Amid Putin’s roaring threats, the West has genuine cause for hope

I touch wood as I write, but can you think of anything that would go well for Vladimir Putin? Under his command, the Russian army has just lost not only a conquered territory the size of Wales, but also its aura of invincibility. If it suffers a similar defeat in the south, the end is near.

The legendary Russian “meat grinder” still grinds, but the sense of its slow, inevitable victory is gone. The military situation is now so bad that Putin was forced on Wednesday to announce a “partial mobilization” to call in another 300,000 soldiers.

Even worse for him was the domestic reaction. He told his audience that NATO was threatening ‘the motherland’ and that her sons had to defend her as a result. Hearing this battle cry, tens of thousands of would-be conscripts boarded cars or planes to quickly leave Mother Russia.

When I talk to Ukrainians, they like to say that the Russian regime “always lies”. Dissident Poles, Czechs, etc. said the same thing during the Cold War. Perhaps such talk is of course from oppressed peoples, but in the Cold War the Russian people also said it privately. They were often passionately committed to a romantic idea of ​​their country, but their jokes, their anger, their survival methods were all based on a firm belief that the Soviet system was a lie.

For a long time, most Russians believed in Putin. After the chaos of the 1990s, he seemed to restore order and national pride. In a culture far more chauvinistic than ours, he won praise for reconquest, especially when he successfully defied the Western powers in 2014 to take Crimea and some eastern territories from Kiev’s control.

So when he announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine in February, he received little domestic criticism. He lied—this was an invasion, not a special operation—but the people back home rejoiced at the prospect of success for this colonial adventure. Life, especially in Moscow, could go on happily.

The following months were not so good. Economic sanctions hurt. Travel was limited, as was the flow of money. Thousands of Russian soldiers were killed. In his speech at the May 1 parade, Putin failed to declare the lightning victory he had expected. Faith in him grew strained.

But it’s only really this week that Putin’s credibility at home began to waver. The men now fleeing the country clearly do not believe their president when he tells them that the mobilization is partial and that only those with military training will be called up. They fear being sent to fight in the coming winter without adequate boots, barracks, vehicles, body armor, coats, food or weapons, and with bad generals.

The phrase “military special operation” sounds professional. There is nothing professional about hundreds of thousands of poorly trained or untrained men being forced to fight against well-trained opponents who have already killed so many of their predecessors. So the new Russian conscripts vote with their feet.

How can an army win when it finds its own nation failing? A soldier becomes a mug, not a patriot. The Ukrainian army is 100 percent committed to victory. What are Russian soldiers committed to now?

When Putin invaded in February, and even as recently as last month, there were retired Western generals and leading military commentators and academics pushing for “realism.” Russia had legitimate interests, they said. The Red Army was legendary unbeatable. “Adults” (always a sign of complacency when people use that word about themselves) understood, they added, that the way out was a deal: Putin would more or less settle for the Donbas and Crimea. The West would force Ukraine to accept this. Normal life would then return.

Many mainland politicians – especially in Italy, France and gas-addicted Germany – sided with such views. Emmanuel Macron, longing for possible glory and a Nobel Peace Prize, continued to call Vlad and, he boasted, received his “personal assurances”. The West should accept Russia’s concept of “indivisible security,” the French president said.

Such voices are now almost silent. Ursula von der Leyen, who pursued a timid policy as German Defense Minister, is becoming a hawk as head of the European Commission. Macron is trying to lead the call to supply Ukraine with weapons. The combination of Russia’s horrific war crimes and military incompetence with Ukraine’s utter determination and good discipline has exposed the false premises of ‘realism’.

Russia isn’t exactly a great power – although it has a terrifying nuclear arsenal – let alone a defender of European civilization. It has spent six months bombing the citizens who, it says, long to be part of it, and who, as it will soon announce to universal ridicule, have “voted” to become so. The regime is incompetent, brutal, kleptocratic and mendacious. While Putin likes to attack the decadence of the West, his own regime is decadent. It despises any institutional restraint, grotesquely enriching its own elite, and pushing disgruntled cronies from the high windows.

Even countries that want to weaken the West – especially China, but to some extent India too – have become worried. After his recent visit to Samarkand, Putin can count only outcasts like Belarus, Syria and North Korea (or rather, their respective dictators) as supporters.

While the danger is still great, the consequences of Putin’s mistakes are benign.

Pope Pius XI once warned against “satanic optimism” about human progress. Ever since the Clinton/Blair era of Things Can Only Get Better, the West, in love with its own modernity, has been guilty of this sin. It was blind to threats, although the 21st century has been full of them thus far: Islamism, banking and financial disasters, China’s imperialism, Iran’s terrorism, Russia’s machismo and now inflation and energy insecurity.

High living on credit and well-being, we had forgotten that. Now we are forced to remember. That is cause for non-satanic optimism.

Putin helps us realize that our defense alliances mean something, as do our democratic and law-based systems and our international organizations. Normally you don’t look forward to a session of the United Nations General Assembly, but this week in New York there were world leaders, led by the normally not so tough President Biden, who opposed the principles of the UN Charter ” Putin’s war”. . By giving his incendiary speech shortly before, the Russian president inadvertently strengthened the unity of his opponents.

As for Liz Truss, she used the UN platform to immediately respond to Putin’s latest threat. She promised new money for weapons and said: “We will not rest until Ukraine has the upper hand.”

The victory for Ukraine has quickly turned from a beautiful dream to the main immediate global goal of the democratic allies. That is a big thing, and Britain, under Boris Johnson, with Mrs. Truss as its foreign secretary, was the first member of the Security Council to pursue this goal.

The democracies have moved from initial inattention, through fear, to confidence. In every challenge to date, we have found Putin’s threats to be either empty or ineffective. His most serious practicality – cutting off gas and oil in Europe – already seems less catastrophic, as people come to see that after a difficult short term, sufficient supply will come from other sources, prices will fall and Putin will have lost his main leverage forever.

Yes, he has the Bomb and is happy to say he will use it. The thought is horrifying. But no member of the world’s nuclear club, however anti-Western, has any interest in any member breaking their taboo against nuclear use. The best bet has to be that if we keep our spirits up, Putin will lose his.

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