Although there have been discussions in this column about people displaying significant violence in modern times there has not yet been an article focused on someone quite like Vladimir Putin. There have been discussions about Middle Eastern terrorists, about mass murderers, about American gang members, about Trump, who, as president, used language in such a way as to provoke violent reactions in others. He did have that powerful Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, assassinated, but fortunately it didn’t start a war. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is starting a war on the European land mass. Although for now he is focused on Ukraine, he seems to want to recover as many of the territories as possible that Russia lost, when the Soviet Union fell apart. All these Eastern European and Central Asian nations took advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse to become independent countries. And Putin, as leader of Russia, simply can’t tolerate that situation. So, Europe, as of this writing, has plunged into the first major war in Europe since the Balkan wars that resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992. And because it involves one of the major powers in the world today, it is a far more important war with far reaching consequences. It may be the most important war to occur in Europe since World War II. Putin, whether he wins or loses, is definitely going to make and preserve a large imprint on the world with this war.
So, what is it that is motivating Putin to start a war that he surely, on one level, must realize is a highly risky venture for Russia and will have unforeseen consequences. On the surface, Putin says that Ukraine was never an independent country to begin with and was always a part of Russia. And this leads to speculation that Ukraine is just the beginning, that there are a lot of other places in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that broke away from the Soviet Union and became independent countries and that Putin could use a similar argument to justify taking them over again. On the surface, Putin wants to restore the glory of the Russian empire. The question is what triggered his expedition of reconquest now.
Well, for one thing, there have been a lot of discussions about Ukraine joining NATO. And although NATO exists exclusively as a defensive organization, to Putin it represents a slap in the face. Because the borders of its most eastern countries abut Russia. So, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO would definitely be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Putin just is incapable of distinguishing a defensive alliance from a proactively aggressive alliance.
On a larger level, Putin sees Russia in a position of stagnation, once one of the two great powers in the world, but no longer. China has displaced it as the main adversary of the United States. In short, Putin sees Russia as having sunk into an experiential vacuum, a state of being that is at least partly generated by modern technology and the excessive frictionlessness and mediation it produces. And Putin himself is immersed in this vacuum and immersed in numbness. For Putin, this is a war to pull himself and Russia out of a directionless and missionless stagnation to come vibrantly alive. This war uses the ostensive reason to recapture Ukraine for the glory of Russia as an excuse to pull Putin and Russia out of this insidious social condition.
And with regard to Trump and this war, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he says Putin is very smart and savvy in his execution of the war. On the other hand, he says that if he was President of the United States, Putin would never have gotten this far in his execution of the war. The big difference between Trump and Putin, is that Trump lives in a true democracy where there are checks and balances that prevent him from acting like a dictator. Although the January 6th insurrection shows that our checks and balances are definitely fraying at the edges. What would have happened to the United States if the January 6th insurrection had succeeded and Trump had remained on as President? Would Trump, trying to deal with the numbness that he must experience, use a Trumped-up excuse (pun intended) to invade Canada or Mexico?
So perhaps the difference between Trump and Putin is one of degree rather than kind. And, also, one of opportunity to be able to carry out one’s dreams. Both of these men have grandiose dreams where their country has merged with them and become an extension of them. But only Putin has been able to go the extra mile to try to expand his country’s borders at a time when the borders in Europe had been firmly established by international agreement. Let us hope that he fails miserably, so that no other leader in Europe takes it upon himself to expand his country’s borders.