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This is how despotism ends Putin will haunt the world long after his fall

He's about to implode. Credit: Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images


March 4, 2022   7 mins

The absurdly long table Vladimir Putin sits at, whether with Emmanuel Macron last month, or his terrified subordinates now, was the giveaway. There is stately furniture, then there is 20 feet of thuddingly symbolic paranoia. Isolated during the pandemic, padlocked in a “health bubble”, reading far too much history, writing (at length) zany polemic, Putin is no longer a dictator. He is a despot.

Making colleagues nod and bootlick when they have no desire to do so is the essence of power. But the despot feels the need for this sham acknowledgment not to demonstrate strength. At root he is irritable, morbid, totally oversensitive. Watching sycophants crawl along marble floors confirms his deep suspicion: human beings are low creatures. This confirmation makes him feel better.

Imagine we are allowed to send one writer into the Kremlin, with the intention of translating its walls and turrets and atavisms into literature. I’d choose Ryszard Kapuściński for the assignment. Nobody ever captured despotism with such vividness; no other witness, and no other stylist comes close. He would have seen the table, and known.

For much of his professional life Kapuściński was communist Poland’s lone foreign correspondent. He was always broke, being shot at, sneaking on to planes, and taking notes. Reporting for PAP, the Polish news agency, he made the brokenness of the world his subject. In Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia, and eventually with Imperium (1993), in the ashes of the USSR.

“I was an envoy,” he wrote, “engaged to render an account, to transmit, relate.” As envoy, Kapuściński witnessed 27 revolutions. Bolivia, Mozambique, Sudan, Benin, Iran… Rulers changed; governments fell. Surfing the roar and the blood, the only thing Kapuściński thought constant was “helplessness”. A revolution like Iran’s “demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end it annihilates the ideals that called it into being”. Experience taught him to fear desperate crowds chanting slogans.

Three elements combine frictionlessly in his work. There is Kapuściński the reporter, who hangs out everywhere with anyone, observing perpetually, a world-class noticer. Insanely brave and desperately lonely, he is nearly killed by snakes and bullets. He bypasses high politics and slums it in the places where maggots wriggle under people’s skin. This is the Kapuściński who said: “I don’t want to stop at observation. I want to take part.” Then there is Kapuściński the excursive essayist, the expert on anything, who can explain the tragedy of Shi’ism, or the history of the Iranian oil industry. Finally there is Kapuściński the poet, the imaginative genius, armed with metaphor, simile, and a subtle Aesopian language that can hold the universe in a rain drop.

Wonderfully, vast areas of Kapuściński’s life and work turned out to be lies. The envoy was an occasional spy and willing informer for Poland’s communists. The supposedly journalistic accounts he rendered were exposed: tattered and hole-ridden. His transmissions were deceptions. Kapuściński, often described late in life as the “greatest war correspondent in the world” and “the reporter’s reporter”, had been spinning fantasies for decades. Serious journalists hated this. They were ashen, and felt cheated. They shouldn’t have been shocked. You only needed to read a sentence of Kapuściński to know he was more than a journalist: he was an artist. He had to allow himself more. His ultimate creation was himself.

The character was mottled with fictions. Had he really awaited execution by Belgian mercenaries at Usumba airfield in the Sixties? Did he genuinely witness a massacre in Mexico City in 1968? Was he actually in Santiago for the Pinochet Coup in 1973? Nope: lie, lie, lie. He did not meet Che Guevara before his death in a seething Bolivian jungle. Nor did he meet Patrice Lumumba, nor did he watch fish deflesh the corpses of Idi Amin’s opponents that bobbed on the waters of Lake Victoria. Did his father escape the Katyn massacre, when Stalin murdered 20,000 Polish soldiers, as Kapuściński said he did? Oh, you better believe it’s a lie.

When a friend confronted him with the truth that a Tanzanian riot he wrote about was, in fact, utterly different to his account of it, Kapuściński shouted at her: “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up: the point is the essence of the matter.” He maintained that formal objectivity was the real lie. Nobody was impartial. Trying to be was the fantasy.

