February 24, 2022 6.30 pm

Barry Turner: Has Putin sealed his own fate?

This modern Czar of all the Russias may be destined to end in the same way as many of his predecessors

So, the inevitable has happened, President Putin has launched what is likely to be the most appalling war Europe has seen since 1945.

In an ignominious and flagrant breach of international law he has attacked a neighbouring state with full fury of a military superpower. Not only any old neighbouring state but one that has sharded its history, much of its culture and definitely much of it terrible hardship for centuries.

No amount of hyperbole is going to be ever enough to condemn this war crime — and war crime it is as defined in count one of the Nuremberg Indictment. The outcome for the people of Ukraine, not to mention the young men and women in Russian uniform is obvious, but this article is concerned with the fate of the perpetrator of this tragedy.

Vladimir Putin arrived on the world’s political stage in May 2000 after some months as acting president of post-Soviet Russia.  Ironically as the protege of the chaotic and frequently inebriated Boris Yeltsin, he ran on a ticket to end the corruption that Yeltsin himself had largely presided over. In the early years he achieved some success in that venture but as his power increased, he himself fell to the eternal curse that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

No one would have expected a former station chief of the KGB and director of its successor the FSB to have been much of a keen democrat, and the ever increasing corruption of the Russia that emerged from the former Soviet Union determined that his autocracy would take increasing hold in the country. This soon developed into the long established pretensions of the all-powerful, and he soon began to adopt the trappings, not of his Soviet predecessors but those of the long dead Czars of old Imperial Russia.

His strutting around the enormous halls of the Kremlin surrounded by his 18th century attired Preobrazhynski Guard Regiment and his manipulating of the constitution to make him head of state for life. His absurd posturing shirtless on horseback and his action man image in fighter jets. His cosying up the patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church took him further and further down the fantasy pathway to Czardom.  It was very clear that he also was developing the paranoia and aggression that so many of his imperial forbears had in spades.

And now we have the ultimate expression of the pretence of being the Czar. A war of aggression against a neighbour, a country he claims as Russia’s natural satrap from the days of the Old Imperial Triune or as it was known “all the Russias” It is his stated ambition to restore this 19th century empire as his legacy to the world, and he will stop at nothing, including inflicting misery on millions to achieve it.

During the Covid-19 pandemic the modern Czar has spent much time at his resort home in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, reading what he would call the history of Russia. Those of us who have spent many years as Russia watchers are very familiar with such stories, and they are more myth and legend than any history. A bit like the English stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur.  He has absorbed himself in this fantasy, and his pretensions and his paranoia have been nourished by them. He now sees himself in this imperial role and as an integral part in the glory of Russia.

He should perhaps have read the more realistic versions of Russian history that are far more fascinating than the silly romanticism of the volumes he has read from. He certainly should have looked at the history of the Czars, because so many of them ended their careers in nothing like the glory he now craves. That is almost certainly where he is now headed. He is far from the first all-powerful head of state or Czar of all the Russias.

All his predecessors had strong armies and an all pervasive secret police. All were surrounded by sycophants from Boyars, through Commissars to Oligarchs most came to sticky ends and it was rarely from without that the final blow was struck or the poison administered. Ivan the Terrible knew his enemies were those closest to him. Mr Putin should not look to Alexei Navalny as his nemesis, the real one is currently also creeping around the corridors of the Kremlin.

It won’t be tomorrow; it won’t be next week but one day he will have a short lapse of concentration and the blow will come. His successor is already in place. He (it is certainly a man) is waiting for the cue.

It’s there in the history books Vladimir, look it up while you still can.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.