Putin’s imperial delusions will haunt Russia

The Russian president has overplayed his hand in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to St. Petersburg's governor Alexander Beglov during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia,
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to St Petersburg's Governor Alexander Beglov during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on March 1, 2022 [Alexei Nikolsky, Kremlin Pool photo via AP]

Up until February 24, Vladimir Putin had it good. The Russian economy was in decent shape. The opposition was muffled, with Alexey Navalny locked up and his organisation largely neutered. The West had more or less swallowed the annexation of Crimea.

Yes, leaders opposed the landgrab rhetorically but thought it was a done deal. The conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine had become “Europe’s forgotten war”. Hostilities never really ceased since the peak in 2014-2015, and people regularly got killed, but so long as the Minsk accords were in place, the likes of Germany and France had a handy diplomatic fig leaf.

And not to forget, Western leaders were talking, however cautiously, about engagement with Russia. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron thought a strategic dialogue with Moscow was in order. United States President Joe Biden too, though hardly a fan of Putin’s, thought cooperation was desirable and possible in areas such as strategic arms control and even cybersecurity. The summit the two presidents held back in June 2021 even ended on a relatively positive note.

This is now history. The attack against Ukraine has brought Russia closer to a pariah state status: a North Korea in Europe’s east, if you will. And it has also united Europe against it and even its “friends” have fallen in line.

Who would have thought, for instance, that a Social Democratic Chancellor of Germany would pull the plug on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline? Or that Italy, Hungary and Cyprus would go along with the decision to cut off Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system? Or that the European Union and the US would go as far as sanctioning the Russian Central Bank and freezing a good chunk of its foreign reserves held in the West?

The decision has sent the rouble into a free fall. It has also signalled to energy majors like BP and Shell that it is time to divest from Russia, writing off billions from their balance sheets. They have done so promptly. Big business was often in bed with Moscow, but that is no longer the case. Even Putin’s fanboys in Eastern Europe – like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or the Czech President Miloš Zeman – would rather not be associated with the Kremlin these days.

You have to give it to Putin. From 2014, his actions have helped not only consolidate Ukraine’s sense of nationhood, as Russian and Ukrainian speakers have come together to face the invaders. But now the Kremlin’s master has also given a boost to the EU’s unity on foreign and security policy.

Much the same way COVID-19 led to a quantum leap in member states’ willingness to mutualise debt and grant the EU fiscal powers, Brussels is now getting its act together externally, too. The EU is poised to use its budget to purchase armaments for Ukraine. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has committed to spending 2 percent of its GDP on defence. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is even touting locking in this decision in the constitution.

What is more, the US and Europe are the closest they have been since the administration of US President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Even the boldest among transatlanticists in Washington DC did not see this coming. Neither did Putin and his entourage of securitocrats.

Putin overplayed his hand. Frankly, the West would have tolerated Russia’s recognition – that is, semi-formal annexation – of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in their de facto boundaries. Kyiv probably would have been forced to accept it, too: let bygones be bygones.

But the Kremlin pushed further, taking us into uncharted territory. Now the survival of Ukraine as a sovereign state hangs in the balance.

Despite its botched campaign and Ukrainians’ dogged resistance, Russia has every chance to win. To our horror, it will do so using scorched-earth tactics. The Kremlin has no qualms about doing to Kharkiv, Kyiv or Odesa what it did to Grozny and Aleppo. Make no mistake: Putin would do the same to Tyumen, Rostov or Yekaterinburg – or any city in Russia – if he sensed that his political survival demanded it.

The latter-day tsar is in defiant mode. He is hell-bent on taking Ukraine and seems to care little about how impoverished Russia will emerge from this adventure, how many Ukrainian civilians – including ethnic Russians – will be slaughtered, or how many youthful Russian conscripts will go home in body bags. There is nothing to stop him right now, sadly.

Nevertheless, this war is not winnable. A quisling regime in Kyiv would be as stable as South Vietnam under American tutelage. Russia will be footing the bill in blood and treasure. The occupation of a country the size of Ukraine, with a hostile population, will impose a tremendous cost on both the Kremlin and Russian society.

According to the government-owned pollster VTSIOM, many Russians in their early 20s are against the “spetsoperatsiya”, though 68 percent overall support it. Sooner or later, ordinary Russians – not just the liberal urbanites in Moscow and St Petersburg – will have to come to terms with the fratricide they have become complicit in.

It will be them paying for the Kremlin’s imperial delusions, not Putin’s cronies and the hawks in the corridors of power whose offspring have cushy jobs in the state-run companies. Western sanctions will meanwhile depress growth and stifle innovation in the economy. Social discontent will be brewing under the veneer of authoritarian stability. Putin wants to own Ukraine, but in the end, it will be Ukraine owning him.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.