Putin is ascending, insofar as he is expanding his and Russia’s power and sphere of influence. It continues to be unlikely that sanctions will drive him to the bargaining table. His popularity will grow, and the stakes will seem too high to directly oppose him. Thus, he will be successful with his strategy of territorial expansion in the name of refighting WWII. The West’s only response will be to whine and impose limited monetary and trade sanctions. What Putin offers back is a clear goal of Greater Russia that makes historical sense to his constituency. His behavior reveals a nuanced and polemical understanding of the trajectory of these historical forces and a willingness to play his hand out on the world stage.
The question is whether it is up to the US to rise up and accept the challenge. Let’s consider what a stronger US response might look like, the ideology on which it could be based, and the messaging that would result. One can imagine an American President saying: “If we have to re legislate this, let’s get on with it, and, if necessary, let’s win again.” Putin has been clothing his initiative in Cold War rhetoric, and it may be that the goal is to take up the gauntlet of this redeemed failed glory that Putin has thrown down, and hit them over the head with exactly that. The advantages of reframing the debate in precisely those historical terms the Neo Soviets so selectively romanticize is that at the end of the day, they stand more to lose from such a resurrection than we do. So perhaps we should not shy away from reminding, in whatever ways are necessary, those remaining vestiges of Soviet grandeur that that system died for a reason, and their attempt to resurrect a post-collapse Soviet state, a capitalist collectivism (elitism), will fail. With the ubiquity of mobile devices and the transparency of social media, augmented with satellite imagery, it is easy to discredit Putin’s untruths, and perhaps we should. We should consider making a full court press of presenting our findings about what’s really going on on the ground in a media blitz with a rhetoric we have been far too timid to use, but that we avoid at our peril.
Putin is lying to his own people about where the troops are being sent, and in fact they’re being sent 30 miles inside Ukraine. He’s lying about casualties, going so far as to actually move graves so people can’t see them. He’s lying about his involvement and his goals. He’s lying about the existing situation, and meanwhile he’s driving the situation. And the scariest aspect is the subtext: we really were great and we took a fall we shouldn’t have, and so now we’re getting even while Europe sleeps, scapegoating a lot of people along the way, all to reclaim some of those power dynamics. Somehow, the other side has to say: not so fast. I’m suggesting we do it by painting them with their own brush. We would create a new context, and a powerful one at that, by taking up what is essentially their core marketing slogan, some kind of USSR pseudo-renaissance, against them. Imagine if the message from the West was: nobody liked this non-democracy fascist deal to begin with, your corrupt statist oligarchy has already failed, and we’re not going to let Ukraine get swallowed up. We’re going to correct on a daily basis and publish to the world what we know to actually be true about this war. We’re going to shine a light.