The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s attack on Ukraine is about more than his own delusions of grandeur

Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)
4 min

Vladimir Putin’s brutal and tragic attack on Ukraine is about more than his own delusions of grandeur. It is also a lesson for the Russian people about what happens to those who insist on seeking Western-style democracy.

Putin has indeed looked like a madman this week, dressing down his national security team like Captain Queeg in search of his strawberries and addressing the world in a rambling, hour-long soliloquy full of made-up history and self-pitying paranoia. He falsely and absurdly accused Ukraine’s democratically elected government of “genocide,” using that canard as justification for the most massive military assault in Europe since World War II.

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From Putin’s warped perspective, the attack is not unprovoked. Twice since the turn of this century, the Ukrainian people have had the temerity to rise up and oust leadership that wanted post-Soviet Ukraine to be a permanent vassal of Putin’s Russia. The last thing Putin wants is for Russians to get the idea that such heresy — which could threaten his own hold on power — can go unpunished.

So Putin has both rational and irrational motives for the unspeakable crime he is committing. In the short term, he is almost sure to “win” his war. In the long run, though, his Ukraine adventure might prove neither “smart” nor “savvy,” despite what former president Donald Trump might think.

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I believe Putin wants future generations to see him as one of the towering figures in Russian history, along with Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Lenin and Stalin. As recently as 2005, he said that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He called it a tragedy that “tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”

From all indications, Russia’s leader wants to be remembered as Putin the Great, who reversed the “catastrophe” and restored the Russian empire — first czarist, then Soviet, then dismembered — to its rightful glory. And in Putin’s view, the most precious jewel unfairly ripped from the imperial crown is Ukraine.

Economic sanctions, such as those being applied by the United States and our allies, are effective at making leaders recalculate the costs and benefits of their actions. They might have little or no effect, however, on messianic fantasies or megalomaniacal crusades.

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The fact that there is method to Putin’s madness might make sanctions even less likely to change his behavior, especially since he has tried to harden the Russian economy against such punishment. A threat to the Russian leader’s historical standing is one thing; a threat to his continued hold on power is quite another.

In 2004, millions of Ukrainians took to the streets, in what became known as the Orange Revolution, and prevented the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-backed candidate who had been elected in balloting riddled with fraud. Yanukovych later became president in 2010, only to be chased from office in 2014 by massive protests over his refusal to sign an agreement forging closer political and economic ties with the European Union.

These demonstrations of people power made an impression on Putin, and not in a good way. He took the position that the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine was nothing but an illegal coup. As a concrete sign of his displeasure, he seized Crimea by force and helped Russian-speaking separatists carve out two enclaves — Donetsk and Luhansk — in the eastern part of Ukraine that on Monday he recognized as independent.

Putin’s bizarre and false claim that the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is full of “Nazis” appears to be an invented justification for ordering forces into Kyiv, where he no doubt intends to dissolve the democratically elected government and install authorities loyal to Mother Russia. CNN broadcast images Thursday morning of a military airfield just 20 miles from Kyiv that was already in Russian hands.

But international media outlets also broadcast images of protesters, in Moscow and other Russian cities, being arrested and hauled away. To see Russian soldiers actually waging war against Ukrainians, with whom Russians have historical and often familial ties, is the kind of shock that has to raise questions among Russians about Putin’s judgment. And, perhaps, about his future.

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Rather than confuse and weaken NATO, Putin seems to have united its members. Rather than erase the notion of independent Ukrainian nationhood, he seems to have reinforced it.

And while roughly 200,000 troops equipped with modern weaponry might be enough to defeat the Ukrainian military, they are not enough to permanently conquer a country of more than 43 million people who don’t want to be occupied. Putin hasn’t made a bold chess move; he has overturned the chessboard. He cannot be sure where the pieces will land.