Prior to Putin’s bold, all-out attack on Ukraine earlier this year, Putin had ruled Russia for more than two decades, increasingly and ruthlessly consolidating his power until he rivaled even the most authoritarian and absolutist of the Tsars that have ruled Muscovy for more than five centuries. He took over control of the state apparatus in the aftermath of the failed attempt at democracy that came after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. That experiment was initiated by the infamous Boris Yeltsin who likely spent more time drinking than governing, and Russia descended into a chaotic, oligarchic controlled mess of a country. After a decade or so of this turmoil, Putin took power and it can be said that he did manage to bring some order to the country, but it was at the expense of Russia’s nascent experiment with democracy and free enterprise.
Putin spent most of his pre-political career working for the KGB and its successor, the FSB, and that molded his mind set and ultimately his governing style once he came into power. His antipathy towards western concepts of liberal democracy and human rights was well established by the time he became President of Russia. He proved to be a skilled manipulator and power broker and dedicated a lot of time and effort towards creating a personality cult centered around his public image as some sort of super intelligent, virile and invincible leader, an amalgam of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin, someone not to be challenged or trifled with. Those that did challenge his authority were disposed of through “accidental” falls from tall buildings, drinking polonium laced tea or dying under suspicious circumstances.
He was fortunate enough to come into power at a time the Russian economy experienced a natural resource boom, particularly in the oil industry, and export revenues helped him stabilize the Russian economy which had been in free fall. Most of this new wealth found its way into the pockets of the handful of powerful oligarchs that Putin had cultivated and built into his own personal power base, though he was smart enough to ensure that a sufficient portion was spread down to the lower classes to keep them in bread and vodka, and keep any disgruntlement over the economic inequity under control.
He planted his own loyalists in the ranks of the military and the secret services, and made them dependent on him by allowing them to profit through tacit corruption within the organizations they were in charge of. This applied equally to all the large commercial enterprises, both state-owned and private. He made sure those at the top of these corporations understood that their wealth and positions were subject to his sole discretion. Concurrent with all this, he plowed a lot of investment into Russia’s military, aiming to strengthen and modernize it as befitting a true major world power.
His successes over the past decade in Georgia, Chechnya, Syria, Crimea and the Donbas enhanced his mythological stature not only in Russia, but also in the eyes of most of the free world. His shrewdness, political skills and military successes almost gave him an aura of invincibility. And so it seemed at least until February of this year, when he decided he would invade Ukraine and absorb it into his vision of a grand ”Russkiy Mir”.
His planned three day “special military operation” was soon exposed as a mirage. Nine months into his ill-conceived war, Russia is being humiliated on the field of battle by the smaller but feisty Ukrainian forces, the Russian economy is in free fall after punishing global sanctions, Russia has become a pariah country on the world stage, and his mythological stature is being trashed on a daily basis. He has discovered that his vaunted military is but a “Potemkin” shell, and all those billions that he though had been invested into strengthening it, instead went into buying mega yachts, pricey real estate in Europe and filling the off-shore bank accounts of his oligarchic buddies and generals. He has also discovered that the “intelligence” that has fueled most of his decision making in this war is nothing but the braying of his yes-men donkey entourage, telling him what he wanted to hear rather than what the true facts were. When you become an all-powerful autocrat, those who surround you and who you depend on will never tell you bad news or facts that may contradict your beliefs or perspective on things. You eventually come to live in a delusional reality far removed from the reality that actually exist.
The past few months have demonstrated that Putin is not invincible, that he is not as smart or capable as he thinks he is, and that he has miscalculated badly in starting this war. The myth of Putin is crumbling as he is being increasingly exposed as the small-minded, cruel and evil thug that he has always been. Reality is beginning to bite him in the ass.