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The tragedy of Vladimir Putin and Russia

How one man’s ambition upended the international order

By: /
2 March, 2022
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference with his Belarus counterpart, following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 18, 2022. - Vladimir Putin said on February 18, 2022 that the situation in conflict-hit eastern Ukraine was worsening, as the West accuses him of planning an imminent attack on the country. (Photo by Sergei GUNEYEV / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI GUNEYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The fateful decision of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to invade Ukraine, unambiguously put an end to the “post-Cold War era” that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Putin and his supporters have perceived the intervening 31 years as an ongoing crisis in which Russia has sought to regain its status as a global superpower as NATO has expanded, dangerously encroaching on Russia’s national security. That siege mentality has hardened and it may well have played an important role in Putin’s gamble to launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine as the moment for Russia to finally regain its place as a global superpower.

Putin’s gamble will not pay off.  The quick victory over Ukrainian forces has been blunted by a surprisingly fierce and effective defense. Russia’s much vaunted $700 billion modernisation of its armed forces has given it better equipment, but decades of corruption and institutionalized incompetence has revealed itself in the poor performance of the Russian military, leading to a staggering loss of manpower and material. Hubris has trumped proper planning. Neither the size, nor the deployment of Russian forces was nearly large enough to simultaneously seize five Ukrainian cities. Basic operational mistakes, such as failing to establish and hold air superiority, or account for long exposed logistical tails necessary to supply Russian forces, have ground the offensive to a halt.

The sheer speed at which events have unfolded over the last week have prevented news of Russian casualties from trickling home. Soldiers’ bodies – by some counts as high as 5,500 – are still lying where they fell. But it’s only a matter of time before the scale of the failure of the Russian offensive reaches audiences at home.

Putin’s iron grip over the state media has downplayed casualties and losses. Extraordinary new measures have been implemented to silence social media in Russia but it’s unlikely to persist. Ukrainian authorities are already making available cell numbers for Russians to call to get photographs of fallen family members and to arrange for the repatriation of the bodies of Russian soldiers killed on Ukrainian soil.

The blunting of Russia’s blitzkrieg on Ukraine led to Putin’s press spokesman belatedly announcing that Russia was open to peace talks. The negotiations are a double-edged sword. They offer the Russians an opportunity to supply, regroup their forces and consolidate their territorial gains in preparation for what will be a costly siege of Ukraine’s cities. For the Ukrainian authorities it’s an opportunity to respond to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, and prepare for the next inevitable round of combat.

Putin has clearly staked his presidency and his place in Russian history on the outcome and success of the Ukrainian operation. He demonstrated his resolve with the ultimatum delivered to NATO and Ukraine in December 2021, and in the run up to the invasion which culminated in an exercise of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal two days prior to the start of the “special military operation.” His move to place Russia’s nuclear forces on heightened alert as Russia’s invasion stalled, is a doubling down on his resolve to see this conflict through.

Putin’s gamble has cast him as a tragic hero in a play of his own making. Having staked his political future and that of his regime on the Ukrainian gamble, his legacy may be the destruction of the very vision of Russia that he chose to remake.

Putin needs to be taken at his word. The West has often made the mistake of not realizing that he is like Horton the elephant from the Dr. Seuss story who “means what he says and says what he means.”  Often, what we have interpreted as his lies, comes down to poor listening to what he clearly laid out as a path of action.

In December 2021, Putin clearly stated that Ukraine joining NATO was a red line that Russia would not tolerate. The invasion of Ukraine was a consistent follow through. So when Putin threatens nuclear retaliation for what he sees as outside interference, he needs to be taken seriously.

Putin is on record as saying that a world without Russia is not a world worth living in. With his back against the wall, and all bets on success in Ukraine, the rest of the world must assume Putin’s threat is credible.

On the home front opposition to the war in Russia is increasing. Most Russians were stunned and surprised at the invasion as the state-controlled media had done little to signal that this was imminent. Protests broke out across more than 51 cities in the country leading to thousands of arrests.

Opposition is coming from all quarters, including government officials, although there are no overt signs of a break in the ranks. Russia’s complex politics means that there are no liberals to step into the gaps if Putin is forced to step down. Putin’s political end may come from the very military and security forces that he has relied on to consolidate his power. The regime change that Putin has sought, may occur in Moscow rather than Kyiv.

It is too early to say whether this is likely to happen in the near term. But it is clear that Putin’s political future is tied to the outcome of the Ukrainian adventure, and its aftermath.  The hopes for a quick and easy victory, a Russian replay of the US success in the Gulf War, is not going to occur. What lies ahead is a grinding conflict with tens of thousands of civilian casualties and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. There is also the prospect of occupying and governing a country bent on resisting and looming questions over whether Russia has the manpower, or indeed the willpower, to make that happen.

Russia’s newfound alliance with China will also be strained as the conflict threatens to drag. By all accounts, Beijing was taken by surprise. Its assiduous adherence to the principle of national sovereignty puts Russian actions at odds with its own claims over Taiwan, which the People’s Republic claims as sovereign Chinese territory.

The correlation of factors now stacked against Putin is significant. The longer the conflict in Ukraine drags out the more difficult it will be to justify his initial hubris for launching the special military operation, or to explain its lack of success. For the Ukrainians, this means that winning may simply mean not losing. Domestically, pressure on Putin will mount unless he is willing to take exceptionally repressive measures. From an economic perspective, no amount of oil and gas imports from China are likely to offset the significant losses to the Russian economy that the economic sanctions are going to inflict over the coming months. The reverse sanctions signed into law by Putin are going to be hugely unpopular with Russians. They have grown used to global travel and consumer goods.

Putin’s gamble has cast him as a tragic hero in a play of his own making. Having staked his political future and that of his regime on the Ukrainian gamble, his legacy may be the destruction of the very vision of Russia that he chose to remake. By looking forward to a Russia reasserting its role as a global superpower, he has chosen to drag it backwards into a Stalinist past that few Russians will be willing to accept. This includes the oligarchs on whose graces he needs to rely in order to prevent wide scale domestic dissatisfaction, and potentially a revolt.

In the short term, Ukraine will suffer, and may lose its independence. But Putin and his legacy are done. And it’s a matter of time before his regime, and the vision for Russia that he built, become as much a part of history.  There are dangerous days ahead, with a very real threat of nuclear weapons. February 24, 2022 will be remembered as more than the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. It is the end of the post-Cold War era, and the beginning of a new, more dangerous and unstable time for humanity.

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