According to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Chancellor Angela Merkel both accused Vladimir Putin of being “a 19th century figure in a 21st century world.” They were, of course, referring to imperial Russian expansions during the 19th century into Europe by Czar Alexander I and II and Nicholas I, powerfully done if somewhat less cowardly than Mr. Putin’s greedy endeavor.
It’s hard not to keep writing about Putin’s war on Ukraine but for the fact that this regional war could instantly turn into World War III. His military has struck targets very close to Poland, a NATO ally. He has threatened to attack our supply lines to Ukrainian forces, and he has warned that our economic sanctions and our weapon’s pipelines into Ukraine are acts of war. His movement of chemical and biological protective gear to his military in Ukraine is an ominous sign of another potential false-flag excuse to use those weapons in Ukraine, like what was done with Russian aid in Syria. This begins to add up to a conflict that is increasingly seen worldwide as wartime theater of good vs. evil.
With the Russian military closing in on Ukrainian cities, the scenes of devastation are hard to watch. But at the same time, the world is beginning to close in on Mr. Putin. It’s not just the millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine for the likes of Poland, Hungary and Romania. The numbers of Ukrainian foreign-legion mercenaries have swelled to an estimated 30,000, growing daily. Mr. Putin’s crazed behaviors have isolated him from global leadership. The United Nations emergency General Assembly session voted 141 to 5 with 35 abstentions to condemn him and his actions in Ukraine. The five opposed included an inglorious quintet of Russia, Eritrea, Iran, Syria and North Korea. China was one of the abstentions.
Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, author of the book “All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin”, reported in the Times this past weekend that Putin has isolated himself over the past year. “He spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining himself at his residence in Valdai, a city approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. (In his) conversations with aides over the past two years the president has completely lost interest in the present: the economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic. These all annoy him. He has cut off most contacts with advisors and friends. During the past two weeks, the protesting intelligentsia, executives, actors, artists and journalists have hurriedly fled the country, some abandoning their possessions just to get out.”
Afraid of a new “Iron Curtain” about to fall between Russia and the rest of Europe, estimates I’ve seen of the steady exodus are that about 200,000 Russians have fled their homeland, 500 a day, just on the rail connection between St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, a trip that my wife and I recently made.
How will this end? The answer to that question presumes to know what’s in the warped mind of this imperial Russian leader, but all signs point to an all or nothing mind set. Strange as it may seem, the players most likely to lead Putin to an off-ramp exit are China and Israel. But his secluded demeanor, his escalating threats, his false-flag intimations and intimidations unfortunately seem to insinuate that he has lapsed into a long-war mentality with long-war tactics.
Large numbers of intellectuals, students, professionals, artists and journalists are not only embarrassed by Putin’s maniacal behavior, but his invasion also squelches their hopes for a more modern, civilized integration with the rest of Europe. The extent to which these people and perhaps a sizable contingent of oligarchs and military might constitute a demographic force with enough clout to overthrow Mr. Putin is yet to be determined.
As protests and detentions grow in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and as body bags pile up, Putin’s world gets smaller. You can shut down independent press. You can shut down Twitter and Facebook, but you can’t close Russian eyes to the thousands of funerals, not only in Russia but of relatives in Ukraine as well.
Try as he might, Putin has not been able to prevent international companies from withdrawing from Russia. The downstream effects economically of these retreats and the tightening of oil spigots to the U.S. and Europe are certain to have catastrophic effects on the Russian economy. The most devastating effect, however, could be Russia’s default on its external foreign debt of $480 billion, which is the total debt that Russia owes to creditors outside the country. News flash… from financial markets to Putin and the Central Bank of Russia: Creditors aren’t accepting rubles.
The Ukrainian people have redefined patriotism to the modern, material world. What a stunning show of courage, resolve and resilience. What we have in Ukraine today is a powerful narrative of the valiant and the vile.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.