Russia’s incompetent bully of a leader, Vladimir Putin, has just committed his latest blunder. He’s decided to prop up the dying Assad regime with weapons and soldiers. Good luck! The USSR’s fiasco in Afghanistan and America’s in Iraq have clearly failed to deter the Kremlin’s serial bumbler from committing his latest strategic mistake.
The mortar shell that struck Russia’s embassy compound in Damascus on September 20th is a foretaste of things to come. As Russian troops intervene in greater numbers—as they surely will in order to prop up a doomed regime—Russian casualties will mount. Eventually, ISIS will engage in its usual barbarism and beheaded Russian soldiers will appear on television. At that point, Western commentators, who’ve mostly interpreted Putin’s intervention as a devilishly clever move, will start saying that Russia stumbled into a conflict it cannot win.
Putin watchers shouldn’t be surprised by the Russian dictator’s latest blunder.
His mistakes started with his unwillingness to use the enormous windfall from rising energy prices to modernize the Russian economy. Instead of building an open society, Putin constructed a “fascistoid” political system and kept Russia as a petro-state. That Russia’s economy is now contracting as a result of falling energy prices is Putin’s fault. So is the fact that educated professionals and money are leaving the country in droves.
Putin stupidly supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2004, thereby accelerating that country’s drift toward the West. Even more stupidly, he opposed Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union in late 2013, thereby sparking the Euromaidan Revolution that led to Yanukovych’s flight. Putin then invaded the Crimea and the Donbas—provinces that he already controlled—thereby turning Ukraine against Russia, destroying the occupied regions’ economies, and saddling Russia with the bill. All this, while sanctions accelerated Russia’s economic decline, smothered foreign investment, and increased capital flight.
Meanwhile, Russia’s violation of the postwar security order in Europe galvanized a demoralized NATO, turned the United States and Europe against Russia, led to traditionally Russophile Germany’s adoption of an anti-Russian stance, forced Putin to grovel before an indifferent China, and transformed Russia into a rogue state whose closest ally now appears to be mighty North Korea.
Russians used to joke that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was a CIA plot to destroy the Soviet Union. I’m beginning to think Vlad Putin is a sleeper agent of the Company. A few more years of his bumbling, and the Russian state may become history.
The bottom line is that Russia’s security and strength are significantly worse off today than they were two years ago. And Putin, whom Russians adore, is to blame.
To top it off, Putin has decided to jump from the frying pan into the fire by intervening in Syria.
Not just with weapons, but with actual troops. The Assad regime is either doomed, or it can be saved only with massive outside intervention. Wisely, neither the West nor the Arab states want to send in troops. Russia will have to, increasingly. Will Russia be able to defeat ISIS? Probably not. Even if it does, the price it’ll pay in lives and money will be high. You’d think that Putin might have learned from the USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan and America’s in Iraq. Evidently not—which is exactly what you’d expect from a paranoid, narcissistic, solipsistic fascist leader who doesn’t understand that a declining economy is a brake on foreign interventions.
Meanwhile, ISIS isn’t Putin’s only problem. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces condemned Russia on September 12th:
With this aggressive move, Russia has moved from a stage of supporting a criminal regime that carries out genocide in our country to a stage of direct military intervention alongside a crumbling illegitimate regime. The direct Russian military intervention places the Russian leadership in a position of hostility towards the Syrian people, and makes its forces on Syrian soil occupation forces… We present these facts to the international community, to the UN, to the Arab League, and especially to the Russian people—we do not wish upon them in Syria a repeat of their experience in Afghanistan—because Syrians will not remain silent over the occupation of their land and the spilling of their sons’ blood.
Putin’s Syrian idiocy makes Ukraine the big winner. Having effectively abandoned his proxies in the Donbas, Putin has made a frozen conflict there almost inevitable. The terrorists, thugs, and mercenaries misruling the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave won’t agree to reintegrate into Ukraine on Kyiv’s terms, and Kyiv can’t agree to reintegrate them on theirs. The resulting stalemate will keep the Donbas hellhole out of Ukraine, force Russia to keep paying millions to sustain it, and free Ukraine to focus on internal reforms and external Westernization.
Russians are the big losers. They will have to pay with their lives for Putin’s megalomania and their own moral blindness.
Also in the running are Western realist scholars.
They’ve been arguing that Russia attacked Ukraine because of some mythical NATO plot to incorporate it. Wrong: NATO was a paper tiger and, while Kyiv did not seriously pursue Ukraine’s membership until after Russia invaded, NATO has remained skittish about the prospect even today.
They’ve also been arguing that Ukraine is an existential interest of Russia, and that Moscow would defend it to the finish. Wrong again: No rational leader abandons an existential interest to engage in crazy overseas adventures.
Finally, they’ve been arguing that Putin is a rational ruler who wants to maximize Russia’s power and security. Wrong, wrong, wrong: Putin is rational only if rationality is tantamount to paranoia, hyper-nationalism, imperialism, and supremacism.