Why did Putin invade Ukraine? He claimed his goal was to protect people subjected to bullying and genocide in the Donbas and to demilitarise and de-nazify Ukraine There has been no genocide anywhere in Ukraine; it is a democracy and its president, Volodomyr Zelensky, is Jewish. Putin has often accused Ukraine of being taken over by extremists ever since its pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was kicked out after months of protests against his rule in 2014. At the time, Russia retaliated by seizing the Crimea Peninsula and inciting a rebellion by separatists in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. It is likely that Putin wants to install a puppet regime in Ukraine, much like that in neighbouring Belarus1,2.
There are recent articles which have noted changes in Putin’s demeanour over the last few years and make suggestions that he might be losing his grip on reality. This was perhaps reinforced by his rambling speech announcing the invasion of Ukraine3. In this speech, he whined about the encroachment of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said “It is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we invariably faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail, while the North Atlantic alliance continued to expand despite our protests and concerns.” Several of the former vassal states of the Soviet Union have elected to join NATO, as well as the European Union (EU)4.
To join the EU, a nation has to satisfy the Copenhagen Criteria which include being a free-market economy, a stable democracy, with adherence to the rule of law, and the acceptance of all EU legislation, including of the euro5. To aspire to join NATO, a nation must uphold democracy, including tolerating diversity, at least be making progress toward a market economy, have their military forces under firm civilian control, respect sovereignty outside their borders, and be working toward compatibility with NATO forces6.
Putin, as well as longing for the past, is also frightened not so much of the encroachment of NATO and the EU, but the encroachment of the criteria of membership, particularly those referring to democracy and a market economy. Putin rules over a faux democracy run by kleptocrats (Putin is generally acknowledged to be the wealthiest person in the world, a big step up from being a KGB functionary). As Janne Korhonen explains, what Putin fears most is democracy, not imposed by an attack from without, but imposed by the Russian people7,8.
I suspect Putin can see the writing on the wall, with the latest opinion poll from October 2021 indicating that Russians’ trust in Putin has dropped to the lowest level since 2012.
This Levada Center survey found 53 percent of respondents said they trusted Putin, down from 71 percent in September 2017. Levada said it was the lowest recorded level of trust for the Russian leader since October 2012, when 51 percent of respondents said they trusted him. Trust in Putin soared in 2015, a year after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, reaching nearly 80 percent, according to Levada9. While approval ratings like that are such as democratic governments could only dream of, there is no effective political opposition to Putin’s rule. The nominal leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny is in a labour camp somewhere in Russia and much of his organisation is in exile10. The fact that significant numbers of people have demonstrated in Russian cities against the invasion of Ukraine, given they know they will be arrested just for protesting, says much about the depth of revulsion within Russia at the invasion of Ukraine11.
Malignant narcissists aspire to what they perceive as their rightful place in the world, whether it be as leaders of industry or as heads of state, but more often than not their malignance will, in time, ensure their own downfall. Be it because they believe that the laws of the rest of us should not apply to them, or something as simple as evading taxes, embezzlement, mistreatment of colleagues or family members, or in the case of heads of state, taking their nation down a destructive path12. The latter is what Putin has done.
Putin’s problem is that he knows that Russians’ belief in his abilities is declining and, given that he is already effectively a dictator and stupendously wealthy, has control of the media, the armed forces and the police, he can do little more about its decline. I suspect that he is attempting to regain the stratospheric approval levels in what he perceives as his glory days of 2015 after the invasion of the Crimea Peninsula.
I also suspect that his bizarre, rambling, fanciful speeches full of absurdities as they are, coupled with his implicit threat to use nuclear weapons against the west if they intervened in the invasion of the Ukraine, will have alarmed some of the more sensible people (assuming there are some) in the Russian power structure. I expect that Putin will be removed by them, but when that happens is the billion dollar question.
Like many malignant narcissists who lead nations, Putin has made the mistake of conflating himself with the Russian federation. This is indicated by his silly assertion that NATO’s eastward expansion is a plot to destroy Russia. If Russia was a democracy run by people other than a despotic kleptocrat, it could in future be eligible to actually join NATO.
The fact that the invasion of Ukraine has not gone as quickly and as easily as Putin would have expected, perhaps because of assistance provided to the Ukraine from NATO and the United States, will make Putin even more nervous and perhaps irrational. While it is unlikely that the Ukrainian armed forces can defeat the Russian Army without significant help from outside, they have had several successes13. For instance; there was a Russian airborne assault on the Hostomel airfield (30-minutes from the centre of Kiev) with the intended purpose of creating an airbridge in which troops and equipment could arrive less than 10 kilometres from Kyiv. 30 Russian helicopters landed airborne troops and initially captured the airfield after three hours of fighting, but a Ukrainian counteroffensive by the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade of the National Guard encircled and killed or captured the Russian defenders. The following day (February 25) Russian ground forces advancing from Belarus took the airport after breaking through the Ukrainian lines14.
Things may go worse for Putin when the Russian people start to realise that many of their young soldiers will not be coming home. The quicker they get rid of him, the more of their soldiers will come home.