As attested by Vladimir Putin’s carefully calibrated photo ops such as the infamous image of the Russian leader shirtless atop a horse, he knows the value of spectacle.
One such spectacle took place last week in the Kremlin, as the despot held a pompous ceremony to supposedly formalize the annexation of the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia following illegal referendums in which locals were coerced to vote at gunpoint.
It featured a signing ceremony with the four regions’ puppet leaders, but the real centerpiece was Putin’s forceful speech, in which he demolished the mealy-mouthed justification, favored by some apologists in the West, that his invasion was simply responding to the threat of NATO expansion to neighboring countries.
In no uncertain terms, the dictator made clear that his troops were in Ukraine but his war was with the totality of the post-Soviet global order, and that he could not abide by a world in which the United States and European allies were the dominant economic and military forces, framing his crusade as one of “anti-colonialism.” For all of America’s faults, it’s laughable to imagine a figure like Putin building a better world.
This language, as well as the madman’s recent dark warning that threats of nuclear retaliation were “not a bluff,” should worry us all. Putin knows the power of spectacle, but he also knows it’s not enough. Not a week after his annexation choreography, Ukrainian forces further routed his troops in the very areas Russian forces were supposed to now fully control. The attempt to draft men to replenish his dwindling forces is going terribly, with hundreds of thousands having fled already. Putin is running out of options, except for the most drastic one, the lever he can pull when all else fails.
It is crucial now to cut off Putin’s power. That means supporting Russians’ own rejection of his corrupt leadership. He can always fight the outside powers he feels besieged by, but he can’t survive a collapse in his domestic authority.
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