The Weakness of the Despot

If you are interested in trying to understanding Putin's regime, why it invaded Ukraine, what its' weaknesses are and the best ways of stopping it, there is an interview in the New Yorker that you absolutely have to read.

Stephen Kotkin, one of the leading scholars of Russian history, whose masterwork is a biography of Josef Stalin, was interviewed by David Remnick of the New Yorker, and the interview was published under the title "The Weakness of the Despot."

I emphasise - this is a "must read" interview.

Here are a few extracts

"Yes, well, war usually is a miscalculation. It’s based upon assumptions that don’t pan out, things that you believe to be true or want to be true."

"You have an autocrat in power—or even now a despot—making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps. We don’t know what the inside looks like. Does he pay attention? We don’t know. Do they bring him information that he doesn’t want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else? That seems highly likely. Does he believe his own propaganda or his own conspiratorial view of the world? That also seems likely. 

These are surmises. Very few people talk to Putin, either Russians on the inside or foreigners.

And so we think, but we don’t know, that he is not getting the full gamut of information. He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential."

"Putin believed, it seems, that Ukraine is not a real country, and that the Ukrainian people are not a real people, that they are one people with the Russians. He believed that the Ukrainian government was a pushover. He believed what he was told or wanted to believe about his own military, that it had been modernized to the point where it could organize not a military invasion but a lightning coup, to take Kyiv in a few days."

"With Ukraine, we have the assumption that it could be a successful version of Afghanistan, and it wasn’t. It turned out that the Ukrainian people are brave; they are willing to resist and die for their country. Evidently, Putin didn’t believe that."

"The largest and most important consideration is that Russia cannot successfully occupy Ukraine. They do not have the scale of forces. They do not have the number of administrators they’d need or the co√∂peration of the population."

"Think about all those Ukrainians who would continue to resist. The Nazis came into Kyiv, in 1940. They grabbed all the luxury hotels, but days later those hotels started to blow up. They were booby-trapped. If you’re an administrator or a military officer in occupied Ukraine and you order a cup of tea, are you going to drink that cup of tea? Do you want to turn the ignition on in your car? Are you going to turn the light switch on in your office?" 

There is a lot more in the interview, which you can read in full here.


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