This is no longer just about Ukraine; every former Soviet state is, by implication, now in the firing line

A stunned world is still reeling in shock-horror by Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, but the timing was so predictable. When President Putin met President Xi Jinping at the beginning of the Winter Olympics in Beijing three weeks ago, he gave a firm promise that the event would not be tarnished by any Russian move on Ukraine. Back in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia during the Beijing Summer Olympics, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao was furious with Putin for stealing the limelight, and neither President wanted a repeat. So, sure enough, it wasn’t until the clock struck midnight after the closing ceremony that the Kremlin’s final preparations for an immediate invasion began.

Putin’s carefully choreographed routine actually began quietly the Tuesday before, when the lower house of the Russian Parliament voted to ask their puppet-master to recognise the regions in Ukraine that had declared themselves independent back in 2014. Russia has never admitted to its role in fomenting the conflict in these regions, despite copious evidence that active-duty Russian soldiers have been killed in fighting there. Russian troops in the occupied territories are not a new development, of course, as the Kremlin has directed the hostilities there for years. What was new was the open declaration by Putin that Russian troops would be present as “peacekeepers” in the regions he now recognised as independent. We now know that the so-called “peacekeepers” are attacking and murdering the people of Ukraine.

The staged Russian Security Council meeting on Monday, leading to the declaration, was a piece of theatre in which everyone had their allotted role and their script. Held in a grand columned Kremlin room, it was a memorable example of a supreme leader marshalling his minions and ensuring collective responsibility for a decision that will kill thousands of innocent Ukrainians and change the security architecture in Europe. Putin sat alone, surveying his subordinates from absurdly far away, as they squirmed awkwardly in chairs, waiting their turn to be grilled by the boss. Frequently smirking and scowling from behind his desk, Putin listened one-by-one to members, some of whom appeared overawed by the occasion. “Speak directly”, Putin snapped not once but twice at Sergei Naryshkin, the hawkish head of Russia’s spy service, who stuttered uncomfortably as Putin grilled him on whether he supported the decision. The body language of many members displayed that they were most uncomfortable at putting their names to potential war crimes and having Ukrainian blood on their hands. At times it was reminiscent of the Stalin years during the “great terror”, when petrified subordinates were grilled by the great leader, knowing that the wrong answer could lead to a life-shortening experience.

Just hours after the meeting, Putin gave a late-night televised speech, which was laced with anger and historical inaccuracies, giving the impression that he was drinking one shot after another straight from a bottle of pure Soviet-era moonshine. Not for the first time did Putin re-write history by claiming that Ukraine had never been a state. “Putin just put Kafka and Orwell to shame”, said Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte afterwards, “there were no limits to the dictator’s imagination, no lows too low, and no lies too blatant”. Putin’s incoherent and rambling speech blamed everybody, from Lenin to Bill Clinton for Russia’s current plight. Like embattled Soviet strongmen before him, he lashed out at enemies real and invisible.

Three things became clear from Putin’s deranged rant on Monday. Firstly, it’s obvious that he is obsessed with the idea that the West is determined to “keep Russia down”. Secondly, by falsely claiming that Ukraine had never been an independent state, he doesn’t even accept the idea of Ukraine, ignoring the fact that the country has been separate from Russia longer than it was part of Russia. Thirdly, and perhaps most disturbingly, it became evident that this is no longer just about Ukraine; every former Soviet state is, by implication, now in the firing line. Putin concluded that none of the 15 new states that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union were real countries, except, of course, Russia. By that historical reasoning, few nations in Europe, or anywhere else, are safe. Putin’s foray into history was nothing less than a demand that only Moscow, and only the Kremlin’s supreme leader, has the right to judge what is or is not a sovereign state.

What does all this say about Putin’s state of mind? As Tom Nichols said in the Atlantic recently, “Putin’s slumped posture and deadened affect led me to suspect that he is not as stable as we would hope. He had the presence not of a confident president, but of a surly adolescent caught in a misadventure, rolling his eyes at the stupid adults who do not understand how cruel the world has been to him.” Perhaps the nervous twitches in the faces around the room during the meeting revealed a level of concurrence with Nichols.

Neuropsychologist Ian Robertson, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, believes that Putin’s problem “is as much personal as political, because once the hubris syndrome takes hold in the brain, the personal and the national are identical because the leader is the nation and its destiny”. Putin has been in absolute power in Russia for 22 years and this can have a dopamine-boosting effect on the brain. “It’s like cocaine”, said Robertson, “it’s addictive, and brings behaviour changes—loss of empathy, grandiosity and paranoia”. Most worryingly of all, Robertson says that such changes in the frontal lobe of the brain diminish the affected person’s ability to weigh up risk—”they tend to exaggerate their past successes and downplay their failures”.

Author and journalist David Patrikarakos is less subtle: “It may well be that after 20 years of acting like a Tsar, he has gone mad, like so many before him, and something crazy is coming”, he writes describing Putin as “a man surrounded only by flatterers and yes-men, who now seems to use even his inner circle as little more than a rubber stamp for his delusions”. Patrikarakos describes Putin’s speech as “a performance of a man who had weathered the pandemic locked away from other humans, with his head buried in dodgy Soviet books on Ukraine history”. Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow agrees—“I don’t believe he is well briefed”, he said, noting that Putin now sits in a virtual bunker where even senior figures must jump through hoops and wait weeks for the chance of a one-to-one meeting. But such encounters are rare. Putin limits his meetings to an inner circle and prefers to speak via Zoom or on the telephone.

But Why Has He Chosen To Attack Ukraine Now?

Vladimir Putin will be 70 in October this year and, after such a long period in the Kremlin, is undoubtedly looking towards his legacy. Over recent years he has made no pains to hide his admiration of the former Russian Empire and his intentions to restore a Russian sphere of influence across Europe. Time and time again he has bemoaned the “loss” of former Soviet republics after the Soviet Union collapsed while he was a KGB officer in Dresden. “Putin himself sees the loss of the former empire as a kind of generational trauma and what we now see is the Russian elite and Putin acting on these grievances”, said Professor Mark Galeotti, Russian security and political affairs specialist at University College London. Putin probably sees now as the perfect time to act as he is between a pandemic and presidential elections in 2024. Covid meant that it would have been extremely hard to sustain heavy military logistics around Ukraine over the past two years, and “if you’re going to be doing something that might lead to unpopular moves, whether it means sanctions or whether it actually means war”, says Galeotti, “you probably want to get it out of the way well in advance of elections, because these aren’t popular things among Russians”.

So “mad or bad” Vlad has probably about 12 months to achieve his legacy. As he wrote in his seminal essay last July, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia”. While the invasion of Ukraine takes hold, with missile strikes and ground troops entering from the north, south and east, the challenge for NATO and the European Union is whether their collective resolve and solidarity can protect Ukraine’s vision of itself as part of the West, or whether Putin’s Russian nationalist ambitions in the region will succeed. He has made a catastrophic error of judgement. He may win the battle, but will not win the war. He will be remembered only as a war criminal.