When asked how he went bankrupt, a character in an early novel by Ernest Hemingway replied: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Much the same can be said about the fate of great powers. After staggering along for enough years to make even sceptics think they will always be with us, one day they surprise everyone by collapsing. This is what happened to Rome, whose decline took several centuries, and to the Soviet Union, which came crashing down when it was about to celebrate its 69th birthday. The way things are shaping up, its successor, the Russian Federation, could soon find itself consigned alongside them to what Leon Trotsky called “the dustbin of history.”
Respected pundits, including specialists in military affairs, are now suggesting that the hard-pressed Russian forces still occupying a considerable chunk of Ukraine could disintegrate completely in a matter of days. We’ll soon know if they are right. Events on the battlefield are moving so fast, with panicky Russian troops filmed fleeing in panic from the better-equipped and better-trained Ukrainians who are bent on encircling them before finishing them off, that forecasts can become obsolete within hours, as Vladimir Putin learned when told that his troops were in the process of losing places he had just told the world would be Russian “forever.” As he and many other people are uncomfortably aware, a humiliating defeat in Ukraine could not only spell the end of his mafia-like regime, but could also lead to the unravelling of a heterogeneous nation-state which depends on brute force to keep many of its constituent parts in line.
Putin is not wrong when he says Russia is facing an “existential threat.” It does not come from either Ukraine or her Western allies, which have no interest in acquiring territory in Russia proper, but from his own perceived weakness. No doubt this was what French President Emmanuel Macron, the venerable Henry Kissinger and others had in mind when, to the disgust of Volodymyr Zelensky and his keenest supporters, they said Putin should be left with a face-saving way out of the unholy mess he had brought about. A few months ago there was much talk about “exit ramps,” but since then the Russians have committed so many atrocities that even those who wanted to placate Putin recognise that it would be dangerous to keep pressing for a negotiated settlement which leaves him with some sort of consolation prize.
Nonetheless, Macron and his friends have good reasons to fear that the fiercely nationalistic autocrat feels he is entitled to go to any conceivable lengths to save Mother Russia from getting dismembered by the subject peoples who are closely watching what is happening in Ukraine and in some places, among them predominantly Muslim Dagestan, are beginning to react. He has already broadly hinted that he could use “tactical” nuclear weapons, a threat that has been countered by people close to the Pentagon, such as retired general, and former chief of the CIA, David Petraeus, who said it would be met with summary destruction by the United States of all Russian units in Ukraine and the sinking of the Black Sea fleet.
Just as ominous, if not even more so, is the departure from its base of the submarine Belgorod which, as well as packing nuclear-tipped “doomsday” torpedoes, could be used for cutting undersea communications cables in order to throw the world economy, which depends on instantly available information, into utter disarray. In other words, a wounded Putin retains the capacity to inflict an enormous amount of damage before finally exiting the stage.
This is not the first time an autocratic leader has fallen victim of his own favourite fantasies, and it will surely not be the last. Surrounded by individuals who are too scared to point out unpalatable truths, members of the breed are all too liable to make fatal mistakes, as Putin certainly did when he decided that Ukraine was his for the taking for what he assumed were sound historical reasons and because the language most of her inhabitants speak is so closely related to Russian that, had circumstances been different, it would have been classified as a mere dialect. Somebody once said that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”: speakers of Ukrainian must now think that, thanks to the martial prowess of their soldiers, they have put an end to a rancorous argument that started many years ago.
Putin is not the only person with an exaggerated view of his own country’s rightful place in the world. Equally guilty, if that is the word, are many in the United Kingdom, France, China and. needless to say, the United States, as well, until not that far back, as their counterparts in Germany and Japan. However, the disparity between Putin’s illusions and his country’s actual strength based on hard economic and “soft” power has proved to be far greater than is the case elsewhere. As his critics like pointing out, were it not for all that oil and gas, Russia’s economy would be about the size of Spain’s while her armed forces, which less than a year ago were widely considered to be the second-most powerful in the world, are getting trounced by those of a country that, up to then, military analysts had been prone to overlook.
For millions of Russians, beginning with those who take pride in their county’s impressive contributions to literature, music, science and other cultural activities, the debacle in Ukraine has been a very rude awakening. Like the mythical Potemkin villages that were allegedly set up in 1787 to convince the empress Catherine that Russia was full of happy and prosperous peasants, the armed might so many gloried in only existed on paper. It seems that much of the money that was earmarked for the forces Putin sent to Ukraine went into the pockets of crooked contractors and senior officers who turned a blind eye to the thievery of their underlings, which left too little even to provide the men sent to the killing fields with decent boots, food or blankets to keep out the cold which, along with the infamous “rasputitsa”, the cloggy mud which makes unpaved roads all but impassable, will soon get far worse.