There was a fascinating op-ed the other day on MSNBC’s website written by historian and Russia expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat. It was not intended to be proof of anything with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or predicative of what would happen. Just that, from the perspective of history, what the past has often shown happens to dictators who isolate themselves and push too far. She begins her piece with an infamous quote from Italian fascist Benito Mussolini in 1935 before he invaded Ethopia (“I follow my instincts, and I am never wrong") which built popularity, but bankrupted the state. And it lead to him joining with Hitler in 1940, where “he counted on a quick win and lasting glory, but instead dragged Italy through a disastrous war that ended with his own execution by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.”
Ms. Ben-Ghiat notes that a major motivation for Putin has long been to secure his place in Russian history, being the person who rebuilt the Soviet empire. But she explains the many ways that it could all backfire on him.
"After 22 years in power, Putin's governance style and structures resemble those that have led past autocrats to make bad decisions. The recent photographs of him at enormous tables, absurdly distant not just from foreign heads of state but from members of his own security council, suggest a state of isolation common among leaders who have exercised too much power for too long," she writes, before adding, "All strongmen build ‘inner sanctums’ to manage day-to-day governance. Composed of flatterers, family members and cronies, all of them chosen for their loyalty rather than their expertise, they shield him from any unpleasant counsel — and share handsomely in the profits from his thievery."
She notes that history shows when an autocrat has total power, as time passes, he starts believing his own propaganda and begins to act on his worst instinct. While this may be affecting against his enemies, it also tends to destabilize conditions at home which can put his own position at risk – to which Ben-Ghiat notes the war protests that have broken out across Russia, despite it being illegal putting all those in the street in jeopardy of prison.
She explains that the current invasion of Ukraine shows Putin's private preoccupations – not only what so deeply concerns him, but also what he simply takes for granted out of arrogance. “He obtained a nationalist high, and soaring approval ratings, following his 2014 annexation of Crimea,” she points out. “Perhaps he believes he can repeat the experience."
The historian states that Russia today is very different country that in 2014, not only in foreign preparedness, but also the level of disaffection within Russ from Putin’s growing corruption and repression. She explains that though a constitutional amendment in 2020 got Putin a lock on power, that’s brought about more violence against his enemies, such as the poisoning and then jailing dissident Alexi Navalny. This shows insecurity, she says, not confidence.
And she closes by writing – " With typical strongman hubris, Putin has clearly underestimated the willingness of Ukrainians to fight against him. The war will create numerous Russian casualties, which even reported mobile crematoria, which could hide evidence of Russian dead, won't be able to mask."
You can read the full article here.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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