The Columbus Dispatch

How Putin’s mistakes rallied his enemies

- E.J. Dionne Columnist

Shrewdness is not wisdom. Ostentatio­us public toughness is not strength. And even clever shortterm tactics are not long-term strategies.

Yes, Vladimir Putin has Ukraine and the West in a tough spot. He might win some short-term victories. But he has created circumstan­ces that could lead to his undoing – as long as the democracie­s stay focused and united.

Within the long list of Putin’s errors, let’s start with his blatant interferen­ce in the domestic politics of Western countries.

This has earned him the loyalty of some on the far right (in this country, see: Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump). But his political meddling in recent years on behalf of authoritar­ian and antidemocr­atic movements – tampering in, among other places, the United States, Germany and France – has deeply alienated liberals and social democrats, who now find themselves allied with the pro-democracy right in insisting that Putin be stopped.

Putin, along with China’s Xi Jinping, has united advocates of democracy across the traditiona­l political spectrum. In the United States, liberals will not forget Putin’s hatred of Hillary Clinton (for, among other things, challengin­g the fairness of Russia’s 2011 elections) and his energetic work on Trump’s behalf (documented by the Mueller report).

And while Putin has sometimes dallied with elements on the far left, he has presented himself as a hero to the cultural right, defending the “traditions and traditiona­l family values of millions of people making up the core population,” as he told the Financial Times in 2019.

He has explicitly criticized liberalism – “The liberal idea has become obsolete,” he also said – along with LGBTQ rights, immigratio­n and, more generally, the freedoms taken for granted in democratic countries.

This has pushed many who might once have been wary of a hard line against Russia to embrace a far tougher stance. In Germany, the Green Party has moved away from its near-pacifism of the 1980s to a tough anti-putin line. Divisions within the country’s Social Democratic Party, which prided itself on opening the way toward detente with the old Soviet Union, have been resolved in favor of facing down Putin.

And with his bizarre and angry speech dismissing Ukraine’s existence as an independen­t nation, Putin undercut his argument that he is primarily concerned with keeping Ukraine out of NATO.

If Putin seemed unhinged in his speech, his assumption that he can get away with bullying is based in experience: his successful seizure of Crimea in 2014, his attack on Georgia in 2008 and occupation of parts of that country. It’s highly unlikely that even the toughest sanctions will prevent Putin from invading the rest of Ukraine, possibly sooner rather than later. And he seems to have factored sanctions into his calculatio­ns.

But this time, his calculatio­ns have been off. It’s not 2014 anymore. He appears not to have foreseen the West’s solidarity or Biden’s determinat­ion to hold the democracie­s together. Putin reveled in the support he was winning from the right wing in the United States and elsewhere, without recognizin­g how much hostility he was breeding among the liberals he kept denigratin­g.

This is no cause for complacenc­y. Putin can still inflict enormous damage, particular­ly on the people of Ukraine. Holding firm against him will be costly, and unity against him in the West could fray. He will certainly try to sow divisions among and within the democracie­s. Party strife is one of freedom’s inevitable byproducts. Western voters will be tempted to see the showdown in Ukraine as, in Neville Chamberlai­n’s infamous phrase, “a quarrel in a faraway country.”

Nonetheles­s, it’s not outlandish to hope that Russian citizens, including some among its elites, will eventually tire of the isolation bred by their leader’s misadventu­res and misjudgmen­ts – especially if he drags his country into a large and costly land war. If the West remains patient and determined, Putin could yet reap the whirlwind at home.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States