Adam Hochschild called Kapuściński’s work “magic journalism”. A genre all of his own. And like every good magician Kapuściński was a con artist. Since the full reveal of his lies in 2010 many have chosen to place the emphasis on the con, not the art. But I’d forgive almost anything to read a good paragraph. Kapuściński tuned more of those than most. Many truths are less profound — and frankly, less entertaining — than most of Kapuściński’s lies. The world suffers from a deficit of good paragraphs. It has more than enough facts.

And they’re not straightforward lies either. He liked to make wild literary images stand place for the facts of whole empires. In Imperium he states the simple data of the USSR’s size, twenty-two million square kilometres, with continental borders longer than the equator. So far, so factual. Then he goes further. Kapuściński says that he has never seen these borders without “thick coils of barbed wire.” In the constant snows, heats, and sand storms of the Imperium, the wire quickly deteriorates. The wire must be replaced — “one can assume that a significant portion of the Soviet metallurgical industry is devoted to producing barbed wire.” (Can one assume?) But then he goes even further.

What about the prison camps? They must need wire too! What about the wiring for atomic ranges, barracks, warehouses!? Multiply, he demands, the amount of wire needed by the number of years the USSR existed for… That’s why nobody could buy a spoon or a hammer in Smolensk or Omsk in 1987! All the raw materials were “used up in the manufacture of barbed wire.” He imagines the most important telephone call one imperial official could make to another being: “Are you all properly wired in?” The whole flight of fancy is daft. Completely untrue. But does it express the “essence” of the USSR — that it was inefficient, wasteful, cruel, essentially an enormous open-air prison — yes. Like Tony Montana, Kapuściński always tells the truth, even when he lies.

So we parachute Kapuściński into the Kremlin to uncover the “essence” of the place, and of Putin. His credentials for the task, though faked, are peerless. Kapuściński planned, though did not complete, a trilogy on absolute power, its consequences, and its downfall. The two books he did produce, The Emperor (1978) and Shah of Shahs (1982), describe the rule and overthrow of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie and Iran’s Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The third, clinching book would have been about Idi Amin; for some time Kapuściński kept a hand-drawn diagram of the Ugandan despot’s brain in his Warsaw flat. As soon as the USSR began to tremble during the Gorbachev era, Kapuściński realised he had other things to describe.

The Shah and the Emperor are different but the same. Kapuściński plays the surreal medievalism of the Ethiopian court for laughs. After the Emperor’s undoing he claims to have tracked down every flunkey: the pillow-bearer, who slipped the appropriate cushion under Selassie’s feet when he sat on thrones built for taller emperors; the servant who followed the Selassie’s dog around with a satin cloth, ready to wipe away the urine it habitually sprayed on visiting dignitaries; the Minister of the Pen, and the Keeper of the Third Door, and the Servants of the Bed Chamber… Like the Shah’s poets, generals, and economists, the Emperor’s lackeys cringe, push, and jostle.

Despots seek abjectly loyal men. Their inner circles are composed of galley slaves, without any autonomy. Their property and their lives are always at risk. This is Putin’s world too. “The smart oligarchs get how things work here and the dumb ones aren’t oligarchs any more,” a senior Kremlin official told the Financial Times this week. “Everyone who doesn’t like it is out, or in prison.”

In Kapuściński’s imagination despotism is a guise. He depicts the Shah and the Emperor as actors, with Iran and Ethiopia as tragic stages. The Shah performed “a one character play, and the actor was also a director. Everyone else was an extra.” The aged Selassie weighs a mere fifty kilograms. His knees are stiff and he can barely walk. But he understands his role; he is a “theatrical paternalist”. When watched “he forced a certain elasticity into his muscles, with great effort, so that he moved with dignity”. Everyone, despot included, is forced to pretend. Think of Putin’s “gunslinger gait”. Farcical dissimulation flows from the top down.

