By BEN R. WILLIAMS
When Russian President Vladimir Putin began his increasingly ill-conceived invasion of Ukraine last week, the first person I thought of was Nadia Kriger-Sells.
Nadia is a teacher, a U.S. Army veteran, and a Ukrainian expatriate; her family moved to the U.S. in 1990 as the former Soviet Union fell apart. She has a bachelor’s degree in international studies with a focus on U.S./Russian/Ukrainian relations and a master’s degree in national security studies and intelligence gathering.
Needless to say, if you want to get some insight into Russian/Ukrainian politics, Nadia’s the person to ask.
I interviewed her back in 2014, almost exactly eight years ago. I was a full-time reporter then and I needed to talk to someone about Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Nadia certainly filled me in. I interviewed her three times as the conflict unfolded, and looking back at those articles now, she displayed a much better batting average than Nostradamus. She predicted that Putin would eventually launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and she also predicted that it would end badly for him.
But the main thing I remember from those interviews with Nadia was not her trenchant political insight.
It was the righteous anger.
Nadia despised (and despises) Vladimir Putin. She viewed him as a KGB thug who ascended to Russia’s highest political ranks with only one single-minded goal: to use an iron fist to drag Eastern Europe kicking and screaming back into the Soviet Union.
I’ve met a few folks who hail from Eastern Europe, and let me tell you one thing they’ve all had in common: they hate Putin with every fiber of their beings. However evil you think he is, they say, he’s even worse. However cruel you think he is, he’s crueler still.
But in the 20-some years since Boris Yeltsin staggered off into the sunset and left Putin in charge of Russia’s future, Putin’s been a bit of an abstract figure to us Americans. If you don’t keep a close eye on the news, you might not notice that his critics have a bad habit of dying horribly and mysteriously. You might not know about the billionaire Russian oligarchs who share their wealth with Putin out of fear of meeting similar fates. You might not know about Putin’s Russian troll farms that exist only to spread dissent on social media in an effort to divide voters in the West (most folks are more likely to have seen the propaganda spread by those troll farms than news stories about them).
For decades, Putin has managed to quietly wield enormous power and, in more recent years, sow incredible division in the U.S., all while soaring just below the radar of most Americans.
Now, however, the tide is beginning to turn, and Putin has no one to blame but himself. Up until the last couple of weeks, no one would describe Putin as reckless. He’s always been shrewd, conniving, and crafty; as Randy Newman put it in his brilliant 2016 song “Putin,” “He ain’t nothing like a regular fella.” But like so many propagandist dictators before him, Putin finally made what may well be his fatal mistake:
He got high on his own supply.
The only possible explanation for the slow-motion train wreck currently unfolding in Ukraine is that Putin began to believe his own propaganda. He seemed to genuinely believe the Ukrainians would simply roll over and let him take their land. He seemed to believe that his military was an unstoppable force and not a bunch of untrained, conscripted teenagers handed half-functional Soviet-era vehicles. What other explanation could there be? It’s hard to get good military intelligence when everyone who answers to you is afraid to give you bad news, lest they end up “committing suicide” by shooting themselves in the back thirty times.
But Ukraine has not simply rolled over; instead, its leaders and average citizens have put up an awe-inspiring fight, making the Russians fight tooth and nail for every inch. What’s more, the Ukrainians have shared their plight on social media and succeeded in using Putin’s favorite weapon against him. They have shown the world their inner strength, and revealed Putin as an enemy as cruel as he is weak.
The irony of the situation is that one of Putin’s greatest fears has been more Eastern European countries joining the European Union; now it seems that his Ukraine folly has only served to drive those countries straight into it. Meanwhile, Russia is getting sanctioned, rejected, and isolated at every turn, and the value of the ruble is dropping so fast that Beanie Babies are a better investment.
As I write this on the evening of Monday, February 28th, it’s hard to predict what comes next. Putin has put himself in the situation of a chronic gambler with ten grand to his name who owes a violent loan shark a million and has no choice but to earn it all back at the casino. Even if he gets down to a single $20, he has no choice but to keep rolling the dice and hoping for a seven. No matter which direction he loses, somebody’s coming to collect.
It’s possible that in the coming weeks — or maybe even by the time you read this — Putin will hammer out some sort of agreement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that will allow him to withdraw his troops without embarrassing himself too badly. Alternately, this could end with beleaguered Russian protesters dragging Putin out of his palace and showing him the same kindness that the Libyan rebels showed Muammar Gaddafi back in 2011. I wouldn’t shed any tears over that particular outcome.
No matter what happens, Putin’s terrible crowning achievement will likely be the division he’s sown on our own soil, as best exemplified by the past decade or so of American politics.
You see, there are exactly two kinds of people who support Putin: people who have fallen for his propaganda, and people who think they can gain something from him.
If you want an example of the former, look on social media at the folks who defend Putin. If you want an example of the latter, look to the politicians who praise him.
But then again, I suppose you can learn a lot about a guy over the course of a “perfect phone call.”