efore our very eyes and at an unexpected moment, a horror movie may be unfolding. Last Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that a Third World War between Russia and NATO is possible and that it would be a nuclear war. On the same day, Russian artillery fire set off a blaze at a Ukrainian nuclear facility, the largest in Europe. Luckily, before dawn on Friday, Ukrainian fire fighters had put out the fire. Still on the same day, French President Emmanuel Macron after a telephone conversation with Putin cautioned that : ”the worst is yet to come.” Later in the day, it was a visibly jittery and troubled Putin that addressed Russians and the world to affirm that the invasion of Ukraine was going well according to his plan. Instructively, the broadcast was interrupted twice as Putin stood up in front of global television to adjust his ill-fitting jacket, all the time shying from eye contact with the audience in spite of a teleprompter ahead of him.
The fog of the Ukrainian war could produce a more frightening outcome than the familiar tragedies of war. Vladimir Putin may mutate into a real dangerous foe not only for Ukraine but for the rest of humanity. Russia is being incrementally isolated. Crippling sanctions on all fronts threaten to strangulate Russia’s enclave economy. More directly, for the first time, Putin’s personal wealth and those of his support cast of oligarchs spread all over the world has been targeted by sanctions by Europe and the United States.
Under the impact of the volley of sanctions, Russia’s economy is likely to begin to tank in less than 90 days. Financial services are beginning to feel the impact. The Russian Central Bank has adjusted interest rates up from 9% to over 20%. Key Russian banks have been excluded from the strategic international SWIFT network. That literally locks them out of the international banking and transactional super market. Putin has prohibited Russians from making international transfers. It is predicted that life could become quite hard for ordinary Russians in the next couple of weeks.
Already anti war protests in Russia have been on the increase since the beginning of hostilities with Ukraine, leading to the arrest and detention of over 6000 Russians. If you add this number to the multitude being held in various detention centres for previous protests, it becomes hard to fathom how much repressive capacity Vladimir Putin possesses. Meanwhile, elite dissent is growing as a large group of Russian intellectuals last week issued a forceful statement against the Ukraine invasion. From anti war protests, Russia’s already bulging political opposition could swell into hardship riots as product shortages hit shop shelves. The pressure on Putin’s hold on power could swell to breaking point. Unfortunately, Russia’s democratic institutions are fragile and revolve around Mr. Putin’s stranglehold on power. In the event of increased popular domestic pressure, the threat on Putin’s hold on power could unravel and plunge Russia into something too frightening to name.
Meanwhile, the advance of Russian columns into the Ukrainian capital and other cities is being frustrated and stalled by the patriotic resistance of ordinary Ukrainians. After over one week of an invasion originally programmed to last no more than a few days, the world ought to be concerned about the cumulative effects of these frustrations on the psychology of Mr. Putin, an unrepentant autocrat and repressive tyrant. Intelligence investigations into the state of Mr. Putin’s present state of mind may be closer to what the moment demands.
There are enough reasons why Mr. Putin could become more dangerous to us all. An unpredictable autocrat presiding over a nuclear super power is not exactly a pleasant playmate. An autocrat who is easily the richest man in the world can acquire the mindset of a God figure with the power of life and death over the rest of humanity. An ex- KGB officer with an inscrutable face and shadowy family life may not worry much about the familiar moral qualms of regular mortals about human lives and ultimate tragedy. Worse still, a man with a permanent nostalgia for the defunct great USSR and the days of Cold War sabre rattling can pursue his obsession at the expense of others if events keep pushing him to the brinks of sanity.
When such a man is encircled, his country isolated, his military rendered ineffectual and his private fortunes threatened, it is uncertain how far he can go in seeking revenge against those he sees as his traducers. Throughout history, the mind of a typical autocratic demagogue has been an area of darkness, full of uncanny possibilities. On hindsight, I shudder to think of what could have become of the world if Hitler had access to the codes of a nuclear weapons system. In the isolated seclusion of his bunker, he ordered some of the most massive military assaults that humanity has known during the Second World War. The body count meant nothing to him.
But here we are today with Mr. Putin, a real autocrat with a record of serial murders of his opponents. He is in control of the world’s second largest arsenal of lethal and nuclear weapons. How far could he go to hurt the rest of the world just to assuage his injured ego? How far will Putin go just to prove to the world that he is not necessarily weak and will not go down in humiliation? Could Vladimir become demented by frustrations of his territorial ambitions in Ukraine and beyond as to do the kind of irrational things that similar figures have done in history?
Russia as an isolated rogue state is not the best prospect in a world dominated by aspiring democracies. Over 85% of the nations of the world are now democracies or aspiring democracies. In that world, an illiberal democracy or fringe autocracy such as Russia is not your favourite next door neighbor. Worse still, a nuclear super power presided over by an unstable dictator with an injured ego and threatened financial fortunes is a nightmare that could blow up in our faces. Already, Mr. Putin has placed his most strategic military units including his nuclear command, at alert and in an active disposition. Lethal weapons banned by the Geneva Convention have already been reportedly put to use in only a few days of the Ukraine invasion.
The best way out of this possible nightmare is to show Mr. Putin clearly marked exit points to escape from the consequences of his disastrous judgment. Clearly, he miscalculated his chances in the Ukraine mission. He probably underestimated the extent to which Ukrainians detest and even hate the Russians. You cannot sustain a massive military campaign in a terrain where the occupying force is so despised. Also, Mr. Putin never estimated the groundswell of international opposition that his invasion of Ukraine would attract. More tragically, he probably did not calculate the character of Russia’s post war relations with the European states and former Soviet republics that Russia has to live with in perpetuaity.
