Vladimir Putin was willing to pay a high price for a gain, but is ending up paying a higher price than he imagined for no gain.

I love Russia. For three years I had the privilege of living in that wonderful country, travelling from Murmansk in the north to Novorossiysk in the south, Vladivostok in the east to Kaliningrad in the west, meeting thousands of wonderful people on the way. I have always been awestruck by its culture. For centuries, Russia has produced some of the greatest composers, the greatest authors and many of the world’s great scientists. Russia’s geography and size are breath-taking. With eleven time zones, Russia is the largest country in the world, with nearly twice the landmass of China and more than five times that of India.
Moscow, where I lived, has an underground metro system with some of the most stunning stations in the world. St Petersburg, in my view the most beautiful city on the planet, has a museum, the Hermitage, containing almost 14 miles of marbled corridors and more than 3 million artefacts. It’s said that if you spent one minute looking at each, you would be there for 6 years. So many superlatives apply to Russia, but sadly, there are only two words to describe its leaders: “abysmal” and “corrupt”. No more so than the current one, Vladimir Putin, a dictator who is currently destroying Russia’s future.
The time I lived in Moscow was one of optimism and excitement. Mikael Gorbachev had introduced a policy of glasnost—openness, which meant that people were speaking the truth for the first time in decades. When on our Christmas Day in 1991 I saw the old Soviet red flag with its hammer and sickle lowered over the Kremlin, directly opposite the British Embassy, and the new tricolour flag of Russia hoisted high, I joined many Russians in feeling the real possibility of change, and thought it could be change for the better.
But it was the “economic shock therapy” introduced by President Boris Yeltsin that created doubt. “Too much shock and not enough therapy”, Russian friends said to me. There was also the orgy of greed among the new oligarchs that gripped Russia in the 90s, with the massive looting of state assets by Putin and his former KGB colleagues when he took power at the beginning of the new millennium. Wealth accumulated and a power struggle followed. Some of the original oligarchs landed in prison or exile. Eventually Putin wound up as the top billionaire among all the other billionaires, or at least the one who controls the secret police.
All that optimism and excitement of the 90s has gone. Russia has returned to the kind of police state experienced during Soviet times. From the first ten years of his reign, Putin concluded that public protest was dangerous. Talk of democracy and political change was treacherous, and to keep both from spreading it was essential to maintain careful control over the life of the nation at all times. Markets could not be genuinely open. Elections could not be unpredictable. Dissent must be carefully managed through legal pressure, public propaganda and, if necessary, targeted violence. All so clearly evident in Russia long before and during its unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Of all the questions surrounding Russia’s demolition of huge swathes of Ukraine and the massacre of so many civilians is the simplest one: why? Perhaps Putin didn’t believe it would last more than a few days and such destruction wouldn’t be necessary. He thought that Ukraine’s army would collapse under the barrage of Russian artillery. He thought that Ukraine’s government would flee in terror. He even thought that the Ukrainian people would greet him as a liberator. In short, in his isolated Covid bubble, Vladimir the Great was invincible. “After all”, he told himself, “I’ve captured Crimea, crushed Chechen rebels and taken effective control of Belarus. I’ve also grabbed a chunk of Georgia and the breakaway republics in the Donbas, while intervening in Syria to save my dear friend, Bashar Assad. Conquest of Ukraine will be a doddle.”
How wrong could he be. Putin’s image of a grandmaster on the geo-political chessboard is now terminally damaged by events in Ukraine. The ageing President must know this as he authorises atrocity after atrocity on the Ukrainian people, despite claiming them as his own.
President Putin remains in power today only by a firm control on the narrative of the war. He has built an information iron curtain around his country. In today’s Russia any information not approved by Putin’s henchmen is automatically declared “fake” and its proponents jailed for up to 15 years. Every protestor is arrested, even the elderly lady seen quietly holding a banner against the war was immediately hustled into a waiting police van, her fate unknown. The message constantly pumped out by the state-controlled media is that “Ukraine is controlled by a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis determined to eliminate all the peace-loving Russians in the country. All the attacks on population centres and those trying to flee the bombs are being carried out by the Ukrainians themselves in order to discredit our brave soldiers engaged only as peacekeepers on our special military operation.”
