Putin believed his own propaganda. Does our political leadership have the same problem?
If Putin had followed the advice offered in the Belmont Club just before the Ukraine War, Russia might still be a first-rank power. On Feb 21, 2022, I argued that he had no chance of conquering Ukraine and would be crazy to try. “Fears over Vladimir Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine continue to grow despite the fact that the effort would burst both Russia’s military and economy, not to mention ruining its foreign relations. Swallowing a poison pawn makes so little sense that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson says Russia’s Putin may be ‘irrational,’ unable to act in his own best interests.” Invading only to fail was so absurd that I reasoned his menaces must be a bluff. Since the threat was worth more than the fulfillment, his best option was not to invade but to drag out the suspense.
Perhaps as in so many cases in history the bite is in the bark; and in this case the bark is quite real. Putin has created an “invasion-in-being.” In naval warfare, the analogous concept of a “fleet in being” is a force that projects menace without ever leaving port. Were it to fight it might lose and no longer influence but while it remains in port, one is forced to guard against it. …
Putin has been doing the same thing on land. His armies are essentially “in port” — inside Russia or the Kremlin’s client states. Meanwhile Ukraine and the West are in an uproar, evacuating their citizens, canceling airline flights — never enjoying a moment’s mental security. Yet Putin can keep the invasion-in-being poised and the resulting disruption going indefinitely.
Once Putin showed his hand and it proved a bust, he would lose all power to bluff (just like movie monsters made with cheap special effects become ridiculous when finally shown onscreen), and the myth of the mighty Red Army would be dispelled for decades. I wrote that “if he actually invades in a recognizable way the uncertainty is removed and the West knows what to do about aging overreaching dictators who’ve started something they can’t afford. By preserving ambiguity Putin has Biden spellbound.” I was right about the strategic situation but wrong about Putin. He actually did do the stupid thing and dug himself a hole that he will be a long time getting out of.
In a counterfactual world where the Russian president agreed with this site and continued to feint, where NATO was still in awe of the supposedly unstoppable Russian army and Putin still hitting Biden up for nickels and dimes to keep him from unleashing it, the Kremlin might still be the capital of a great power. But it would be no more substantial than a fleet-in-being that is nine-tenths shadow and one part solid is; a thing powerful only in narrative. For in truth, Russia fell a long time ago with its crashing demography; its uncompetitive, oligarch-ridden industries; its incompetent autocratic leadership. Ukraine was a mirror into which Putin dared look when a man of his mien ought not. But whether he looked or not he was ugly just the same.
If there’s any lesson in this for Washington, it must be to ask: how much of America’s power is a myth, like Russia’s? Dare we collapse the wave function? If too much is spin, then put it not to the test, but keep on bluffing until the reality is restored. You can’t live in the narrative forever.
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