Twenty-two years ago, a vicious war brought Vladimir Putin to power. Ever since, war has remained one of his main tools, which he has used without flinching throughout his reign. Vladimir Putin exists thanks to war, he has thrived through war. Let us now hope that a war will finally bring him down.
In August 1999, a then-unknown Vladimir Putin was named prime minister when his predecessor refused to condone a full reinvasion of Chechnya. Putin, however, was ready, and in return for their unconditional support he granted the military a free rein, allowing them to avenge their humiliating 1996 defeat in blood and fire. On the night of 31 December, an aging and broken Boris Yeltsin stepped down, handing the presidency like a gift to the newcomer. In March 2000, after famously promising to “grease the terrorists even in the outhouse”, Putin was triumphantly elected president. With the exception of his four years as prime minister (2008-2012), he has ruled Russia ever since.
I returned to Chechnya as an aid worker when the second war began. In February 2000, I had dinner with Sergey Kovalev, the great Russian human rights defender, and I asked him the question on everyone’s lips: who was this new unknown president? Who was Putin? I still remember Kovalev’s answer: “You want to know who Vladimir Putin is, young man? Vladimir Putin is a lieutenant colonel of the KGB. And do you know what a lieutenant colonel of the KGB is? Absolutely nothing.” What Kovalev meant was that a man who had never even made a full colonel was simply a small-minded operative, incapable of thinking ahead more than a move or two. And while Putin, over his 22 years in power, has grown immensely in stature and experience, I still believe the late Kovalev was fundamentally right.
Tactically, however, Putin soon proved brilliant, especially at exploiting the weakness and divisions of the west. It took him years to crush the Chechens and install a puppet regime there, but he succeeded. In 2008, four months after Nato promised a path to accession for Ukraine and Georgia, he gathered his armies for “maneuvers” at the Georgian border and invaded the country in five days, recognizing the independence of two breakaway “republics”. The western democracies mumbled protests, and did practically nothing.
In 2014, when the Ukrainian people, after a bloody revolution, overthrew their pro-Russian president, who had turned his back on Europe fully to align himself with Moscow, Putin swiftly invaded and annexed Crimea, the first overt landgrab in Europe since the second world war. When our leaders, shocked and bewildered, responded with sanctions, he upped the ante and provoked uprisings in Donbas, a Russian-speaking area of Ukraine, using his forces covertly to crush a weak Ukrainian army and carve out two new breakaway “republics”, where a low-level war has simmered ever since.
Thus he began what the French would call his you went ahead, his “flight forward”. At every step, the west condemned and attempted to punish him, with mild and ineffective measures, in the vain hope of discouraging him. And at every step, he doubled down, and went further.
Putin is a small man, physically, and growing up in postwar Leningrad must have been tough for him. It clearly taught him a lesson: if you are the smaller boy, hit first, hit hard and keep hitting. And the bigger boys will learn to fear you, and will back off. It is a lesson he has taken to heart. The US’s military budget for 2021 was about $750bn, Europe’s combined budget $200bn, and Russia’s about $65bn. Yet he still scares us a lot more than we scare him. It’s the advantage of fighting like a cornered rat, rather than like a pudgy boy gone soft on a diet of Coca-Cola, Instagram and 80 years of peace in Europe.
Putin must have rejoiced when the west, eager to freeze the active conflict in Donbas, quietly allowed Crimea off the discussion table, effectively conceding the illegal annexation to Russia. He saw that while sanctions hurt, they did n’t bite deep, and would allow him to continue building his military and extending his power from him. He saw that Germany, the greatest economic power in Europe, was unwilling to wean itself off his gas and his markets. He saw that he could buy European politicians, including former German and French prime ministers, and install them on the boards of his state-controlled companies. He saw that even the countries that nominally opposed his moves still kept repeating the mantras of “diplomacy”, “reset”, “the need to normalize relations”. He saw that each time he pushed, the west would roll over and then come fawning, hoping for an ever-elusive “deal”: Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump – the list is long.
Putin began murdering his opponents, at home and abroad. When it happened, we squeaked, but it never went further. When Obama, in 2013, callously ignored his own “red line” in Syria, refusing to intervene after Bashar al-Assad’s poison gassing of a civilian neighborhood in Damascus, Putin paid attention. In 2015, he sent his own forces into Syria, developing his naval base in Tartus and gaining a new air base in Khmeimin. Over the next seven years, he used Syria as a testing ground for his military, granting invaluable field experience to his officer corps and honing their tactics, coordination and equipment, all the while bombing and slaughtering thousands of Syrians, and helping Assad to regain control of large swaths of the country.
