Imagine it yourself. You are the president of one of the most powerful nations on earth. Nearly everyone on the planet hates you. You are the direct cause of major problems for virtually everyone on that planet. Now, here’s where it gets really bad. Most of the problems you have caused everyone on the planet can be solved — in a heartbeat — with your death.
Welcome to the world of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Putin is in a position that is rare indeed among mortals. Few people in history have been in that position. Perhaps the last time it happened was when it happened to Adlof Hitler in 1944 and 1945. Prior to that you’d probably have to go back to one of the Caesars, like Caligula, to find an equally despised figure in this unusual position.
Last week President Joe Biden put the solution into words when he said that Putin “cannot remain in power.” That statement, redolent with the idea of regime change, was hastily back-pedalled by the White House. But most analysts were quick to acknowledge what the White House was somewhat loath to. Virtually everybody wants Vladimir Putin gone. Very few people in history have been more hated.
To what extent Putin himself is aware of this no one can say for sure. Autocrats by definition surround themselves with lickspittles, sycophants and yes men. It is said that many of his ministers are terrified to tell Putin the truth, so they give him the rosiest possible pictures. Hitler in his bunker moved fantasy armies into imagined offensives on maps, while trembling generals stood by and told him what he wanted to hear. It may have literally come to that for Putin.
Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told CNBC on Wednesday that it’s difficult to gauge the mood in Putin’s inner circle. “This is a closed political system,” she said, “Vladimir Putin is very paranoid, very controlled, and we don’t know what people are thinking — there are things that have happened that have surprised all of us — there are fuel shortages, there is low morale, the Russians are not prepared and they’re not playing their A-game, but the idea that there is going to be a palace coup and the Russian military is going to overthrow Putin? I don’t think so, it’s very, very unlikely.”
Why does she think this? Because Putin has extraordinary measures and personnel immediately around him. But that’s how things are in the snapshot, and reality isn’t a snapshot, it’s a movie. Forces acting on world events could chip away at his inner circle. In time the discontent could get closer and closer to the man himself. It is becoming increasingly clear that Putin is conducting a losing war. Once they realise this the forces next to this president of Russia may find that scenario impossible to accept. The problem is it may take a very long time for them to reach this conclusion.
Another breaking point for Putin’s inner circle may be the use of nuclear weapons. They may be prepared to accept a few losses in the short term and wait to see what happens, but if Putin should begin to talk nukes that could be a bridge too far for them. They may not share Putin’s dream of total warfare at any cost, and could act against him should Vladimir decide to reach for the red button. But no one knows for sure.
It’s a maddeningly opaque situation into which none can see clearly. But nobody can deny that the forces involved are extraordinary. On one side is the enmity of the entire world, on the other is Putin’s almost impenetrable bunker. One is reminded of the old conundrum of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. We cannot say for sure when it will happen but at some point the world will probably find out. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.