FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Putin stares defeat in the face.

His blitzkrieg fizzled. His troops are demoralized. The awesome armored columns he deployed are mired in Ukrainian country roads, incessantly attacked by courageous fighters defending their homeland.

The cracks are showing. In the most watched news program on state-controlled Russian television, an editor appeared with a placard denouncing the lies Putin peddles. In a news conference, captured Russian military officers were cognizant they were used to wage an unholy war. Soon, when they become fully aware of Putin’s crime, the Russian people will reject his leadership.

This is now clear: the Russian invasion of Ukraine has no endgame. And Putin has no exit except one that totally humiliates him before his own people. He cannot politically survive that.

Putin sent in thousands of tanks against a peaceful neighbor. Tanks, invented during the age of trench warfare, are formidable weapons only when they are in motion. When they are stationary, these lumbering machines are sitting ducks for modern defensive weapons.

Putin went for a quick and decisive military victory. This is the reason his tanks came in with scarce fuel and very little food for his troops. Three weeks after the invasion begun, those tanks are immobilized. The troops are demoralized.

Putin thought an overpowering military operation would divide the Ukrainians, a third of whom are native Russian speakers. The invasion fired up Ukrainian patriotism.

Putin thought NATO would waffle in the face of decisive Russian action like the alliance did when he annexed Crimea in 2014. Instead, he solidified the western alliance. Earlier this week, three prime ministers from NATO member-countries traveled to Kyiv to meet with the embattled Ukrainian leader in a city under bombardment. It is as if they had presented themselves to be human shields in a city under brutal Russian bombardment.

Putin thought he could break the Ukrainian people’s will by ruthlessly bombing schools, hospitals and residential buildings. The past few days, it seems the invading army’s fallback strategy was to inflict on Ukraine’s cities the cruel destruction Russian missiles inflicted on Aleppo in Syria a few years ago. Russian artillery reduced the historic city into unrecognizable rubble to defeat anti-Assad resistance.

Although forced to live in basements without electricity, water and heating, the populations of the besieged Ukrainian cities continued resisting. The brutal bombing produced casualties, no doubt. But it also produced heroes out of ordinary citizens.

China, Putin’s most reliable ally, continues to waffle. But the great majority of the world has arrived at an unshakable consensus. At the UN General Assembly, 141 nations endorsed a resolution condemning Russian aggression. The degree of international unanimity is unprecedented.

This global unanimity translates into broad support for the economic sanctions imposed on Russia. Maintained over a prolonged period, these sanctions will have the effect of decoupling Russia from the rest of the global economy. This will have profound consequences.

Decoupled, Russia will become a much larger North Korea. It will be a nation subsisting in its own universe, governed by a repressive government that censors information and manipulates its citizens.

This will be most tragic for the Russian people. With its vast natural resources, Russia could thrive only if it becomes an increasingly globalized economy. Powered by its commodity exports – oil, gas and agriculture – Russians can be as wealthy as the Norwegians. But they can be so only on the basis of coexistence with the rest of the world.

Coexistence requires free movement of people and information – not only the capital of her oligarchs – across borders. Eventually, this will require democratization of Russian society.

A leader like Putin has no place in this sort of evolution. He is an autocrat of the old school, believing he can control his people through intimidation and violence. The costs of repression will, however, be less viable over time.

Putin is misplaced in this century. His dream of reviving the Russian empire is a delusion. His understanding of his country’s security needs is of Cold War vintage. He has no vision of a robust future for his people.

The only asset Putin fully controls is Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal. He does not yet realize that no country can actually fight and win nuclear wars. This arsenal gives him an illusory sense of power, a destructive potential he can use to bludgeon other nations to impose his will.

With all of Russia’s chips down in the face of sanctions, Putin will have only his nuclear arsenal as leverage. The present conflict in Ukraine can yet descend into a nuclear confrontation no one can ever win.

Reliant exclusively on the illusory power of nuclear weapons, Putin will behave pretty much like that petty North Korean leader who obsesses over his country’s intercontinental ballistics missiles while his people starve and his nation remains trapped in a time warp. Russia, with Putin still there, will eventually become a rogue state constantly threatening the peace and civility of all humanity.

Ultimately, the survival of Volodymir Zelensky is less important than the political persistence of Vladimir Putin. Zelensky could perish in the face of a brutal assault by Putin’s invading army. He will be a hero for humanity.

But if Putin politically survives his present debacle, he will be a continuing calamity for the whole world. He will weaponize Russia’s oil and gas reserves. He will disturb the global order in pursuit of his imperialist designs.

Putin is a menace for Ukraine. More tragically, however, he is a curse on the Russian people.

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