Vladimir Putin does not have a rational, dianoetic goal capable of being analysed in a logical, coherent way.
The 69 year-old autocrat and former spy has held the reins in Moscow since 1999. Since that date he's made sure his rule is both absolute and unchallenged.
When he came to power Russia's GDP per person had reached its nadir; just US $1330 per person. The place was a disaster and endorsing Putin's strong-man control appeared to offer a way out. He offered a return to prosperity and a vague form of civic government in return for absolute power.
By 2012 GDP had risen to $15,420. Now, however, it's contracted back to $10,000 and the shrugging acceptance that once guaranteed his despotic rule is necessarily buttressed by secret police and intimidation. Putin's rule remains absolute, with dissenting voices either silenced or incarcerated. But he's now as vulnerable - and as dangerous - as a cornered snake.
And this is the background to the problem the west faces as it attempts to resolve the invasion of Ukraine. Putin believes he lives in a world where he has the right to choose who governs countries in his 'sphere of influence'. Because he sits in grand halls surrounded by saluting guardsmen (who snap to attention) and grovelling lackeys (who rush to agree with his every thought), his understanding of the 'real' world has become unhinged. But try telling that to a madman possessing nuclear weapons.
That's why the military resistance to his offensive has been so important.
Russian tank armies are designed specifically to smash through defensive lines and strike quickly for the brain of enemy forces, their command and control networks. This made them the ultimate conventional weapon of the cold war. The theory was that they would crush opposition under their tracks as they rolled forwards, unable to be stopped by anything less than a nuclear strike. In the days since Putin gave the orders that first launched his forces towards Kyiv, however, it seems as if the reality is not exactly matching the projections written in Russian manuals.
The carefully planned strike on the capital has moved forwards inexorably but (at 15km a day) far slower than intended. It appears that in places Ukrainians have been targeting the soft-skinned and vital refuelling vehicles needed to support the tanks, while at the front hand-held anti-tank missiles and projectiles have damaged a large number of these supposedly invulnerable weapons systems, as well as knocking troop-carrying helicopters out of the sky.
It's unlikely such defiance can continue for long (the Russian forces are simply too strong and overwhelming) but for every day it continues this resistance creates a new dynamic. It's a message that directly contradicts Putin's narrative and corrodes his control, eating away at the assumption he will always be in power and revealing the reality that the foundations of his rule have been laid on sand. This is why the Ukraine has now become a war of narratives.
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Perhaps because he's a former actor, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky understands the power of stories. When the US offered to fly him out he tweeted: "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride."
By the time this is published he will probably have either fled his palace or been killed. Either way, however, the story line of his legitimacy will endure. By displaying defiance and seizing the moral high ground he has ensured he, or the desires of Ukrainian nationalists, will have their voices heard at the end of this conflict.
This is the last thing Putin wants.
The worst prospect for the Russian autocrat was that the conflict would become internationalised and that other countries would actually be prepared to line up against him. That's why Putin so desperately needed his tanks to smash through the defences so quickly. He needed to demonstrate that there was no point in opposing his will; that he was so powerful that nothing could stop him. Today, however, Putin (just like Josef Stalin before him) is paying the price of being an absolute ruler: nobody in their tight little circle they draw around them will tell the truth. Many will not even recognise it. The autocrats become more and more remote until they begin to act against their own, long-term interests.
Putin already is.
Before the invasion he held all the cards and didn't have to play any. He was being rewarded for not moving and didn't have to risk anything. Then his nature came to the fore. He just couldn't resist striking, even though there was everything to lose, nothing more to be gained. Initiating this conflict was not the balanced act of a normal person.
This is the only way to understand this war.
Forget the justifications of left and right. The conflict was not 'started' by the US, no matter how unwelcome NATO expansion may have been in Moscow.
Nor is it somehow acceptable to see Ukraine as within Russia's sphere of influence and there can be no sympathy for Putin no matter how concerned he was about being 'surrounded'.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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