The New Yorker - USA (2022-01-31)

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ladimir Putin presents himself to
his citizens and to the world as the
standard-bearer of a modern counter-
enlightenment. He has declared liberal
democracy “obsolete,” a political arrange-
ment that has “outlived its purpose.”
One of his historical role models is said
to be Alexander III, a reactionary tsar
in the Romanov dynasty who instituted
draconian restrictions on the press,
sought to “Russify” his multi-ethnic em-
pire, and mobilized against internal and
external threats. Four years ago, Putin
expressed his deep admiration for the
tsar while visiting the Crimean Penin-
sula, a substantial and distinctly un-
threatening parcel of Ukraine that Rus-
sia invaded in 2014 and has occupied
ever since.
Once more, Putin is poised to invade
Ukraine. His weapons include military
hardware, malware, and propaganda.
The last time he invaded, he did so with
utmost stealth, employing the “little
green men” of the special forces as tem-
porary cover in the court of public opin-
ion while seizing Simferopol, Yalta, and
Sevastopol. Now he wants the West,
distracted and in disarray, to know that
Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk, in the
industrial east, and even Kyiv, the cap-
ital, are potentially in his sights.
For weeks, Putin’s deputies and pro-
paganda outlets have delivered contra-
dictory pronouncements, at once deny-
ing any intention to invade and ampli-
fying his urge to roll back what he sees
as the galling encroachments of the West
since the end of the Cold War. “NATO

Is a Cancer: Shall We Cure It?” was the
headline last week in one pro-Kremlin
newspaper, Argumenti i Fakty. In Liter-
aturnaya Gazeta, Konstantin Sivkov, a
military analyst, said, “Russia must take
unconventional steps. Harsh ones. If we
don’t, our ‘partners’ might think they can
wipe their feet on Russia.” He wondered
about the possible need to create war-
heads that could “strike Yellowstone Park”
or set off a “deadly tsunami with waves
hundreds of metres high that would
sweep away everything in their path.”
Few leaders have leveraged inscru-
tability the way Putin has. His propa-
gandists, kleptocratic allies, and secret
services never know precisely what he
will do next. But his general imperative
is obvious: the preservation of power.
As a trained K.G.B. officer, Putin senses
threats in countless corners, and he is
schooled in the history of challenges to
Kremlin authority. He knows, for in-
stance, that at around noon on August 25,



1968, four days after the Soviet Army
moved into Czechoslovakia to crush
the reformist movement known as the
Prague Spring, eight Moscow intellec-
tuals went to Red Square and briefly
hoisted signs with such slogans as “For
Your Freedom and Ours!” The poet Na-
talya Gorbanevskaya reached into a baby
carriage and pulled out a Czech flag.
This “anti-Soviet outburst,” as a secret
report to the Communist Party Central
Committee described it, lasted only as
long as it took for K.G.B. guards to set
upon the demonstrators, beat them, and
arrest them.
But that fleeting protest had profound
consequences. Vadim Delaunay, one of
the Red Square demonstrators, said in
court that his “five minutes of freedom”
had been worth the thrashing and the
prison sentence that was sure to come.
He could not have known just how right
he was. There were many factors that led
Mikhail Gorbachev to propose the re-
forms known as glasnost and perestroika:
the expense of empire, a shrivelling do-
mestic economy, intellectual and scien-
tific isolation, and the public’s indifference
to Communist ideology. The dissident
movement that took the Red Square
demonstrators as an inspiration, though
never large in numbers, was a powerful
generator of free thought and possibil-
ity. By the late nineteen-eighties, even
Gorbachev, as the General Secretary of
the Communist Party, paid uneasy trib-
ute to the movement’s most eminent
leader, Andrei Sakharov.
Over and over, Putin has learned a
singular lesson: crowds rarely come to
the public square demanding more au-
tocracy. At the May Day parade in 1990,
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