Ivan the Terrible was crowned the first Tsar of Russia in 1547. Since that time, Russia has a history of autocratic rulers stretching back nearly 500 years. Russia was itself constructed over hundreds of years by Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the other tsars and via conquest and domination. Throughout the period of the tsars, cruelty and suffering dominated the lives of ordinary people, who, as serfs, had virtually no freedom and no rights. The Tsars were absolute monarchs, and the people were taught to both fear and love them and expect that life would never change. The Tsar and his extended family enjoyed immense wealth and privilege, living in palaces.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 destroyed the power of the Romanovs and the nobility, but Lenin and Stalin imposed their own hellish cruelty on the Russian people. Soviet Communism was founded on the concept that the State – in the form of the self-appointed Soviet leadership – was all-important, and that individuals were nothing. The empire of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) seized more foreign lands, resulting in a patchwork country of many different ethnic groups and fifteen officially recognized languages. No part of the USSR suffered more than Ukraine under the communists. Stalin imposed the Holodomor famine, which resulted in the mass starvation of 3-5 million Ukrainians in the early 1930s.
The Soviet state was led by absolute rulers who cared nothing for the rights of individuals. The new Tsars now ruled the entire apparatus of the State, exercising complete control of the people through the “Committee for State Security” – the KGB. Even more than the world of the Romanovs, it was a world in which power was control. There was no right or wrong, no moral belief in humanity, the only thing that mattered was strength. Those who had power imposed their will upon those who did not. Among those who learned how to thrive in that environment was a KGB agent named Vladimir Putin.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the previously conquered “Republics” split away from Russia to become independent countries. But creating new nations from scratch is not easy. The new republics, including Russia, struggled with freedom, with capitalism, and with democracy. Russia started to grow democratic institutions, but it sank into deep economic depression, corruption, and the embarrassment of the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin. With the loss of public support, Yeltsin handed power to a relative newcomer, Vladimir Putin. Almost immediately, with the help of a rise in worldwide oil prices, Russia’s economy improved, and Putin’s popularity improved. Putin quickly consolidated power, and started dismantling the elements of democracy – a free press, fair elections, and an open economy. He gathered immense power and wealth by placing himself above the law – basically a modern-day Tsar. He has altered the Russian constitution to allow him to rule as long as he likes. He stands today as the single most powerful person on earth, and as probably the richest.
So what more could he want? In a word – plenty. He wants to be adored as the man who re-created the old Russian/Soviet Empire. To do so, he must control those former “republics” who have successfully broken away from the Soviet authoritarian model and now function as viable western democracies. He has already succeeded in the Caucasus. Ukraine is the current target. Because Putin disdains the lives of both the Russian and Ukrainian people, he will not stop until he has destroyed the Ukrainian will to fight – no matter the cost.
Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are in the next round. The fact that they are in Nato doesn’t scare him. Putin believes that Nato is weak and getting weaker. And he has a plan. His plan is predicated on two huge advantages he believes he has over the West.
One advantage is that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are working to overthrow US democracy, and withdraw the US from participation in Nato. This is one of the keys to his success. His extensive state-sponsored mis-information campaign with the willing support of Fox News and others, along with his effective use of social networks with the unwitting support of Facebook and others are all dedicated to this long-term goal.
The other key is that, unlike the West, he is willing to accept a limited nuclear war in which a few million people die on each side. He believes such a war will result in the west capitulating on his terms before reaching the point of the Mutually Assured Destruction that would be World War 3. In a world in which power is all that counts, Putin believes he has the will to win.
Think back in time to 1938. A power-mad dictator was ruling Germany. He wanted Czechoslovakia. The world had a chance to stand up to him. It would have taken courage and sacrifice but it could have been done with little to no loss of life. Instead, too many people supported appeasement, the world blinked, and Hitler was emboldened to start down the road to World War 2.
We are now at a similar crossroads. The western world must have courage to make some (modest) sacrifices to stop Putin now. Those who directly support Putin, like Donald Trump, and those who support appeasing him (much of the GOP), must never gain power again. We must send all possible military aid to Ukraine short of troops. And we must apply every means possible to bring Russia to economic ruin before it can destroy Ukraine.