Vladimir Putin believes he is raising Russia from the ashes of the Soviet Union. He established an organized state with vast oil wealth, $635 billion in cash reserves, a largely self-sustaining economy, and a historic new strategic agreement with China.
Thanks to his aggressive record of Russian intelligence interference in Western politics, this spymaster president has honed his playbook for covert action. Whether through Moscow-incubated separatist movements, oligarch-funded mercenaries, false flag attacks, cyberattacks or propaganda, Mr. Putin has many tools to subjugate Ukraine. A strong network of black money, likely owned largely by Mr. Putin, funnels capital into the hands of Russian oligarchs, blunting the effectiveness of Western sanctions. With these factors in his favour, Mr Putin believes the time has come to reclaim a lost jewel of Russia’s imperial crown, cementing his historic legacy.
It is more likely that Mr. Putin reached his peak in the days leading up to the invasion of Ukraine. His pride is based on a deep misunderstanding of the power of liberal democracies. It sees the West’s controversy over key political issues as a weakness and harbors contempt for the democratic process. He fails to understand that these inefficiencies are the result of a real force – a political system responsive to the will of the people. Mr. Putin’s disregard for the will of the Ukrainian people and others in Eastern Europe has led Russia into a new Cold War, which it will lose as it did the first.
When I was head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Afghan task force in 1986, we knew two things when working to counter Soviet aggression: the Afghan people were ready to fight the occupation, and that made it extremely costly for the Soviets building and managing an Empire. The United States did not have to win, we only had to prevent Russia from winning. It is ironic that America’s own disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan has pushed Mr. Putin into another unwinnable war.
Financing a war is more difficult now that Mr. Putin is an international pariah. Russia, if it had access to its cash reserves, could quickly burn through $635 billion as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization galvanizes and Russia is shut out of the global economy. The West must hold the line and support Ukraine. The threat posed by Mr. Putin’s ambitions for a Russian sphere of influence will continue to fuel Western resolve as his self-destructive behavior produces its deleterious effects on his own country.
Mr. Putin sowed the seeds of his own destruction by invading Ukraine, but his downfall ultimately depends on the will of the Russian people. Faced with severe economic and diplomatic wounds, Russia will begin to crack and crumble, and before long its citizens will weary of its sclerotic and autocratic governance. They will find ways to get their money out of the country and vote with their feet; Mr. Putin’s loyal oligarchs will falter with their assets at stake, and things will start to feel a lot lonelier for him.
China can provide economic assistance, but Beijing’s aid will not be free and will be insufficient to fill the shortfall in outflows. And as Mr. Putin’s star begins to fade, the Chinese will cut their losses and distance themselves from him. Chinese state banks have already begun to limit the financing of Russian commodities.
The end date of the Putin era is still uncertain, but against the unified resistance of the free world, his hubris and disregard for the will of his people will bring him down. Its position of strength will turn into a place of historical ignominy.
Mr. Devine is a former acting director of operations for the CIA and chairman of the Arkin Group, an international intelligence and investigative firm based in New York. He is the author of “Spymasters’ Prism”.
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Appeared in the March 3, 2022 print edition.