There were any number of longtime Russia watchers who were convinced it was all bluff. That Putin would push this lunacy to the brink, extract a few concessions from the West, then back off.
I agreed with them. We were all wrong.
Only the Biden administration got it right. For weeks, they were consistent — and insistent — that Putin was dead set on an all-out invasion.
I didn’t give them enough credit. They said all along they knew exactly what Putin was doing, and what he was intending. They might’ve even known the timing.
It wasn’t that I disputed the intelligence they were getting — and sharing with us — or that their alarmism wasn’t totally appropriate in the run-up to the invasion. It’s just that I thought they were drawing the wrong conclusion, that this elaborate military build-up made no sense from any angle. And there I was right — it still doesn’t. Yet it gets deeper and darker by the day.
The intelligence community has done a remarkable thing. They’ve come out from the shadows and put some of their work product on public display. This goes totally against their grain, but they’ve done it anyway. They’ve anticipated and publicized Putin’s ploys, feints, and next moves — information they can only have acquired through espionage. They haven’t minded showing the world that they have ears deep inside the Kremlin, and considering that we feared all our Russian assets had been blown by Trump, this is good to hear. The spies seem to have somehow weathered the vandalism of the Trump years just fine.
All told, the West — and Biden’s people in particular — have been playing an impossible hand with a deftness we had no right to expect. The fast patching-up of NATO is extraordinary, though it must be said that Russia has always had a gift for bringing Europe and the Americas closer together. We all just lost the habit.
But even with the West acting in concert and doing most things right, there are no good options. There is no amount of leverage it can apply to defeat this scourge, and no way of knowing where or how it ends.
So it’s hard to second-guess anything Biden or the West has done. We can debate the short- and long-term effects of sanctions — or of any other strategy that makes the Russian people pay for Putin’s delusions — but it’s now perfectly clear that he doesn’t give a shit. Human life means nothing to him.
That said, Putin is sitting on a house of cards. His whole rule — and possibly his life — now hinges on how he manages the vast set of lies he counts on to keep a nation of 150 million people docile and compliant. He’s lying to everybody, all the time — sort of like Trump but far more dangerous. And his lies are already getting harder and harder to sustain.
He’s lying to his military, which apparently has been kept in the dark as to where it’s going and what it’s doing.
The rank-and-file soldiers were apparently told they’d been sent on a training exercise, and they’re now quite perturbed at being asked to shoot Ukrainians. Ukrainians, on the other hand, have no qualms whatsoever about shooting them.
As for their officers and high command, who knows what they’ve been told, or what they think of their orders? The entire army is facing an extremely motivated adversary, and what they’re seeing on the ground is vastly different from the propaganda their parents are hearing back in Russia.
Speaking of which, it goes without saying that Putin is lying big-time to his population. Every newscast, every online journal, every official communication is pure propaganda, so blatant and outrageous it’s hard to imagine it fooling anyone. And it’s not. The trickle of real information will soon become a flood. It will be accompanied by body bags and it will be impossible to stop.
The Russian people are already plenty pissed. Their lives are hard enough without the sanctions they know are coming and must frantically prepare for. Already they’re lining up at empty ATMs, watching their life savings vanish with the crashing ruble. On top of that, they’re all now pariahs, shunned by the rest of the world, unable to leave the country.
The list of Russians who didn’t sign up for this is long, and it includes the entire kleptocracy — the inner Kremlin, the military, the oligarchs, and the mafia — all of whom are watching their cushy lives fall apart.
So all eyes are now on the oligarchs. From their point of view, this is a looming catastrophe. They are living in fear, not just of having their assets seized — their yachts in Monte Carlo, their chalets in Aspen, their houses in London, their freshly-laundered billions in Zurich — but also of having their kids thrown out of college in the states.
All of which is nothing next to the threat of having their western visas revoked. The last place these guys want to be for any length of time, let alone forever, is Russia. But they — and their wives and kids — can clearly see that coming.
So they are highly motivated to seek some rational end to this craziness, and they’re the only ones with any leverage. Whether they have the means — or the sheer guts — to use that leverage is an open question. Yet already two of the oligarchs — one of them Oleg Deripaska, no less — have spoken up in public, albeit timidly, for peace. This is, in itself, an astonishing development.
But it’s hard to overstate the risks they face, or the amount of personal power and protection Putin enjoys. At any moment he could order every oligarch in Russia thrown in prison and their assets seized.
Even so, they might be the only ones who can talk Putin down. I say “might be” because a wild card here is the mafia. The crime bosses of Russia can’t be pleased about watching their own fortunes dissipate. We’re not hearing much about them — nor are we likely to — but they’re a hugely powerful force, and they’re at least as ruthless as Putin.
Of course, in Russia, it’s hard to tell where the oligarchy ends and the mafia begins — it’s all organized crime — but both are taking big hits that will only get bigger in the coming days.
As of this writing, Putin is clearly not getting his way. He’s looking at bad news on all sides. This only makes him more dangerous.
There’s no reason to assume he won’t double down on the invasion. That he won’t commit overwhelming forces forward. That he won’t go for a full takedown of Ukraine, complete with mass casualties, wrecked infrastructure, a brutal occupation, a puppet government, and a colossal refugee problem. He’s done it before.
With Putin, the only thing we can be sure of is that we can’t be sure of anything.