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Sadly, Russia’s dictator has had a pretty good century so far.
VLADIMIR PUTIN TOOK POWER in 2000 in what then still seemed to be a nascent democratic and possibly liberalizing Russia. He has stayed in power ever since, and has ended Russian democracy and liberalization. He has ruthlessly and effectively used propaganda, intimidation, and violence—which has included killing political opponents inside and outside Russia—to stay in power. We frequently label the Putin pattern with the hesitant term “authoritarian.” But he’s not just authoritarian; he’s a dictator. He’s a twenty-first century fascist.
One could say that the twenty-first century has belonged to Vladimir Putin.
Since he came to power, Putin has shown that aggressive and brutal dictatorship need not fail. This is true not just at home but also abroad. Putin has launched wars against Russia’s neighbors in 2008, 2014, and 2022, each conflict larger and more barbaric than the last. His first two aggressions succeeded, and he paid little price, which surely encouraged his third act, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The fate of that attempt to obliterate a neighboring, internationally recognized state with a democratic government now hangs in the balance.
Putin has interfered in other ways, often to great effect, in the politics of other countries. The brutal Syrian dictatorship remains in power thanks to Putin’s bloody assistance. Putin has successfully suborned politicians and elites throughout Europe. He interfered in the U.S. election in 2016, attempted a coup in Europe that same year, used chemical weapons on the territory of a NATO member state, and perpetrated massive cyberattacks against major American infrastructure. On five continents, in places near and far from Moscow, Putin has deployed bribery and intimidation, disinformation and violence, often with satisfactory outcomes for him. From Aleppo to Bucha, Putin has played a key role in much of the brutality that has characterized the first quarter of this century. And he has built alliances, or at least working arrangements, with other dictatorships, including but not limited to China and Iran. His support for Hamas in the current moment is of a piece with his overall project.
So far, Putin has had more successes than failures. He has certainly paid little price for what he has done.
We have tried to look him in the eye to glimpse his soul. We have tried to reset our relations. We have tried to engage with him. Other leaders of democracies have gone much further in catering to him. All has been in vain.
We still underestimate him.
Putin has every incentive to keep a war in the Middle East going or even to expand it. He has every incentive to do everything he can to damage President Joe Biden over the next year so his friend Donald Trump can come back to power. Putin is doing his best to strengthen his confederates and partners in Europe and the Middle East, and we still seem surprised to find his fingerprints afterwards.
HAMAS IS AN IMMEDIATE manifestation of barbarism, and China is a true long-term challenge. But right now, the most urgent threat to the United States and a decent world order is Putin.
One hopes—one trusts—that in the twenty-first century, the arc of history will bend toward justice. But one must acknowledge that so far, the arc of the twenty-first century has bent toward Putin.
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