Despite Vladimir Putin’s draconian efforts to control the flow of negative information about his ill-conceived and (so far) poorly executed war on Ukraine, it appears that what passes for Russia’s “legitimate” administrative state may be horrified by the entire operation. On March 1, after speaking with several members of the Russian parliament, Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, formerly of the BBC, put it laconically:
“They’re carefully enunciating the word ‘clusterf*ck.’” That’s how one person I spoke to describes officials’ reactions to the war. In his words, the mood in the corridors of power is not at all happy. Many are in a state of near-paralysis.
This week’s acclaimed author and historian Timothy Snyder recommended a thoughtful article from Meduza, a Latvian independent news site that publishes in Russian and English. Titled “Putin’s Last Stand, How to Lose a War Simply by Starting One,” and authored by Meduza’s ideas editor, Maxim Trudolyubov, it makes a persuasive case that Putin is failing because he is irrevocably committed to his own fantasy-based worldview, one which crumbles and dissolves with the slightest degree of examination, and one which is failing now, in full view of the rest of the world.
This is not an original premise, but what stands out from an American perspective are the parallels between Putin’s efforts in Russia to surround himself with yes-men at all public and private levels—specifically the negative consequences of that arrangement—and what this country recently experienced under the administration of another autocratic personality named Donald Trump.
In both circumstances we have massive policy failures resulting from each autocrat’s carefully constructed bubble of constant, positive feedback, creating a hermetic barrier to prevent any opposing views from entering in. In Putin’s case, the resulting disaster is the war on Ukraine, while in Trump’s case, the disaster was his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trudolyubov describes the Putin regime:
From the very outset of the Putin era, the Russian government has been engaged in a harsh, militaristic battle with public reality. Political administrators (specifically administrators and not politicians, since nobody ever elected them) have gone after all forms of independence and expelled all activists, politicians, and journalists with independent perspectives from the public sphere. Their positions were handed over to figures whose task was to imitate and fabricate the facade of actual civic leadership. Managers from the Presidential Administration worked to transform any grassroots parties, groups, or organizations into artificial “cells” under their own control.
Likewise, “from the very outset” of his four-year tenure, Trump did much the same thing, filling posts not simply with incompetents (for the most part), but loyal incompetents: people who would eagerly fall in line with whatever whims Trump happened to be spewing on any given day. To be considered for a post involving actual policy-making in any federal agency required a degree of obsequiousness and corruption in accord with Trump’s crime-boss mentality. What it didn’t require was any actual talent or civic commitment to the job.
This was true of Trump’s cabinet appointments (at State, Commerce, Education, EPA and Agriculture, for example), as well as his high-level national security, environmental, and Health and Human Services political appointments. He invariably surrounded himself with wholly unqualified—but loyal—advisers such as his daughter and son-in-law, and with rabid ideologues such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon ensconced in their policy formulation roles. Almost all of these people were chosen not for their skills or abilities, but for their loyalty and commitment to Trump.
Putin’s method of removing people he considered to be obstacles to his domination of Russia’s so-called “government” usually involved some degree of force, violence or intimidation, because he rose to power from a position (as de facto head of Russia’s internal security forces) that fostered such methods. As Trudolyubov notes, “The managers’ success in destroying these institutions was impressive.” No doubt it was; being “disappeared,” tortured or imprisoned for failure to toe the party line is a solid motivator.
Unable to legally employ such tactics in the U.S., Trump was nonetheless successful in neutering the missions and purposes of the federal agencies he had seeded with his loyalists: those he could not legally fire would suddenly find themselves relegated to non-policy roles. At EPA, for example, hundreds of scientists quit after being effectively silenced for their views about climate change. At the Bureau of Land Management, the entire office was relocated across the country for the sole purpose of forcing out unwanted critics, i.e, those who refused to self-censor or parrot the Trump line. While all administrations appoint people who will carry out their policies (for better or worse), the Trump administration stood out remarkably for the sheer incompetence, corruption, and sycophantic loyalty of its staffing.
As Trudolyubov notes, in Putin’s case that mentality resulted in a hollowed-out shell of an administrative, rubber-stamp government rather than one that actually performs any civic function:
The criminal methods brought to bear here proved more adept at destruction than creation. Putin’s theater totally failed in building a zombified alternative to an actual living society. In the end, those who made us all “others” (“foreign” or “undesirable”) could offer nothing themselves.
Likewise, the party that served Putin’s needs devolved—much like the Trumpified modern Republican Party has in this country—into a modern freak show of sorts, with entertainers, clowns, and provocateurs replacing or supplanting any civic-minded political officials:
The alternative reality was nothing but a crooked mirror of the living public sphere, filled with clowns in the place of politicians, cheap imitations instead of functioning social welfare organizations, and propagandists instead of journalists and analysts.
Trudolyubov recognizes that the immense problem Russia now faces with its seemingly disastrous invasion of Ukraine is one borne of complacency, of those Russians with an independent voice not taking the complete dissolution of their public sphere seriously and allowing one man with such power to inhabit an imaginary bubble world of constant yes-men, unconstrained, allowing them to inhabit a fake world that now threatens not only to inflict immeasurable damage on Ukraine, but possibly the rest of the world (including Russia itself) as well. He writes unsparingly of the danger Putin’s cynicism and warped, insular worldview has created: “Someone who has convinced themselves that everything can be bought and sold, that society can be occupied, subjugated, and replaced by their own personal reality, paid for by them, has led not only our country but also the world to the brink of disaster.”
He not only believed in the reality he had bought, but he also made it the basis for action in the real world. Today, it is clear that his plan to conduct a short military operation in a “brotherly nation” was based on a fiction that he authored himself. Apparently, he expected that the use of force by a “real” state — that is, “his” state — would lead to the collapse of the “non-real” state of Ukraine….He thought that everyone would believe in Ukrainian “Nazis” and his liberation mission. He assumed, probably based on assurances from his yes-men, that Russia was ready for war and sanctions.
In this country we are, after two years, barely emerging from the consequences of a pandemic that likely took twice as many lives as it should have, all due to an identical mentality, with a corrupt executive surrounding himself with and only listening to those who agreed with him, living in a fictional “bubble world” of bogus information and pseudo-science spun for him by advisors and media sycophants. We were provided, for example, with a former Labradoodle breeder and pharma lobbyist to coordinate the response to the worst viral pandemic in over a century. We were treated to quacks like Scott Atlas and addled theocrats like Robert Redfield informing the federal policy that fashioned that response. And at the top of it all was Donald Trump, advising Americans from his all-knowing bubble to drink bleach, take phony cures, and eschew common-sense preventative health measures, all with predictably outsized lethal results.
While its harrowing death toll (approaching one million, thus far) may have lacked the dramatic intensity and fury of a hot war, that didn’t make the COVID-19 pandemic any less deadly for those who were victimized by the Trump policies that exacerbated it. Those policies were reinforced over and over again not only by Trump’s appointees in government but by the entire Republican party apparatus that echoed and amplified his directives in states where they exerted control.
And all of those unnecessary deaths in the U.S. were ultimately caused by a grotesque fealty by Republicans to a deluded, power-hungry egomaniac, one wholly divorced from reality, who—just like Putin is doing now—deliberately and cynically chose to believe his own lies, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
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