Society under the despot is fatalistic and paranoid. Iran and Ethiopia are choked and immobile places. The people exist largely to be spied on. The Emperor’s courtiers are embarrassed that there even are Ethiopians. They lament “provinces where the people are depressingly savage, pagan and naked; without instructions from the police they might do something that might offend His Majesty’s dignity”.

Iran’s difference with Ethiopia is oil. The Shah gets drunk on it. Like Putin, he confuses petro-billions for strength, wisdom and authority. Kapuściński sees oil as “a resource that anaesthetises thought, blurs vision, corrupts”. The filthy liquid, and all the billions, poison the Iranians who control it. Western operators scramble — as they have done in Russia for decades — to pick scraps from the table. They ignore the secret police, and the vanished journalists, because the pickings are so sweet.

The Westerners ingratiate themselves with a new class: “the petro-bourgeoisie”. They produce nothing but consume restlessly. The only thing Kapuściński’s Iranian oligarchs don’t buy are English football clubs. In the sight of cramped towns and the sullen majority, the new class “mounts an exhibition of the Iranian dolce vita, knowing no measure in its dissoluteness, rapacity, and cynicism.” Do the upper echelons realise their elegant lives are being played out on a volcano’s edge?

In both cases the mixture of ever more isolated courts and rulers with an ever more immiserated population, eventually produces the explosion that destroys the regime. Though never made explicit, that was Kapuściński’s lesson for the communists who ruled Poland for most his life, and for today’s despots: you will miscalculate in the end. The despot pursues unpopular military adventures, he promises too much, and he is no longer able to see himself from the outside. Their tables stretch longer, and longer still. His people become conscious of the “subjugation, barrenness, vagueness, and the emptiness of existence”. The moment they snap — and Kapuściński calls the timing of such moments “the greatest riddle known to history” — it ends.

The Shah tries everything. He shoots protestors, and promises democracy. His prisons overflow and they empty out. Repression and liberalisation do an ugly, jolting dance. The despot does not know which partner to choose. In Ethiopia, the Emperor begins to give up; “He was too old to stop the impending avalanche.” All is in vain. In Iran the people “simply did not want a Shah any more”. The performance ends, the lights go out, and the despot trudges off stage.

Despotisms, like great art, linger after they finish. Kapuściński lied about many things, but he was under no illusions about the fate of the despot’s audience. If life was a film they would achieve catharsis. They kill the despot. Their flags fly above the capitol’s square. Flowers are pushed down gun barrels. Kapuściński knew this was wrong. In the real world real damage cannot be undone.

His exiled Shah jets forlornly between five star ski resorts. His senile Emperor is left under house arrest. Endings that are minimal, not maximal. But the audience, their peoples? You can remove the despot, you can use his table for firewood, except he has already salted the earth. Psychologically and socially despotism lives on. What is left behind in Kapuściński’s fables of Ethiopia and Iran is “an empty sour field on which the tree of thought won’t grow quickly”.

His fable of today’s Kremlin would end this way if he were alive to write it. There are 144 million Russians. Putin may be assassinated by one of them during a palace coup. They may fill the streets until the pressure scuttles him. He will be removed somehow, one day. But if Kapuściński is right, Putin will live through what he’s done to his people for decades yet.


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Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

Anyone who thinks Putin’s public appearances are signs of mental derangement has forgotten who Putin is: former KGB officer trained in interrogation and psychological warfare. Nothing is accidentally shown, particularly in scripted video. If you notice something in his demeanor or actions, it’s because he wanted you to notice it.

And look how well it’s worked. We’re spilling ink wondering whether Putin has lost his marbles and will be deposed soon. Or maybe he’ll just nuke us if he gets pissed off; we’d better be careful in how we respond. (Yes, we must be careful, but not because Putin is crazy. WE must be careful because he’s not crazy, and a putbull backed into a corner is extremely dangerous.)

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Even a trained KGB officer makes mistakes when he gets old and the power goes to his head.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Or maybe especially a ‘trained’ KGB agent?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Probably a good point.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

The steroids, remember the steroids. And steroid rage, a medical condition.

