Putin Goes Postal

Last week, as it became clear that without massive Russian assistance the rebels in eastern Ukraine would be decisively defeated, all hell broke loose.

What Vladimir Putin saw when he gazed at the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine last week was a rabble. One observer noted that the rebels’ “chain of command is largely fictional” and that they “do not have the mass support that buoyed the defenders of Grozny.”  That had no supply system, no resources, no weapons, and they faced a tough, determined national army.

Despite having just promised to work for peace in a summit meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk, Putin immediately lashed out. Not only did he send in massive amounts of military equipment and an invasion force of 15,000 regular Russian army soldiers supported by 100 battle tanks, he also dispatched a hoard of nationalist terrorists to do their worst.

Even Russian people began to be horrified.

Leading human rights activist Lilia Shevtsova wrote:  “The agony has started. It will pull all of us down with it, towards collective suicide.” Her colleague Oleg Kozlovsky stated: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is disgusting and criminal. Putin & his accomplices must be stopped and brought to justice, at any price.”

One ordinary Russian named Dmitry Monakhov tweeted:  “I am a Russian. I am not a sheep and I am not a killer. Nor am I an occupant. I am ashamed that Putin is my president. At 9 a.m. I am going to Manezh Square to stand against the war.” He got over 3,000 retweets, went to Manezh Square and got arrested.

Samantha Power, the U.S. delegate to the United Nations, was just as blunt. She stated: “If unchecked, Russia’s blatant disregard for the international order is a threat to all of our peace and security.”  She openly called Putin a liar.

But if anyone was expecting moderation from Putin in response to this tidal wave of international and domestic condemnation, they were fooling themselves. In response, Putin went postal.

In the two most terrifying and disturbing acts of his presidency, Putin made two major addresses which openly fanned the flames of World War III.

First, he made a speech directly to the Russia-armed rebels in Ukraine, and in it he praised the “significant success” of the separatist “resistance” on the battlefield and asked the rebels to provide a “humanitarian corridor” for encircled Ukrainian troops to withdraw safely. The similarity to Hitler’s pre-war conduct in Czechoslovakia was immediately noticed.

Then he made a speech to his version of the Hitlerjugend at their annual summer camp called Seliger. There, he threatened the West with nuclear holocaust if it attempted to interfere with his annexation of Eastern Ukraine. Speaking like the thug he is, Putin stated:  “It’s best not to mess with us.”

The consequences for Russia were immediate and devastating: the Russian ruble promptly plunged to its lowest level ever against the U.S. dollar. This meant that imported products, already growing scarce because of Putin’s blacklisting of food products, would grow ever more inaccessible to Russians. More rubles would chase fewer Russian-made products, and these too would see rapid inflation. But Russian incomes, the economy mired in stagnation, could not rise to meet these costs. 

And in a true Putin nightmare, NATO was galvanized. Both Sweden and Finland announced closer ties to the military alliance, which in turn revealed plans to establish forward bases near the Russian border and to pursue closer relations with Ukraine. 

Uncharacteristically, Putin has now made not one but three fatal errors.

First, in an epic miscalculation, he waited much too long to send in his forces. He gave Poroshenko the chance to demonstrate to the world that the pro-Russian rebels could not win on the battlefield without Russian assistance. Had Putin intervened earlier, he could have claimed that the rebels would have won anyway and he was just hastening the result to save lives. Now, he cannot escape the world’s condemnation as an invader and occupier.

Second, Putin has grossly misread the sentiment on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. As the brilliant Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova reported

“All we really care about is that nobody bombs our homes, our schools and kindergartens,” Lyudmila Zakharenko told The Daily Beast on the central square of Sloviansk, which was once the center of pro-Russian rebel resistance. Most residents there switched their opinion from pro-Russian to pro-Ukrainian once the rebel forces were pushed out of town.

In other words, if Putin does take Eastern Ukraine he’ll face a situation far worse that what he saw in Chechnya at the start of his presidency:  the domestic population will not support him, and rather than a ragtag group of terrorists Putin will face a determined nation army with widespread international support. What’s more, he’ll be fighting close to the borders of several NATO member states who will be outraged. Meanwhile, Russians will become more and more alienated from him, just as they did during the worst moments of the war in Chechnya.

And finally, Putin has badly misread his own people. As hundreds of Russian soldiers have started disappearing in Ukraine and numerous secret funerals have been staged in Russia, a backlash against Putin’s cowardly, secret war is starting to emerge. The families who have lost their sons are not remaining conveniently quiet, but rather are speaking out and demanding answers.

His failure in Ukraine combined with his failure to manage the Russian economy have finally unmasked Vladimir Putin. For years he worked to cultivate the image of a statesman in the West, demanding that nations like the U.S. observe international law in places like Syria. But now the world has seen Putin lie shamelessly and repeatedly about Russia’s intentions in Ukraine and has seen Russia disregard international law thoughtlessly and openly. The world has seen behind the curtain, and it sees a man whose actions and intentions differ unremarkably from those of Adolf Hitler.

Yet for all his folly, Putin still has the same chance of success that Hitler had, namely the hope that the Western nations will not rise to the defense of his victim states, but rather will simply sit back and watch him devour them. Hitler was not prevented from consuming Czechoslovakia, and if he had stopped his aggression after doing so he might well have got away with it. Many believe that if Putin is successful in swallowing Ukraine, his next target would be Georgia and then the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (then again, he recently found time to joke with a  fellow Russian about annexing Kazakhstan).

Indeed, in a recent interview (Russian-language link) Vladmir Lukin, a foreign policy pundit close to Putin, stated: "Putin should not pay too much attention to Obama. He can't attack him too much, lest the Republicans win the next election. He needs Hillary in the Oval Office.” 

Georgia is not a NATO member, but the Baltic states are. If Putin were to move against the Baltics, he would face the same type of response that Hitler faced when he moved into Poland.  But what if he only goes after Ukraine and Georgia? If the West only responds with economic sanctions and not direct military support and financial aid, Putin might succeed in annexing both nations.  Having done so, could he restrain his greed and lust, as Hitler could not? Or will the West finally realize that it can’t simply allow Putin to blithely seek to reestablish the USSR without a fight?

Some Russophiles may take umbrage at a comparison between Putin and Hitler, but they can only do so while being unaware that in Putin's bloodthirsty commentary about Ukraine he himself has equated that nation to Nazi Germany. He stated:  "Small villages and large cities surrounded by the Ukrainian army which is directly hitting residential areas with the aim of destroying the infrastructure. It sadly reminds me the events of the Second World War, when German fascist occupiers surrounded our cities."

Imagine Hitler calling Czechoslovakia the aggressor in World War II and you'll have some sense of how far through the looking glass Vladimir Putin has taken neo-Soviet Russia. Putin has brought Europe to the brink of a third major international conflict, and he has done so for the same nakedly imperialistic reasons that were characteristic of Hitler, and with the same crazed bravado. Putin believes he can construct an alternate universe in which Russia is the victim, not the perpetrator, of aggression.

He must be stopped.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.

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