The curious thing is that the majority of people in Russia actually believe this nonsense. In Russia’s “post-truth” society, Putin’s popularity remains high, even while nearly three million refugees flee Ukraine, hoping to avoid his bombs and mortar shells. His future depends on sustaining this pretence. Can he?
Possibly, but a few chinks in the “information iron curtain” appeared last week during one of the most watched shows on state-controlled television, TV Channel 1. In “An Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”, one of Russian television’s most watched shows and hosted by one of the Kremlin’s most reliable chief propagandists, film-maker Karen Shakhanazarov called for the conflict in Ukraine to be brought to an end: “If this picture starts to transform into an absolute humanitarian disaster, even our close allies like China and India will be forced to distance themselves from us. It will play out badly for Russia.” Another guest on the programme, academic Semyon Bagdazerov, asked “Do we need to get into another Afghanistan, but even worse?” Any mention of Afghanistan is a no-go area in Russia, conjuring up images of a disaster and national humiliation when the USSR pulled out after 10 years of a war started by the Kremlin, during which about 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and some 35,000 seriously wounded.
On Zvezda, the Russian ministry of defence TV channel, a serving army officer explained to a live talk-show audience last week how the country’s soldiers were dying in Ukraine. “Our guys over there are dying and our country…” he said, before the presenter rushed across to grab the microphone shouting “No, no, no…STOP”. Those families with sons serving in the military watch Zvezda, and as thousands of body bags return to the homeland, they are beginning to doubt the Kremlin’s message. This could have a profound effect on the “call-up” of conscripts due on 1 April, when the authorities are expecting about 130,000 recruits. If parents suspect that their sons will be sent to die for their country in a new Afghanistan, the numbers turning up will be far less than expected, creating further pressures on the military and further problems for the Kremlin.
But by far the greatest breach of the information wall last week was the astonishing appearance of Marina Ovsyannikova on Monday, holding her “stop the war” banner behind the presenter on prime-time TV on Russia’s most popular Channel One. “Don’t believe the propaganda, they are lying to you”, the banner read. In a pre-recorded video, Marina called the events in Ukraine a crime, adding, “I am ashamed that I have allowed myself to tell lies from the television screen. Ashamed that I allowed Russians to be turned into zombies. Don’t be afraid of anything, they can’t imprison all of us.” Ovsyannikova, who became an instant worldwide celebrity, has since said she fears for her life.
In the meantime, Putin’s menacing speech last Wednesday, echoing the words of his hero Joseph Stalin, was a clear sign that he intends to crack down further on dissent and that any criticism of the war would be considered treasonous. Already there are reports that state investigators have been told to prepare for a new wave of cases against “traitors” in Russia. The longer Putin’s war against Ukraine goes on, and the greater the danger he perceives to his regime, the more he will double down on his twisted fantasy that it is Russia that is under attack.
Whatever the result of negotiations, Vladimir Putin is destroying Russia’s future by this illegal invasion of a neighbouring country. In a no-win situation, he is losing troops, tanks and aircraft. He is losing the clash of ideologies. He is losing the propaganda war and he is losing friends. He overestimated his forces and underestimated Ukraine’s reaction. Public unrest in Russia is growing and his billionaire collaborators are upset. The rouble is plunging and the stock market remains closed, destroying people’s pensions and future. Sanctions are crippling the Russian economy and even if the war stopped today, it will already take decades to recover; if ever.
Vladimir Putin was willing to pay a high price for a gain, but is ending up paying a higher price than he imagined for no gain. He has bet the house on the fantasy of his own devising and lost, destroying the future of that wonderful country called Russia. An isolated and morally dead Putin has made a catastrophic error, turning his country into an international pariah. Will it ever recover? In the near term, sadly, I doubt it.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.