Victoria Cooper
Victoria Cooper
2 years ago

It is not beyond the bounds of reality that Putin is on steroids – and maybe also immunosuppressants. That makes him more dangerous and yes, mad in a way.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

I agree that it is possible. But I think it is foolish to presume that to be the case. Which is more likely:
2 years of COVID and some kind of drugs have made Putin so loony he’s afraid to sit closer than 20 feet from people, while still retaining enough faculties to restate the exact same red-lines about NATO expansion that he always has…
or Putin is in complete control of his faculties and the 20 foot table is about making his adversaries think he’s crazy, while he does exactly what he said he would do to enforce his red lines over NATO expansion.

I believe the second. Mostly because while his public behavior appears deranged, his actual actions (of his government) have been what would be expected from a man who truly believes NATO expansion is an existential threat to his nation.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago

I read somewhere that he is highly medicated, probably taking steroids. If true then he isn’t himself; he’s pumped up. KGB or not, he must be exhausted.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Nah he’s the Norwegian Blue of mad dictators – left the territory, lost the plot, etc etc.
You can stand behind that counter with your beige work tunic of authority, trying to convince us with your weasel Palinesque salesman’s words that he’s really sane – but we know now, he’s a bampot, a dead parrot.
He needs to be transferred to the Ministry of Funny Russian Walks as soon as.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Stewart
Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

From one die-hard Monty Python fan to another… well done. Now will you read me Ethel the Aardvark, please?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Kapuściński sounds like someone who would have made a fine, run-of-the-mill, graun columnist

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

His work was brilliant. I believed every word of it.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

They used to be called liars , people who made up stuff, and there are always plenty of people lazy enough to make up stuff… now they’re some kind of artist?

Mike Stimpson
Mike Stimpson
2 years ago

Was this written with the aid of the “nudge unit”?

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago

[One of] the best piece[s] I’ve read so far on UnHerd.
‘Watching sycophants* crawl along marble floors confirms his deep suspicion: human beings are low creatures.’
*We are all susceptible. Certainly the (‘Boris’) Johnson phenomenon is a textbook case-study of the perils of sycophancy. A Cabinet of the ‘dangerously incompetent’.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Zaph Mann
Zaph Mann
2 years ago

Very nicely written. . I do wonder though if it’s really not those whose wealth is built off of the manufacture of ever more hideous weapons and indeed the manufacture of never ending wars.

Fred Sculthorp
Fred Sculthorp
2 years ago

‘You only needed to read a sentence of Kapuściński to know he was more than a journalist: he was an artist. He had to allow himself more. His ultimate creation was himself.’
This is interesting. How much of this has inspired the current mold of foreign reporter?

Last edited 2 years ago by Fred Sculthorp
Max Price
Max Price
2 years ago

Wonderfully written article. Thanks Will.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago
Reply to  Max Price

Agree – great piece of writing – many thanks

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
2 years ago

So the obscene despotism of the WEF and the NWO is OK, then??

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

Amazing, this new found aversion to despots in the West.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

This is the problem- the West is imperfect and unfair. Therefore there is no difference to Russia? Last time I checked Johnson hasn’t tried to poison Starmer or ordered him to a hell hole prison with a sentence to be increased at Johnson’s whim. This argument from abstract perfection doesn’t work.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

No, but Trudeau did seize the bank accounts of his fellow citizens simply for protesting his actions. Much like we’re seizing the bank accounts of Russian citizens for not protesting Putin’s actions.

You’re right, the two systems are not morally equivalent. But they’re also not as different as people imagine. Rysard Legutko (former Polish MP who helped transition his country from communism to liberalism) wrote a great book about the unexpected similarities called “The Demon in Democracy”.

David B
David B
2 years ago

I will always upvote a post that promotes Legutko’s excellent book. In the same vein, Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind is a good read too.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  David B

I get great book recommendations from Unherd readers. I’ve got it on hold from the library. Thanks.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

You are right, the West is different.

