BusinessDay
NigeriaDecides2023

The Tzar is naked, and everyone can see it

A fortnight ago, I wrote about Putin and the danger of personalist rule. I argued that personalist rule/cult of personality is inherently dangerous for two reasons.

The first is that the quality and flow of critical information to the leader is severely disrupted and coloured by the coterie of yes-men and sycophants around the ruler.

Second, institutions of “collective governance,” deliberation, debate, and consensus have been turned into echo chambers of the leader’s wishes and are virtually useless. All of these make the personalist ruler more susceptible to making disastrous policy mistakes.

I showed how all these played out in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Armed with a faulty intelligence that the Russian army had been modernised and can topple the Ukrainian government in a blitzkrieg, and that Ukrainians will welcome invading Russian troops with flowers as liberators, he authorised the invasion, refusing to even call it a war, but a “special military operation” that will be over in a week or two at most.

Opinion polls conducted recently in Russia and strict censorship show that most Russians clearly prefer a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict

However, he was soon to realise that the intelligence he was given, the readiness of the Russian military and the mood in Ukraine were all lies sold to him by his grovelling yes-men who see their jobs more as that of translating the Tsar’s wishes into results than giving unbiased information.

At every turn of the war, Russian troops have been exposed and shown to be unprepared, unequipped, and with low morale to achieve the goal set for them. Even with the goal being scaled back to just focusing on the Donbas and Luhansk regions, the terrible state of the Russian army, its disastrous logistics and supply failures, and generally low morale have combined to ensure that they could not progress much and had to rely on heavy artillery bombardment to make any sort of progress at all.

Predictably, the fighting settled into a stalemate and a possible long-term war of attrition, that is, until last week, when a Ukrainian counter offensive saw Russian troops in Kharkiv, just some miles from the Russian border, scampering and taking flight leaving behind heavy catchment of arms and ammunitions.

Although the Russian Defence Ministry had tried to minimise the impact of the defeat as simply “the regrouping of troops,” the ministry was later to acknowledge the defeat: “We committed a mistake. We moved forward without leaving reserves behind to defend the positions,” one military affairs editor volunteered later.

The setback has resurrected debate about the war in Russia from both passivists, decrying the war and calling for the cessation of the conflict, and ultra-patriots, who have been urging Putin to take more drastic actions such as purges of the army chain and command, a general mobilisation, an “all-out-war” and the deliberate targeting of civilian targets to inflict more pain on Ukrainians.

The ultra-patriots have always called for a more hawkish approach towards Ukraine and appear to have won when Putin authorised the invasion.

However, they have been largely unhappy with the progress of the war and have been accusing the leadership of the army, and even Putin himself of dereliction of duty for not finishing off the Ukrainians as expected.

Putin, however, faces a dilemma of yielding to the demands of the ultra-patriots. The support he derives comes from the majority of Russians who are indifferent to the “special military operation” or even Russian setbacks in Kharkiv so long as it would not disrupt their lives and they nor their children would not have to be conscripted to fight in the war.

That was why Putin was careful to sell the war to them as just a special military operation and not an all-out-war and which would not disrupt their lives in any way. Opinion polls conducted recently in Russia and strict censorship show that most Russians clearly prefer a peaceful and negotiated end to the conflict.

But no matter how Putin decides to react, his woes are not going away. The myths around him, of a highly strategic and calculating leader, and the Russian army, being a professional, highly trained, modernised, and sophisticated fighting machine, have been completely shattered. He has been shown to be as compulsive, egomaniac, and prone to making catastrophic policy decisions like all personalist leaders.

The army, rather than being the second most highly rated military in the world, has also been shown to be as unprofessional, ill-trained, of low morale, and incapable of overseeing simple logistics and supply of a simple military operation.

Read also: Putin and the danger of personalist rule

Much more important, his blunder has succeeded in solidifying and expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) well into Russian neighbouring countries, united the European Union (EU) while alerting it to up its defence expenditure, and ensured a highly militarised and even nuclear-powered Ukraine going forward, all scenarios he was supposedly fighting to stop from happening.

What is more, even his closest allies – China and India – who have refused to back the Western-led sanction regimes against Russia and are now two of his most important business partners – are now publicly trying to distance themselves from Putin, highlighting Russia’s continued isolation.

The sight of Putin being publicly upbraided by Neranda Mordi, Indian Prime Minister, was just unthinkable a year ago. It came just a day after Putin himself admitted that China’s leader, Xi Jinping had “questions and concerns about the situation in Ukraine.”

Despite buying Russian oil and gas, China had been careful not to give material support to Russia that could trigger Western sanctions against its own economy. With Xi also struggling to stabilise the Chinese economy, he is clearly worried about the impact of the war on the global economy.

He also feels Putin had bungled the war and had not achieved the quick victory he had promised him when they met in February, just days before the invasion began.

No matter how humiliated he feels; no matter how independently he wants to act. No matter the threat from Russian ultra-patriots, Putin is stuck to China and India and must put them into consideration before deciding on his next line of action. He needs them now more than they need him and he cannot afford to alienate them.

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