Vladimir Putin may be many things -- a coldblooded thug, a power-hungry autocrat, a paranoid xenophobe, a self-impressed narcissist -- but he is not a great leader. Hard-liners in Russia and the United States are convinced that tough guys rule best, but Putin is proving what a fallacy that is.
In his first years as president of Russia, Putin seemed to be different -- a smart operator who was ready to modernize his creaky, leaking barge of a country. President George W. Bush looked into his eyes and thought he saw a soul. Bush was wrong. Putin’s icy eyes proved to be more like windows into the hollow heart of a Mafia don.
Instead of modernizing, Putin and his cronies turned the Kremlin into a kleptocracy bankrolled by oil money -- Saudi Arabia with nuclear missiles. To undercut his rivals and stifle dissent, Putin exploited the deep suspicion of outsiders that has long been part of the Russian political culture. But that was not an entirely cynical tactic. Putin also shared that deep distrust. The West, in Putin’s mind, was encircling Russia and whittling away at what was left of its empire.
Having witnessed the loss of the Soviet satellites and other regions that were historically within the Russian orbit, Putin was not willing to lose any more. Ukraine became the trip wire. Long an integral part of greater Russia, Ukraine’s two decades of independence was an affront. To see Ukraine go the way of Poland or Lithuania could not be tolerated.
Putin had his protege, Viktor Yanukovich, running the government in Kiev. But the more Yanukovich tugged Ukraine back into the embrace of Moscow, the more his people resisted. Weary of Yanukovich’s Putin-like autocratic tendencies, young Ukrainians yearned, not for the past union with Russia, but for a future as part of Europe.
We know what happened next. Yanukovich was ousted by a revolt in the streets of Kiev. Putin sent in Russian troops to seize Crimea and armed pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. And then, as preliminary evidence strongly suggests, one of those missiles supplied by Russia was shot into the sky and brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Now, like a petulant adolescent, Putin blames everyone but himself for the disaster that has turned the world against him. In no way is he willing to admit that his ruthless and duplicitous actions in Ukraine created the conditions that led to the deaths of 298 innocent travelers.
Putin has boxed himself in. The fierce nationalism that he has encouraged at home and in his ruling political circle could be turned against him if he admits fault and backs down in Ukraine. But continued lies and defiance of international norms will lead to harsher economic sanctions from Europe and the U.S. and further isolation of his country.
Sure, Putin is a tough guy, but more supple leadership could have produced a vastly different result. A better leader would have allowed Ukraine to be Russia’s equal partner rather than conniving to make it Russia’s vassal. Instead, Vladimir Putin will very likely be remembered as the failed Russian leader who lost Ukraine.