When Russia attacks Ukraine, they did so (contrary to the Western press stories about Vlad resurrecting the Warsaw pact) because they are rightfully paranoid about NATO in Ukraine, and warned about it for years. Still doesn’t justify war, of course.

When Britain attacked Iraq, it wasn’t just without cause, based on a lie, and with no attempt to avoid war. There was causus Belli, no strategic reason, nothing that would harm Western interests if there were no war.
You launched a brutal war on a defense less country, destroyed their infrastructure, left them ravaged – just because you could.

Animals that kill to eat versus those that kill for pleasure. Only human beings, especially from the West, fall into the latter category.

And yes, Britain is a democracy. democracies are nicer for their own people and opposition leaders. Which is why deposing democratically elected leaders such as Allende or Mosaddegh and replacing them with autocratic wasn’t a great idea. But then, if you didn’t have double standards you wouldn’t have any standards.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Yes, but…. Putin is taking the Ukraine to keep it. NATO is a smoke screen; as long as the Donbas remained in break away mode, Ukraine could never, ever join NATO.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

The West has done some revolting things in the recent past and maybe one or two leaders have tried, in their heads, to step on the ‘Despot’ continuum-ladder, but I am not sure anything can compare to this.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

” I am not sure anything can compare to this”
I am keen to understand the big difference between what’s Putin’s war and the various wars initiated by the West, and how the latter were morally superior

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

As we know, Putin has invaded without any provocation, an adjacent (‘sister/brother’) nation with deep historical and personal/familial connections to Russia, but which is nonetheless now independent. He is the direct cause of what will be a protracted, terrifying feud between Ukrainian nationals and Russia. He will be responsible for the deaths and grieving of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. He is mis-using History, to destroy another nation, in cold blood.
The reasons for the attacks on Iraq and Libya, for example, though not arguably, ‘morally superior’, were in the context of much more complex and involved circumstances (accepted, with hindsight, a prime argument for not launching the attacks – the West didn’t attempt to foresee what might happen, ergo, Daesh and their land-grabbing…). The motives were different.
To go back to the original comment.The ‘aversion’ to ‘despots in the West’ is not ‘new’. I accept it is selective, though.

Last edited 2 years ago by James Chater
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

Thank you for your long and considered response.
I think that’s the fundamental issue here- a lack of appreciation of recent events and Russian view of the world

“without any provocation”
Expanded NATO East against verbal promises in 1999-2004 when Russia was no threat
Hinted at Georgia and Ukr joining NATO in 2008
Funded and instigated a coup that overthrew the pro Russian leader of Ukraine
Repression of the Russian minority in Ukraine and elevation of neo Nazis
And the final straw was refusing to rule out Ukraine joining NATO, which would mean reaching the very border of Russia, ballistic missiles a few minutes from Moscow,and loss of key Russian naval bases

No provocation at all?

And in contrast:

“The reasons for the attacks on Iraq and Libya,.. in the context of much more complex and involved circumstances”
There was no real strategic reason for either war.
None.
The reason cited in Iraq (WMDs) was am utter, brazen lie.

If the West had not attacked those countries, they would not have descended to anarchy, and there would be close to zero impact on NATO.

If Russia had not attacked Ukraine, their strategic position would have become catastrophic.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Do the people of Ukraine have any say in what they wish?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

As much as the people of Chile, Vietnam and Cuba I would assume.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Halabjah? 1988? That’s where and when more than 5 thousand Kurdish townsfolk were gassed to death in Northern Iraq.
Iraq had Chemical Ali then. Ukraine has comic Zelensky in charge – so Russia has only imagined threats from Ukraine. The only real threat to Russia is Russia itself: Russia attacking the environs of a nuclear power plant.

