by Jeanette Kohl, Center for Ideas and Society Co-Director
In the summer of 2011, I wrote an article on Vladimir Putin for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Dmitry Medvedev was still president of Russia, with Putin, then prime minister, eagerly waiting in the wings. His aspirations to take over power in the world’s largest country were unmistakable. In my article, I looked at the ways in which Putin made use of historical image types of military prowess, sexualized male power, and the Machiavellian qualities associated with Renaissance rulers – some of them updated for a 21st century audience, others not so much: Putin bare-chested on a stallion in the Russian Taiga, Putin hunting a Siberian tigress on foot, Putin piloting a firefighting plane, Putin whale hunting on a rubber raft. The images and their blatant message, circulated internationally by his office, were strangely atavistic and to a considerable degree ludicrous – at least to the Western eye. Yet they were also surprisingly successful in establishing Vladimir Putin’s image as a fearless man of action, a confident ruler in the long lineage of mythical superheroes, a Machiavellian prince of the proletariat.
I am sharing this brief story with you barely a week after the same Vladimir Putin launched a brutal military attack on Russia’s neighbor to the West, Ukraine, a democratically ruled state that shares borders with several NATO states. Yesterday morning, the world woke up to the unsettling news that Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert. There is war in Europe – something I, a convinced European, hoped I would never have to say during my lifetime. The world is left in a state of shock and disbelief: How can this happen in the 21st century? Is this the beginning of a third world war? What has gotten into Putin?
One wonders, indeed, what has gotten into the man who was once celebrated by Time Magazine as “Person of the Year 2007,” with a cover story about his intelligence, ambition, and the beginning of a new era for Russia and the world. The puffy, ashen-faced man who last week delivered a bewilderingly convoluted one-hour history lesson to the world – filled with anger, baseless claims, historical falsifications and interrupted by weary sighs – is a different Putin altogether. With Putin’s agonizing tirade on my laptop screen, I could not help but think that it marks a historical moment: the beginning of the end of Russia as we know it, and the beginning of the end of Putin. It certainly meant the beginning of immense suffering for Ukrainians.
Putin is a politician with Machiavellian beliefs, and the idea of ‘limited warfare’ as a natural extension of failed diplomacy is self-evident to him. But why war now? While I am not a political analyst and certainly not qualify to comment on the political workings of Russia or Putin’s inner circle, I still want to share the following brief thoughts with you.
This war, terrifying and saddening and outrageous as it is, seems to be the symptom of something larger, more than an autocratic ruler accidentally pushed over the edge. Might it say something not only about Putin and his claim on territories historically entangled with Russia but also about the state of our own western democracies, our societies, and our lives? It will not have escaped Putin’s attention that democracy, a political system that we have taken way too much for granted in the past decades, has reached a point of deep crisis; that the world’s oldest and seemingly strongest democracies – the UK and the US – have become particularly prone to erosion by loudmouth populist leaders who care little about the principles on which these democracies are built; that we are fighting culture wars on the inside whose bitterness has entrenched us and weakens our solidarity with one another; and that the ideological warfare between left and right, the loss of a common ground of middle-class values, and a general climate of censoriousness, mistrust, and self-righteousness is weighing us down. My own aversion for aggressive political agendas and hermetic belief systems and ideologies, left or right, sits deep. As a German I grew up in a country ravaged by radical ideologies that lead to dictatorship – first by the Nazis, then by anti-fascist socialism on the other side of the German wall. Russia’s war on Ukraine is a clear sign of the return of an age of ideologies and the havoc they cause, and it is the symptom of societal crises around the globe, crises that transcend geopolitical borders.
My German colleague Yascha Mounk (Johns Hopkins), in a recent op-ed on his Persuasion platform, emphasizes the far-reaching, sad historical significance of the recent events: “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine puts to rest the hopeful view of the future which dominated the western world in the decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The certainties on which we built our worldview have long been morphing into illusions; the missiles which fell around Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv in the early morning of February 24, 2022 confirmed that the metamorphosis is complete. (…) Nothing, from the survival of democracy in its traditional heartlands to our collective ability to check the ambitions of the world’s most ruthless dictators, seems certain any longer.”
Let us stand firmly against aggression, censorship, and fundamentalism of any kind. And let us pause and think about the sort of values it will take to strengthen and mend our democracies again from the inside, enlightened values such as tolerance, solidarity, science, and reason, all of which should be non-negotiable.
My thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. Let us hope for the best.