Vladimir Putin is 68 years old.
He is closer to the end of his reign in Russia than to his beginning.
He has ruled Russia this entire century.
He has ruled Russia this entire millennium.
What does he have to show for his rule in history?
One area of agreement in the effort to predict what will happen in the Ukraine is that one and only individual is the decision maker. Learned people and experts have filled the airwaves and websites with their prognostications. All of the points they raise are no more than ivory tower debating points. But the situation is not an academic one where the outcome can be determined by reasoned discussion, aka “negotiations.”
What is being overlooked or minimized in the plethora of analyses is the recognition that the current crisis is solely one Putin’s choosing. No Archduke has been assassinated. No ship Maine has been exploded. No missiles have been surreptitiously snuck onto an island a mere 90 miles from America. Nothing has occurred which could have triggered the encircling and invading of the Ukraine with a huge proportion of the entire Russian military. The catalyst for the event is solely in the mind of its instigator. Putin launched this threat solely because he needed to.
Putin famously has asserted that:
First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.
The century he meant was the 20th century and not the 21st when he spoke these words. The idea that one could have a rational debate on the merits of this claim is preposterous. It is what he believes and will believe until his dying day. And even though he named the Soviet Union, he was not bemoaning the collapse of communism. Quite the country, just as Stalin called upon his people to fight for Mother Russia in the darkest days of World War II, so Putin was referring to Russia, the Russia that seemingly was the co-equal with the United States in the battle for world supremacy.
Russia today is a hollow shell of what it once was. True it has a nuclear arsenal second only to the United States and still more than China. But it has no ideology that even can provide a fig leaf to its global ambitions. It has no economic success story that it can proclaim to the world. Its only world class achievements seem to be in hacking, the military, and drugged athletes.
Putin’s concern is Russia’s role in human history and his personal prowess in making that claim real. From the Middle East to Africa to Latin America, Putin is extending Russia’s limited resources in the effort to be recognized as a giant astride the globe as China has done. Russia lacks the economic resources to compete at that level but still it tries.
So if the demise of the Russian empire was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century, what does Putin have to show for having reversed it, for having undone the havoc foisted upon the Russian people? In his 2005 speech, Putin then went on to say:
As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.
Not only was the Russian empire no more, Russia did not even rule all the Russian people. So many of them were beyond the borders of what was left of Russia.
In this context, Putin’s goals are clear. At minimum, before he dies or his forced to leave office, he wants his legacy to be that at least he put Humpty Dumpty back together again for the Russian people. He wants those people beyond the fringes of Russian territory to be part of Russian rule even if they are in separate countries. It is one thing for Moslems to be separate from Russia; it is quite another for God-fearing Orthodox Russians to be beyond the pale.
Eastern Ukraine is not the Sudetenland. Putin’s dominance of this Russian-speaking area beyond Russia’s borders is not a prelude to a larger campaign to seize non-Russian empire lands in Europe and to dominate a continent. There has been no invasion from the Russian perspective because the lands have declared their independence so how can the United States claim otherwise? Russia is not invading the foreign country of the Ukraine, he is assisting the independent countries formerly dominated by the Ukraine in their quest for independence. Whether this ploy makes him a genius or not is a separate issue.
For Putin, it is now or never. It is time for him to stamp his legacy in Russian history. His Russia will rule Russian-speaking people. We have seen Yugoslavia dissolve into its constituent parts. We have seen Czechoslovakia divide into its constituent parts. We have seen the ongoing debate in the United Kingdom about both Scotland and Northern Island. We have watched Sudan split.
We know that many countries in the United Nations are lines on a map and not real national entities. Libya. Syria. Iraq/Kuwait/Kurds. If Putin is willing to stop at Russian-speaking people to affirm his place in history, then he holds the winning hand in the current Ukraine crisis. If he seeks not just the Russian-speaking portions of the Ukraine but the entire country, then events on the ground may spiral out of control, the circumstances are more dire for both him and the world. We should know in a few hours which way he will go.
P.S. The assertion by the alpha-male wannabe that Putin is a genius is exactly what he should have been expected to say. The hope that it will be the straw that breaks the Trumpican’s camel’s back is a forlorn one. The new Congress may very well favor Putin over NATO just as Trumpicans prefer Lee to Lincoln and support the overthrow of the Constitution.