James Chater
James Chater
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Putin has initiated a fantasy ‘re-conquest/civil war’. He has knowlingly started what will be protracted feuding. No one ‘wins’ at all. To remove Hussein and Gaddafi were arguably ‘morally’ and strategically ‘wrong’. However, the motives for initiating the West’s ‘regime change’ and Putin’s ‘special operations’ were entirely different.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  James Chater

I’m not so sure, James. 20 years ago, I would have agreed with you. I totally wrote off the “blood for oil” narrative. But then I watched my country’s politicians and flag military officers lie through their teeth for years about Iraq and Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Papers have proven our elites knew they were lying. The Panama Papers have proven many of our elites were enriching themselves along the way.

Were Libya and Iraq and Syria really moral crusades? I’m less certain now. Is Yemen a moral crusade? We’re supplying the arms for it. Meanwhile, when we’re sanctioning Russia but asking the House of Saud to pump more oil for us, I wonder how moral our foreign policy really is.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do some of these things. Nations have interests, and it may well be within ours to overthrow Ghaddafi or the Taliban or Assad. But we should be clear-headed about why, instead of hiding behind a cloak of “our drone strikes are more moral than yours”.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

What happened in Iraq was largely Iraqis killing Iraqis, even Shias killed Shias( Al Sadr had Al Khoei killed). Al Quaeda killed everyone who not part of their group. Did anyone predict the slaughter of Iraqis by Iraqis ?

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

All that would not have happened if not for the US invasion.
Saddam was a brutal dictator but why don’t you ask some Iraqis if they preferred his regime or what came after?

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

‘..some Iraqis’ indeed! You would have to be very selective about who you asked if you wanted a favourable view of Saddam. The southern Marsh Arabs and the northern Kurds weren’t so keen, for a start.

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Tonkyn
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Depends upon the Iraqi. In 1990 Saddam was not removed and some Iraqis complained. The Shias rose up and were slaughtered by Saddam.
If a window in a building is broken one cannot use this as an excuse to steal. People have free will, which includes being free not to kill. Just because there are no Police in the street that does not allow one to kill a neighbour one dislikes. There is the concept in British law of proportionality and self control.
Perhaps in many countries freedom and democracy do not work: therefore there is a need for a strong leader to stop people killing each and prevent rampant corruption. Perhaps the people lack emotional maturity which brings about , self control, a sense of perspective, proportionality, balance and an ability to laugh at oneself.
The concept of a king being chosen and ruling through consultation and consent goes back to 500 AD in England. The first rules by which which a kingdom was to be governed by laws goes back to Aethelbert of Kent in about 650AD; then there is The Charter of Liberties of 1100 AD, Magna Carta 1215 AD and a fully functioning Parliament with House of Commons and Lords by 1295AD. Perhaps the emotional maturity which means individuals take responsibility for their actions, takes centuries to develop. Perhaps if peoples have a psyche dominated by pride and honour then it is difficult persuade them to desist from killing each other other slights. Perhaps the phrase ” No offence meant ” and the reply ” None taken ” can only occur amongst people relaxed in their knowledge of their proven abilities.
Many Russians want a strong person to rule; perhaps because they lack the emotional maturity required by individuals to take responsibility for their lives required for a free and democratic country. After all, Russia had serfdom until 1860 and Communism from 1917 to 1991.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

This is my issue with the war in Ukraine. While Putin is obviously awful the Uk and Us lost the moral high ground in 2003 when they defied the UN and acted unilaterally in invading Iraq. In both Ukraine and Iraq, the populations of the invading countries were broadly against military action. Blair and Campbell have a lot to answer for!

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Putin is a kleptomaniac grabbing Ukraine for keeps. For what ever reason the West intervenes, it pulls out eventually – even if the withdrawal is a shambles!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

“I am keen to understand the big difference between what’s Putin’s war and the various wars initiated by the West, and how the latter were morally superior”

The wars were not and morals don’t come into it, but the systems that generated those wars are not locked in stasis – the populations of the West could turf out any of Bush, Blair etc after a few years. That they chose not to and instead re-elected them, is a different matter, but there’s no accounting for the tastes of populations – the Canadians willingly chose Trudeau, as did the New Zealanders, Arden, but we must allow for eccentricities in different populations.

