Russia invades Ukraine: Vladimir Putin's utter lack of compassion for others makes him dangerous in victory or defeat – Joyce McMillan
On social media, a friend posts the video of Sting’s 1985 song Russians, which has in any case been echoing around my head for days.
The song is a stylish cry from the heart dating back almost 40 years, to the last time people in Britain seriously had to lie awake at night, worrying about the possibility of nuclear war; and its sudden return to relevance is another sign of the scale of the political shock through which we are living, as decades of history seem to be wound back in days.
In a sense, of course, the song’s key line – “I hope the Russians love their children too” – sounds even more rhetorical than it did 37 years ago.
If there is one thing we should have fully learned, over the last decades of increasing globalisation and hyper-communication, it is that most people everywhere are far more alike than they are different, in their love for their children and grandchildren, and their wish to create a safe and prosperous future for them.
“How can I save my little boy/ From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” sings Sting, of the inventor of the atomic bomb; and finally, “What might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too.”
Well, we were saved; and within half a decade, with coming of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War seemed over for good. Now, though, we live in the age of Vladimir Putin, a very different kind of leader, shaped by the burning humiliation of the Soviet Union’s collapse, when he was a young KGB officer in East Germany.
By the time they reach Putin’s age – he will turn 70 this year, a fact that may be psychologically significant – most men, and most people, tend to have accepted that the story is no longer about them, and that their main task is now the care and guidance of younger generations.
Whatever his political strengths and weaknesses, for example, the current US President, at 79, is the very epitome of that benign grandfatherly energy, delivering speeches full of references to children and their welfare, and to policies intended to support them.
No such energy is present, though, in the public pronouncements of Putin. Instead, his face appears rigid with steroids and the consequences of cosmetic surgery, designed to maintain a superficially youthful appearance; and insofar as he is a father and grandfather – many times over, by all accounts – he tends to keep those relationships intensely private, and does not integrate them into his public image.
He has no obvious successors, and recent pictures of him – isolated by his terror of Covid at the end of absurdly long tables, or in huge meeting halls – suggest a leader increasingly detached from normal human interactions, and unwilling to acknowledge the health problems that tend to come with advancing age.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that, like other leaders with this mindset, Putin seems increasingly obsessed with reactionary dreams of past greatness, and with doomed attempts, not least through the current horrifying assault on Ukraine, to recreate the world of his youth, when the Russian-dominated Soviet Union controlled all of Europe east of Berlin.
That these dreams are ridiculous is obvious. In Putin’s fantasy world, he is still battling Nazism, as the Soviet Union heroically did in 1941-45. In reality, though, he has proved himself an ally of the worst kind of gangster capitalism, both at home and abroad; and all he has to offer the people of Ukraine, or any other country in his sights, is death, destruction, and a profoundly corrupt form of kleptocratic, authoritarian rule.
The absurdity of his dreams, though – and the likelihood that they will eventually crumble on contact with reality – does not yet limit his ability to inflict catastrophic damage, on his way down; instead he seems to be entering the kind of end-game where an ageing dictator begins to imagine that it’s not himself but his whole country that faces an extinction threat.
Faced with defeat, Putin may therefore lash out in previously unthinkable ways, including the use of nuclear weapons he has already obliquely threatened. Faced with victory, he may well feel encouraged to go further, into Moldova or even the Baltic states.
And faced with a partial victory and continuing Ukrainian resistance, he will doubtless crack down with a savagery that could cost Ukraine a generation of leaders in every field, through death or exile. The choices facing western leaders, in trying to limit the scale of this disaster, are shockingly difficult; those facing the people of Ukraine are ten times worse, and often almost too painful to consider.
The hell that Putin has unleashed over the past nine days, in other words, represents the direst of warnings to those tired of the delays, corruptions and imperfections of democracy and the rule of law, and tempted by the idea of the “strong man” single ruler, who can “get things done”; a definitive reminder, if one were needed, that unchecked power not only corrupts, but tends, in the end, to make human beings mad.
Of course most Russians love their children, and want to live in peace with their neighbours, rather than in the nightmare of war.
For Vladimir Putin, though – now locked in a private psychodrama of bitter resentment and revenge, acted out on an international stage – it seems that love, or even a minimum of compassion for other human beings, no longer figures in his decisions; and that unless and until his fellow Russians can find a way to remove him from the centre of power, there is scarcely any limit to the damage he may now do to his own people and others, in pursuit of his impossible dream of a Soviet-sized Russia made great again, in the 21st century.
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