Will Ukraine be Putin's undoing?

Solzhenitsyn, one of the great truth-tellers of the twentieth century, harbored an exceedingly benign view of one of the more ominous figures of the twenty-first. Putin is an unabashed authoritarian. He masks the Pharaonic enrichment of his political circle by projecting an austere image of shrewd bluster and manly bravado. He is also the sum of his resentments. His outrage over the uprising in Kiev, like his subsequent decision to invade Crimea, is stoked by a powerful suspicion of Western motives and hypocrisies. Putin absorbed the eastward expansion of NATO; attacks on his abysmal record on human rights and civil society; and the “color” revolutions in Tbilisi and Kiev—even the revolts in Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, Manama, and Damascus—as intimations of his own political mortality. He sees everything from the National Endowment for Democracy to the American Embassy in Moscow as an outpost of a plot against him. And the U.S. clearly does want to curb his influence; we can’t pretend that he’s entirely crazy to think so. The Olympics was his multi-billion-ruble reassertion of Russian power on the level of pop culture; the invasion of Crimea is a reassertion of Russian power in the harsher currency of arms and intimidation…

Right now, Putin retains his familiar strut and disdain. His opposition at home is on tenterhooks, fearing a comprehensive crackdown, and the West, which dreams of his coöperation in Syria and Iran, is reluctant to press him too hard. But it may be that his adventure in Crimea—and not the American Embassy in Moscow—will undo him. Last month, a Kremlin-sponsored poll showed that seventy-three per cent of Russians opposed interfering in the political confrontations in Kiev. The Kremlin has proved since that it has the means, and the media, to gin up support for Putin’s folly—but that won’t last indefinitely.

In other words, Putin risks alienating himself not only from the West and Ukraine, to say nothing of the global economy he dearly wants to join, but from Russia itself. His dreams of staying in office until 2024, of being the most formidable state-builder in Russian history since Peter the Great, may yet founder on the peninsula of Crimea.