Try turfing out Putin, and it’s thirty years in a Siberian prison, or worse.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You are confusing two different questions.
The sanctimonious reaction to the war in the West is a different matter to your view on Putin.

Putin is a dictator, and a rather ruthless one who has curtailed freedoms.

However, If instead of Putin, you had some other, softer, more democratic leader, NATO would still be advancing towards Russia (the first wave happened in 1999, Putin was just about to come to power, the Russian military and economy was in tatters)
And hence the strategic reasons for Russia to draw a red line, their antagonism to US backed “regime change” and loss of the Ukrainian ports, would remain.

If this was some other leader instead of Putin, if he cared for Russia’s long term interests, this war would happen.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

If a free nation wishes to join NATO, it is entitled to do so if it meets certain conditions. How dare you suggest that Russia has any moral right to hold a large stick to use against such countries? The advance of NATO is with the consent of free nation’s choices. Perhaps you should consider just why they are so keen to join the Treaty? It cannot be comfortable living adjacent to a mafia state. We should not, must not, pander to Putin’s insecurities.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Guy Aston

Firstly, those noble symptoms about “free nations” seem to be absent when it suits the West.
How dare you spout such talk with a track record that includes Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Iran?

Secondly, do have Poland etc have good reason to fear Russia?
Of course.

Does Russia have reason to fear a rapidly advancing and powerful NATO alliance?
Also true.

So, you could try and arrive at s compromise, with Ukraine neutral but free.

Or you could refuse to pander to “Putin’s insecurities” and treat Russia’s valid security concerns with utter contempt.

And, here we are as a consequence of that path.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Russia need have no fear of NATO because it is a DEFENSIVE alliance – not a bullying expansive one as Russia/USSR. Putin’s fear of NATO is merely the usual paranoia of the bully – and you cannot pander to a bully’s paranoia – because as proved over and over again (see this essay) that paranioa and its viciousness is endless – cf Stalin anyone – so why why why start crumbling in the face of this murderous scumbag ???? and defending his so-called justifications for invading the Ukraine – there is absolutely NO JUSTIFICATION and to attempt one appears weak and appeasing – just like Chamberlin…

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Guy Aston

Agreed – and the clear question would be – why would those countries WANT to join NATO if they felt secure and safe etc. Russia can always create ‘buffer states’ by being supportive vs coercive – bullying has its results whether the playground or internationally – and the advice against the playground bully is ALWAYS stand your ground and join up with others as support. Any other rationalization is what allows bullies to flourish in the first place !! eg soft sanctions on Hitler etc etc . Not noble sentiments just simple truths !

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

“advice against the playground bully is ALWAYS stand your ground and join up with others’
I think China, India, and some of the bigger Mid East countries like Saudi and UAE have got that message.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

China needs a 5% growth rate to keep the masses supporting the CCP, any economic downturn could threaten that. The CCP is so scared of any group growing to a size which could threaten it that it arrested the leaders of Falung Gong and wants to chose RC bishops. India has to be wary of Chinese expansion and Saudi Arabia and UAE biggest threat is Iran, hence the Abraham Accord with Israel. The USA is the country whom they desire to support them in time of need.

Guy Aston
Guy Aston
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Please see my comments above.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You can literally vote against Putin. And people do.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Um, but you cant criticise him unless you have 15 spare years – oh puleeeeze.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
2 years ago

Let’s just have it over with and call Putin ‘Big, Bad Wolf’ from now on.

Just imagine how much better the first paragraph looks:

The absurdly long table Big, Bad Wolf sits at, whether with Emmanuel Macron last month, or his terrified subordinates now, was the giveaway. There is stately furniture, then there is 20 feet of thuddingly symbolic paranoia. Isolated during the pandemic, padlocked in a “health bubble”, reading far too much history, writing (at length) zany polemic, Big, Bad Wolf is no longer a dictator. He is a despot.