In January 2018, he began confronting western powers directly in the Central African Republic, sending his Wagner mercenaries there. The same process is now under way in Mali, where the military junta, with Russian support, has just forced the French anti-Isis mission out of the country. Russia is also actively involved in Libya, foiling western attempts to bring peace to the country, and deploying forces along the southern flank of the Mediterranean, in a position to directly threaten European interests. Every time, we protested, flailed, and did exactly nothing. And every time, he took a good note.
ORkraine represents the moment when he finally decided to put his cards on the table. He clearly believes he is strong enough to openly defy the west by launching the first land war in Europe since 1945. And he believes it because everything we have done, or rather failed to do over the last 22 years, has taught him that we are weak.
Putin might be a tactical genius, but he is incapable of thinking strategically. Our leaders have refused to truly understand him, but he has also had no interest in understanding us. Completely isolated for the past two years because of Covid, he seems to have become increasingly paranoid and imbued with his own pan-Slavic, neo-imperialist and Orthodox ideology, originally a wholly artificial creation designed to give a thin veneer of legitimacy to his corrupt regimen of him
He seems to have truly swallowed his own propaganda when it comes to the Ukrainians. Did he believe they would welcome their Russian “liberators”? That they would just surrender? If he did, he was very wrong. The Ukrainians are fighting, and though outnumbered and outgunned, they are fighting hard. Schoolteachers, office clerks, housewives, artists, students, DJs and drag queens are taking up guns and going out to shoot Russian soldiers, many of whom are mere children who have no idea what they are doing there. Ukraine is not giving up an inch of ground, and it seems Putin will not be able to take their cities without leveling them, as he once leveled Grozny and Aleppo. And do not think that just because Kyiv is a “European” city, Putin will shrink from leveling it. Bombing has already started.
After the initial shock, the western democracies – finally! – seem to have understood the existential threat that Putin poses to the postwar world order, to Europe, and to our “way of life” which he so dismisses. Crushing sanctions are being put into place, no matter what the economic cost to us. Arms are pouring into Ukraine. Germany seems to have realized overnight that it can no longer continue to depend on the kindness of others for its security, and that it needs an army of its own, a real and functional one. Russia is being massively isolated on the international level, and its economy and capacities will be severely diminished.
But this is not enough. As long as Putin remains in power, he will continue to double down, to push further, and to do as much harm as he can. Because he hates the west, and because his power is entirely based on violence: not just the threat, but the systematic use of it. It is the only way he knows how to behave. Can we really believe his nuclear threat from him is just a bluff? Can we afford to? As long as he continues to rule Russia, no one will be safe. Not one.
The only way out of this crisis is to make Putin’s failure in Ukraine so disastrous for Russia and its genuine interests that his own elite will have no choice but to remove him. And for this much more could be done. Our governments seemed focused on punishing the Russian “oligarchs”, but they must understand that Putin has nothing but contempt for them, and he does not care to fig for their opinions or their assets; he considers them mere cash cows, there to be milked for his needs from him.
The western sanctions need to target the people who actually enable Putin’s actions: his entire senior security and administrative apparatus. Not just the few dozen people already targeted, but the thousands of second-tier officials in the presidential administration, the military and the security services. These people are not billionaires, but all are multimillionaires, with much to lose. Ruin the lives of these several thousand people, and let them judge who is to blame. Seize the mansions in England and Spain, forbid the vacations in Courchevel and Sardinia, throw their children unceremoniously out of Harvard and Oxford, and let them stay in Russia, with no way out and no imported goods to spend their stolen money on. Make the cost a real one, a personal one, and let them see if it is worth the price to maintain a deranged, power-hungry tsar on his throne. Let them decide if they want to follow him into the abyss.
Over the past 22 years Russia has fallen prey to a demented, corrupt and totalitarian regime, one we have in many ways facilitated. But it is a great country, one I have loved deeply, and one that has produced wonderful, humane, just men and women. It deserves better than this clique of thieves looting its wealth under the cover of illusory imperial fantasies, and ravaging its neighbors to maintain their grip on total power. Russia deserves freedom, the same freedom Ukraine has painfully obtained over the past three decades. A ceasefire in Ukraine is a vital, urgent first step, and a full Russian withdrawal a second one. But after that, Putin must go.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism