicated a desire to restore the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Rus’ – the basis of Russian civilization – by building a “Russian Union” encompassing Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and the ethnic-Russian areas of Kazakhstan. With the invasion of Ukraine in full swing, other former Soviet republics began to worry, but, as Putin assured Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Russia does not “plan to reinstate the empire in former imperial boundaries.” It is the Slavic nation, which is unduly under “third countries [rather than his] control,” that he worries so much about.
Despite Putin’s effort to fulfill Solzhenitsyn’s vision, his military actions are a departure from it. Even in his nationalist mania, Solzhenitsyn never lost sight of basic morality. As much as he wanted to restore historical Russia, it is impossible to imagine him supporting the slaughter of Ukrainians (and Russians) in the process. Putin, by contrast, professes to love Ukraine as he orders Russian forces to bomb its cities.
Putin apparently assumes that China will back him. But while he launched the invasion just weeks after concluding something akin to an alliance agreement with Xi in Beijing, Chinese officials’ reactions have been very distant with calls for “restraint.”
Given Putin’s near-total reliance on China for support in challenging the US-led international order, lying to Xi would have no political or strategic advantage. That is what is so worrying: Putin no longer seems capable of the calculations that are supposed to guide a leader’s decision-making. Far from an equal partner, Russia is now on track to become a kind of Chinese vassal state.
The invasion of Ukraine has also alienated other Putin allies and supporters. Some of his most faithful acolytes in the West, from Czech President Miloš Zeman to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have denounced his actions. But, perhaps of far more importance, Putin’s delusional rants have alienated Russians. With his barbaric assault on Ukraine, he has sacrificed decades of social and economic development and destroyed the hopes that Russians have held for the future. Russia will now be a global pariah for decades.
When I called a friend in Kyiv to find out what was going on, he told me that bomb shelters are open, and people are also hiding in subway stations. “Very World War II,” he quipped, before noting how remarkable it was that “a man who speaks so much about the damage war can do would inflict war on a brotherly nation.” And then he turned my question on me: “You tell me what is going on. You Russians are the ones who kept electing this fascist.”
While the perception is understandable, that is not quite true. Russians elected Putin at first, but have merely surrendered to his rule in recent years, because our votes no longer matter. Likewise, the claim that 73% of Russians support Putin’s actions in Ukraine is pure propaganda. Thousands are gathering in Russian cities, saying “No to War,” despite detentions and police brutality. This time, Russians seem unlikely to surrender quietly. In the coming days and weeks, the world can expect many more signals that Russians do not want this war.
Stalinism didn’t die until Stalin did. The same was true of Maoism. Will it be true of Putinism as well?