Every war ends in peace. The best prosecutors of wars are also the most creative seekers of peace. Peace talks between Russia and Ukraine are an encouraging sign. But Mr. Putin would rather negotiate with Ukraine as a conqueror hence his armoured columns are proceeding into central Ukraine just as his peace delegation meets with Ukrainian officials. It is doubtful if the two parallel lines will meet somewhere in a bombed out Ukraine. Putin would probably find more satisfaction if the West is an open guarantor of the dubious peace he is seeking through the backdoor.
The West can help Mr.Putin find a convenient exit point out of the cage he has built around himself. But the interest of a more enduring world peace is not served by the present attitude and rhetoric of the US and the West. It is a good thing to marshal a global coalition against a menacing adversary of the international rule- based order. It is also in order to contain a belligerent autocrat who tramples on the sovereignty of less powerful nations. It is quite understandable to pile up crushing sanctions to bend such a determined aggressor. Adversarial propaganda and guided lies such as we are witnessing from both sides on all media platforms is a legitimate part of the tradition of warfare. The Ukrainians who are at the receiving end of this assault know where the truth of this war really lies.
But the premature triumphalism of Washington and the West is wrongheaded and could produce a more dangerous Putin. We must not forget; the object of this war is not the humiliation of Russia or Putin even though Mr. Putin provoked it. The object of the war is the protection of the sovereign integrity of independent states from the aggression and deliberate belligerence of more powerful nations. It is of course in the enlightened self -interest of the US and the West to contain Russian influence and Putin’s territorial ambitions. But in the end, the world still needs a powerful stable Russia as a bulwark against the excesses of the West just as much as we need a wealthy Europe and the US to demonstrate the relative advantages of liberal democracy and the power of the free market.
For those who are desirous or anxious about how this war will end, there are a few certainties. First, Russia can neither crush nor annihilate Ukraine. Second, Russia will not be able to prevail against a coalition of the US, NATO and the rest of the free world. Third, the coalition of pro-Ukrainian forces will not be able to defeat Russia and exclude it from the international system. A humiliated Russia is an unlikely historical oddity.
The risk that Mr. Putin could flip on the side of ultimate evil and catastrophe is not the only unintended consequence of this war. Other more foreseen and anticipated outcomes of war have come out in full display in less than a week of the invasion. Civilian deaths have topped 700 and still counting. Russian combatant deaths are climbing by the day. Infrastructure is being systematically destroyed. Psychologically, Ukrainians have become united more than ever under a banner of patriotic national resistance and defense. Russia is the unsavoury aggressor while Putin is the irredeemable villain.
An unplanned refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster is in the making. Close to a million Ukrainians and others have streamed across the borders into neighbouring states. Foreign nationals resident in Ukraine have also been affected too.
Between Putin and Zelensky, a familiar paradigm of good versus evil has emerged. A former comedy star who once acted a comic president and then became an actual president has in his heroic stance against Russian aggression turned out a real national hero and war time president. Irrespective of how this war ends, president Zelensky has secured his place in world history as a Ukrainian hero and wartime leader of global stature.
Making a villain out of Putin requires little effort. Mr. Putin has not surprised anyone. A fierce autocrat with an insensitive bearing and inscrutable visage is the material out of which history moulds villains. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolin etc. But in acting out his predictable role, Mr. Putin may be on the way to destroying whatever legacy he may have created in three decades of power and leadership over Russia.
On the diplomatic front, the world has united against Russia’s aggression. A barrage of United Nations resolutions in condemnation of Russia has lined up two thirds of the member states behind Ukraine. It is significant that votes against Russia’s role in Ukraine have cut across familiar boundaries. All Third World countries especially African countries that used to take a more sympathetic view of Russia have voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Communist era ideological solidarity is dead; long live the ideology of the market place and liberal democracy. Hungary and Turkey, known allies of Russia, have also broken ranks. The prospects of a more isolated Russia have become real, clear and present.
Worse still, Europe and the United States have slammed a quick avalanche of punishing and crushing sanctions on Russia, Putin and his support cast of oligarchs both at home and in diaspora. An estimated $650 billion in Russia’s external reserves has been sterilized. The Moscow Stock Exchange was closed for most of last week. For the first time, sanctions have targeted Mr. Putin and his top Kremlin crew. Cash, choice real estate, luxury private jets, yachts and other assets of Russian oligarchs, friends and associates of Mr. Putin are being confiscated all over the West.
Before we are all carried away in the nasty exchange of sanctions and reprisals, we must not forget the cardinal rules of international relations that lie at the root of this conflict. They are the principles of the sanctity of the sovereign territorial integrity of nations no matter how weak or strong, big or small. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of this principle. Its deliberate carving up of Ukrainian territory by recognizing the breakaway regions as sovereign republics is a deepening of this annoying original violation.
On the other hand, there is the countervailing principle of Spheres of Influence. Under that convention, Russia has a right to see Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence for historical and strategic reeasons. Recognotion of that sphere of influence does not permit Russia to invade Ukraine; it only allows it to act in a manner to protect that sphere. While Ukraine may have a sovereign right to join or associate with the European Union, its right to join NATO, which is a military alliance, is hindered by the convention of spheres of influence. Everything in the history of Russia and the independence of Ukraine dictates that matters of military alliance and security between the two states ought to be negotiated and agreed upon without the necessity of war. Russia’s recourse to invasion and a shooting war is a reckless endangerment of both principles. The full consequences are Russia’s to bear ultimately.
Vladimir Putin must be ready to carry those consequences which now include international isolation, crushing sanctions and Ruussia’s inevitable encirclement by states that are bound to be hostile and perennially suspicious neighbours and at best uneasy allies. No rational leader can wish his nation such catastrophe.