Don’t believe your own hype

Published Dhaka Tribune 4 March 2022

On becoming President-elect of Russia in March 2000, Vladimir Putin was already infamous as the Butcher of Grozny. 

This did not dent the willingness of Western nations to look the other way to do business. As indeed did much of the world when Putin used the excuse of fighting ISIS to whitewash his cluster bombing of Syrian civilians whilst backing the psychopathic Assad dictatorship.

Putin has long built a reputation for himself as an inscrutable master of sowing disinformation and encouraging fascistically-inclined populist leaders around the world. Enabled in plain sight by Western business and political establishments eagerly laundering the ill-gotten billions his favoured kleptocrats made while grabbing Russia’s natural resources for themselves, the West has long done much the same for Saudi Arabia and oligarchs from across the globe, but listing hypocrisies is an endless task.

More importantly, it is pointless when the people of Ukraine are having to cope with the horrors wrought by Putin’s invasion. It is too late to speculate about what NATO could have done at the start of the millennium (perhaps admitting Russia?) when all the posturing about nuclear weapons is emanating from the Kremlin. 

Strong leadership and resistance have slowed but not stopped the advance of Russia’s army. Putin’s blitzkrieg failed to immediately install a puppet government, but he still has the sheer weight of numbers to further inflict utter carnage on the people of Ukraine. The wheels of Putin’s war machine will keep turning until either the money or his luck runs dry.

Only two facts are certain at the start of March

Firstly, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won widespread admiration in the most undesirable of circumstances.  And secondly, some time ago, Putin started believing in his own propaganda as the cunning KGB strategist who can never be defeated. 

Having gotten high on his own supply, he is ordering his army to brutalize the citizens of Kharkiv and Kyiv as they defend their homeland. Ukrainians may face many more gruesome death tolls and little good news for years ahead, amid guaranteed global economic instability. Yet even if Zelenskyy and his entire cabinet are replaced — or worse — and the people of Ukraine subjugated for another generation, their land is simply too big to occupy. Putin no doubt knows this but has seemingly lost his aptitude for patience. 

I know in wartime, all sides lie in the battle for hearts and minds, but there is no doubt that Putin is the aggressor in this case. Attacking a memorial to victims of the Holocaust while obscenely proclaiming “denazification,” bombing universities, and demolishing civic buildings in Freedom Square are hardly the optics sought by a “master manipulator.”  

By contrast, Zelenskyy has expertly combined passionate defiance with thoughtful calls for solidarity against aggression. Just a few years ago, he was a famous stand-up comedian with a starring role in a TV series about a school history teacher who accidentally becomes president. Not to mention also being the dubbed Ukrainian voice of the eponymous bear in the Paddington films. No contest, really. 

Not that there could be one when Putin thinks it a good idea to be seen as a Bond villain intimidating aides into assenting to his wishes live on state TV. I wish it were otherwise, but right now, Ukraine seems fated to suffer more death and destruction, while life for ordinary Russians is destined to deteriorate. 

Still, as one who believes in always looking on the bright side, I see it as progress that it took less than one month for Europe and the US to demonstrate solidarity with the beleaguered people of a state besieged by ethnonationalist aggression. 

A generation ago, despite much excellent reporting of ethnic cleansing and concentration camps returning to the heart of Europe, the speed and completeness of Western assistance to Bosnia was blunted across the political spectrum by the aggressors’ propaganda having some traction. 

While shades of Islamophobia helped the latter, it was mostly down to confusion and ignorance, aided by the fact the Iron Curtain was only recently torn. But by the end, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia duly convicted the guilty of the war crimes that the government in Sarajevo had been warning against all along.

Garry Kasparov, the activist and former world chess champion maintains that the best hope now is that sanctions will bite sooner rather than later, saying “If Putin loses his war chest, how is he going to pay for his military? His police? His propaganda? Russia’s dictatorship is not an old-fashioned ideological dictatorship based on some beliefs as Stalin or Hitler were but it’s Mafia-like in structure. Nobody is going to stay loyal to a Mafia boss if no protection is offered.”  

Putin may yet learn dissent cannot be crushed forever.

What perhaps are the lessons for others?

For FIFA, that having suspended Russia from the World Cup in Qatar, that the glare on its sports-washing of the host nation’s labour rights abuses will only — and rightly — intensify.

For Beijing, China can be grateful to Putin, both for exposing various Western weaknesses and for showing the value of patience as economic power gravitates to the Pacific edge of Eurasia. 

For Boris Johnson, he can be grateful for the chance to look serious. But as he knows “bravery” is the one adjective that will forever be associated with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he is haunted by the 2019 General Election footage of him literally hiding in a meat factory fridge to avoid answering a question from Piers Morgan. 

For Bangladesh, as the timetable for completion of the Russian built Rooppur nuclear power plant falls into question, it is shameful that around a quarter of the population remains illiterate 50 years after independence and three generations after Ekushey. If the nation had invested in education with the same earnestness as it celebrates February 21, it would by now more likely possess the skills to be less dependent on other nations to complete major projects. 

And for fans of strongman leaders, that authoritarians tend to slip up in the end as their own worst enemies. The ramifications of Putin’s invasion might reverberate for decades, or they could swallow him whole sooner than anyone dare hope. 

I am certain however that — hopefully sooner rather than later — Ukraine will be free. Its people know this shame is on the other side. People everywhere should work for a world where “life will win over death and light will win over darkness.”