Putin Has Turned Himself Into the ‘World’s Most Toxic Man’

World Politics Review, 02.03.2022
Howard W. French, corresponsal extranjero y escritor de asuntos mundiales

The early results are in and could hardly be clearer: The much-dreaded Russian version of a shock-and-awe campaign to subdue Ukraine has failed

No one knows exactly what will happen next, but the Ukrainian people have just offered a robust rebuttal to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that they are not members of a real nation. As the entire world has now seen from the first days of the conflict, their patriotism and valor in standing up to a far larger and better-armed Russian adversary caused the invaders to bog down and lose momentum. Most observers, not least Putin himself, thought that Kyiv would fall quickly, and yet a week into this conflict, Russia has still failed to capture even a single major city.

For those who see Putin as he deserves to be seen—a dangerous and power-deluded man—this is not yet the time for unreserved celebration, nor even great optimism about the future of Ukraine. And yet much has changed in remarkably little time as a result of Russia’s foolhardy adventure, and it is not too early to begin to assess some long-term consequences that will flow from this aggression.

Russia almost certainly has enough raw power to impose its will on Ukraine. Indeed, forces sufficient to unseat the country’s legitimate government and chase its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into exile were carefully arrayed around Ukraine’s circumference prior to the commencement of outright aggression. So it is worth asking, What stopped Moscow from going all in with the use of force? It is widely agreed that the Western sanctions imposed on Russia, which continue to be ratcheted up by increments, will take months or even years for their full effects to be felt in Moscow, so the answer doesn’t lie there.

It was two other things that stopped Putin, and they are hugely relevant for one of the world’s other major fault lines today. Putin has to have been shocked by the weight of opprobrium and bad odor that suddenly surrounds him. Nearly overnight, the invasion of Ukraine has turned him into a man with almost no friends. Other than his captive neighbor, Belarus, no other nation has unambiguously expressed its support for him in word, let alone deed. Even Kazakhstan’s government, recently saved by a Russian military intervention from being overthrown, refused to send even a symbolic brigade of troops to Russian-controlled Crimea.

Putin’s blunder has caused Europe not only to close ranks, but also its airspace to Russian aviation. It has caused Germany to nearly double its defense spending, slow its plans to abandon the use of nuclear reactors for electricity generation and overturn decades of policies aimed at preventing the sale of arms into active conflict zones. It has caused Italy and others to overcome their reluctance to impose restrictions on Russian banking by excluding them from the SWIFT system. It has infused NATO with a sense of purpose unlike any it has had in more than two decades. Even a historically self-interested and died-in-the-wool neutral nation like Switzerland has sanctioned Russia.

His miscalculation also seems likely to bring about major changes in global energy markets. Already, BP has withdrawn its 20 percent stake from Russia’s most important oil consortium, Rosneft, quickly followed by Shell, which also withdrew from the world’s newest pariah state. In an eerie echo of history, but in reverse, by failing to consolidate its takeover of Ukraine during the height of winter—think Hitler and Napoleon—Moscow has given Germany and other energy-dependent clients in Western Europe the time they need to accelerate the diversification of their supply of natural gas away from Russian pipelines.

But even amid all of this, it is the global media—led by U.S. and U.K. news companies, but also by a new and possibly even more powerful force that Putin badly underestimated, global social media—that have done the most early on to confine Russia’s leader to a suffocating labyrinth. Putin has become the world’s most toxic man, while Zelensky has become a figure of near-universal admiration on Twitter and Facebook. In recent days, even Fox News, which had only recently flirted openly with embracing Putin as a prop for white nationalism in the United States’ culture wars, has taken to condemning him.

For a vain, aging leader supposedly driven by a preoccupation with his legacy, Putin seems to have ensured that however the Ukraine war ends, global media—both legacy and social—will color him not with dappled tones, but entirely in dark ones. In almost all of the formerly colonized nations of the Soviet Union, this is already the prevailing popular view of him, and it seems likely that Putin will go out being seen as a big failure by Russians, too.

The media, by the way, has a lot to do with why Russia couldn’t put its boot down more swiftly in Ukraine, too. This war has been highly televised, a phenomenon immensely facilitated by the ubiquitous smartphone. So far, there have been numerous scenes redolent of China’s Tiananmen Square “tank man” circa 1989, this time with individual and small groups of Ukrainians stepping into the way of Russian tanks to prevent their movement.

Any realistic assessment must still conclude that, however clumsy its invasion has been so far, Moscow has enough military assets to prevail on paper. But as the second week of the conflict gets underway, however much power it has amassed to pursue its war campaign, Russia must weigh very carefully the optics of large-scale bombardment of major cities, like Kyiv, or of intense urban warfare, especially in the age of the smartphone and social media. Wars, of course, are not fought on paper, nor are they even confined to battlefields. Their ultimate stage is in the minds of those who watch, near and far, and a major escalation of the conflict now will turn Putin into a persona non grata outside of his country for life, and perhaps lead to charges of war crimes. Forget about Ukrainians rallying to Russia, as Putin may once have hoped. Now they will never forgive him, and the security response of Europe and the West aimed at isolating Moscow will only deepen.

Beyond Europe, the most immediate lessons here are for China and its desire to absorb Taiwan against that autonomous island’s will. Although many details differ, it is impossible not to see the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a kind of dry run by surrogate for a possible Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force. And as such, the lessons must surely look grim for Beijing. In case of conflict, not only would it need to overcome the daunting special challenges that come with trying to project force across a body of water. The Western and worldwide response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine show that it would also face extremely harsh punishment from Western sanctions. But that is only the beginning. As Ukraine and Zelensky have shown, aggressors face even stronger sanctions from global opinion when they launch attempts to take over democratic underdogs. And China, in this regard, seems even less prepared than Russia to deal with the toxic fallout.

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