Don’t bet on the end of Vladimir Putin

Almost five decades ago, I was sent to Moscow on my first assignment as an intrepid foreign correspondent for Reuters, and over a farewell drink in the pub I was told how lucky I was. Surely, my fellow hacks said, I would see the end of Leonid Brezhnev, the bad man in the Kremlin. Well, end-Brezhnev turned out to be middle-Brezhnev as he staggered on and on.

Now the Ukraine War, botched and brutal, is treated in the West as Vladimir Putin’s last gasp, the brutal dissolution of a struggling regime. However, my bet is that we have reached mid-Putin, not late-Putin. And even when the war is over, Russia will grow darker and more evil.

The West projects three false assumptions about Kremlin policy. The first is that leaders are held individually and publicly accountable for the “mistakes” of the Ukraine war will be the subject of the Moscow equivalent of the Chilcot report. That will not happen. Nor is there any indication that Putin will lose belligerence at home and abroad. The violence underlying Putin’s system of rule, his geometry of fear, was not tamed by the invasion. Finally, Putin’s authority over the secret police, the courts, and the media is so pervasive that it has become remarkably easy to find scapegoats and avoid blaming one’s own mistakes. He is not booed out of power.

Vlad anger will linger

However the war in Ukraine ends, Putin’s anger and frustration will linger and be directed at the Russians themselves. Get ready for the Great Purge of 2022. It won’t be as violent as Stalin’s in 1937, when 680,000 people were executed, 116,000 sent to the Gulag and thousands committed suicide. Everyone knew what to expect when a judge sentenced the show trial victim to “10 years without the right to correspond.” That meant the prisoner had no chance of survival. Putin may admire Stalin, but even he has to accept that a modern purge has to look a little different. After all, in 2017 he officially opened a mourning wall in Moscow to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s 1937 war. And it’s impossible to shake off the way the purges have damaged the psyche of Russia and all post-Soviet societies.

The Russian president has replaced at least eight generals and signs suggest this is just the beginning.
Consequences of the shelling of the Retroville shopping center by Russian rockets in Kyiv, Ukraine. March 30, 2022.

But after Putin’s war comes Putin’s purge, and he’s already speaking the language of the 1930s. The West, he said this month, is trying to foment a popular rebellion in Russia. “But the Russian people are capable of distinguishing true patriots from bastards and traitors, and we will spit them out.” Russia, he said, should undergo “society self-cleansing.” Putin resorts to harsh language when under stress, while Emmanuel Macron sits nervously on the edge of a Kremlin chair, likening Ukraine to a rape victim, but now it’s often confused with thoughts of national cleansing. There are already forced deportations from Ukrainian cities, threats of military tribunals, instruments of Stalinist power.

Stalin’s purges were about consolidating his influence at a time when some in the Communist Party were losing faith in his leadership and were unhappy about the disasters of agricultural collectivization. Party boss Sergei Kirov was assassinated in 1934, and investigations by the secret police revealed networks of anti-Stalin opponents. It was only a stone’s throw from the nightly knock on the Lubyanka’s door. Putin is also responding to what he sees as internal critics exploiting his poor judgment.

There are striking similarities.

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1953.
Associated Press

Stalin focused on the Red Army generals. Putin has replaced at least eight generals and there are signs that he is just getting started. Sergei Shoigu, defense minister and once loyal hunting companion, has largely disappeared from view. Some say he planned the recent invasion with senior FSB generals rather than the army top, hence the breakdown in logistics, the lack of preparation, the confusion about the true aim of the war. So FSB officials were placed under house arrest. The security crats who have kept Putin in power are being made his scapegoats.

A broad purge

Lest the military campaign fuel a national stop-the-war movement, the dissident-in-chief Alexei Navalny’s prison sentence has been increased. Independent media are being silenced. At least 15,000 people have been arrested for criticizing the Ukrainian “operation”. These should not be temporary measures. Rather, they are part of a broader and deeper process. Putin’s purge, like Stalin’s purge, extends well beyond the disaffected elites to the middle classes, intellectuals, playwrights, doctors. It fits perfectly with the idea that society could be modernized through personal initiative; it sees civil society as a covert way of to sabotage power.

No wonder there is an exodus of the young and bright to Istanbul. They believe that Putin has broken an unspoken contract: They would accept his strict rationing of free speech in exchange for a comfortable niche in which to operate as tech innovators, make dollars, and find ways to evade military service. Now that they sense a purge, they prefer to work in Turkish cafes, just as many of Stalin’s critics once settled in Paris.

1937 was a disaster for the Soviet Union, but Stalin continued to rule until his death in 1953. It is unlikely that Putin would survive another 16 years; he would be 85 years old. But the West needs to figure out how it would deal with an endless Putin, a dictator constantly looking for winnable small wars and maybe even a grand final showdown among the melting floes of the Arctic.

Roger Boyes / The Times / News Licensing

https://nypost.com/2022/03/30/dont-bet-on-the-end-of-vladimir-putin/ Don’t bet on the end of Vladimir Putin


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