Recriminations and Denials After Putin

One of these days Russians will wake up from what they now think is a dream and realize that it was a terrible nightmare. They’ll realize that Vladimir Putin—their current hero and demigod—is really a loser and a thug who’s brought ruin to their country, ruin to their people, ruin to their ethnic brethren in Ukraine and other non-Russian states, and ruin to the world. They’ll realize that Putin is a criminal, that the regime he created is fascist, and that his policies are paranoid, delusional, destructive, and self-destructive to the point of being suicidal.

And that’s when the recriminations and denials will begin. There’ll be lots of finger pointing. “Blame it all on my neighbor,” many Russians will say, “He’s the collaborator. He’s the flag-waver. He’s the one who voted for Putin and attended all those mass rallies. And he did it voluntarily too.” 

Most will insist they “knew nothing.” The war against Ukraine? “Gosh, there were rumors to that effect.” The destruction of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas? “Lord, had we only known!” The billions that Putin and his pals purloined from the Russian Treasury? “More rumors!” The tens of thousands of Chechen deaths? The thousands of Ukrainian deaths? The hundreds of Russian deaths? “Rumors, rumors, rumors.”

Some Russians will realize that such denial is uncomfortably reminiscent of postwar German reactions to Hitler and his crimes. Death camps? The gassing of Jews? The destruction of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine? The starvation of Leningrad? “Never heard of it! And believe me, had I only known, had I only known—I would’ve fought that criminal Hitler regime for sure! By the way, wasn’t Hitler really Austrian?”

A few brave Russian intellectuals will feel shame, guilt, and responsibility and call for lustration and trials. Most Russians will prefer to put the past behind them: “let bygones be bygones, let’s all be pals again.” What to do with Putin and his closest entourage will be a bit of a problem. Naturally, people will blame everything on him—their former hero and demigod. “He’s the criminal, he built the system, he started the wars, he bamboozled us: we’re innocent.” But putting him on trial could be inconvenient: Putin might spill the beans and reveal just how deeply popular he, his system, and his policies were.

Not putting a world-class war criminal on trial could be equally inconvenient. After all, Moscow is the Third Rome. Oh, if only Putin would make a run for Belarus, Kazakhstan, or China! Alas, that’s not likely: it would be too humiliating for him to seek refuge in a vassal state or among the overbearing Chinese. South America? Too far; besides, isn’t that where Nazis go to hide? Perhaps Germany or France? That just might work. Putin’s got some mighty powerful friends in the former and he received the Legion of Honor decoration from the latter. A Putin-Schröder Peace Institute funded by all those purloined billions in Berlin? Warum nicht? Residence in Baby Doc Duvalier’s former villa in France? Pourquois pas?

Germany and France will be as eager to forget Putin’s crimes as most Russians. Ukrainians and other non-Russians will be less quick to do so. Victims of aggression, war, and genocide tend to remember the pain. Whom will they blame? Putin and his system, definitely. But millions of fingers will also be pointed at Russians. “Why did our self-styled brothers enthusiastically support Crimea’s annexation and the war in eastern Ukraine? Why did they look the other way as Russian forces and Russian proxies killed thousands and destroyed the Donbas? Why did no one protest? How could they believe that our efforts to establish a democracy were anti-Russian? How could they possibly believe that we were ever anti-Russian?” Expect Ukrainians to insist on reparations. Expect Russians to shrug in response.

Ukrainians will look back at the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War as their third bloody encounter with Russia in the last 100 years. Russian Reds and Whites crushed Ukrainian independence in 1917–1921. Soviet Russians then crushed the Ukrainian liberation movement in Western Ukraine in 1945–1954. Then, in 2014, Putin’s Russians and their proxies tried to crush independent Ukraine.

And failed.

Putin’s failure is as evident now as are his crimes. He’s lost Ukraine. He’s destroyed the Donbas. In a word, he’s lost. The most he can do now is kill more Ukrainians and destroy more cities.

One day, when they finally wake up and realize their hero was a ruthless dictator, Russians will understand just how enthusiastically complicit they were in his evil—up to the very end.

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