Vladimir Putin has spent the past three decades building himself up as the undisputed strongman of the Russian Federation. Rising through the KGB ranks and becoming Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Putin consolidated his hold over the vast swaths of Russia through hardline measures, such as war, assassinations, and intimidation tactics.
Perhaps using overly diplomatic measures towards the autocrat or fear of his strongman aura, the West gave Putin the green light to murder with impunity with little consequences until 2022. Even during the ongoing war in Ukraine, Western heads of state have hesitated on military aid Ukraine needs to win the war, such as Army Tactical Missile (ATACMS) and F-16s, over fears of Putin’s “red lines.”
Reluctance has played into the hands of one of the world’s most dangerous kleptocrats, who has used the fear of nuclear war and energy blackmail to receive anything he wants. By appeasing the Kremlin strongman, we make this world more cataclysmic than stable.
Putin’s Aura Relies on Fears
Vladimir Putin, a careerist in the then-Soviet premier intelligence agency, the KGB, has always relied on fear and strength to enact loyalty and respect amongst his peers. During his rise as a statesman, the Russian President used an enlightening image in public, but behind the scenes, it was always callous
The Kursk Submarine Disaster would show how little Putin had cared about his own troops’ lives, solely so he wouldn’t look weak in public after Britain and Norway requested to rescue the doomed sailors. Future displaying his lack of empathy just to prop up his strongman aura, Putin and elements of the FSB were complicit in the Ryazan Bombings that instigated the Second Chechen War.
In the Second Chechen War, Russian Forces used scorched earth tactics, and Putin would pay hardline Chechen factions to work for the Kremlin. One of these factions ended up being the Kadyrov’s, who, with the blessing of the Russian President, murdered, abducted, and tortured anti-Russian dissidents and journalists.
When Faced with Appeasement, Putin Will Choose Escalation
Numerous Western politicians would continue to have formal relations with Putin after the tremendous destruction of Chechnya, and the Russian autocrat would take advantage of this. The rejection of the path towards NATO accession for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 was a gift for the Kremlin and one of the factors of the 2008 Georgian War.
Though internationally condemned, Putin saw again that the world would not react to his aggression after the Georgian War. Instead, Nordstream was solidified after the invasion, giving Putin leeway for future energy consolidations in Western Europe.
Putin, in fear that Ukraine’s democratic movement would have a domino effect against his rule, would send the infamous “little green men,” also known as Russian Forces to capture Crimea in 2014. Later that same year, under then-FSB officer Igor Girkin, Putin again ignited the War in the Donbas region. Despite sanctions, they would end up being minuscule, and business would return to as usual with Moscow, even when Eastern Europe constantly warned of Putin’s imperial ambitions.
During the height of the Syrian Civil War, Russia intervened on behalf of the longtime ruling Assad family in 2015. Repeated scorched earth tactics, such as cluster munitions on urban population centers and double tapping on cities, were again condemned, but nothing came of this except ‘strongly worded letters.’
Testing the waters of President Obama’s “red lines,” Assad, with Putin’s blessing, would again use chemical weapons during the war, which the OPCW has later verified. The lack of response to numerous war crimes under Putin’s Russia and the dictators he supported showed an unwilling resolute West, and the repeated attempts of appeasement and mediocre diplomacy led to the domino effects of the 2022 full-fledged war against Ukraine.
During the ongoing War in Ukraine, reluctance to send Kyiv weapons in fear of Putin’s “red lines” cost the Ukrainian Armed Forces vital time and manpower. One could argue the war would’ve gone a lot differently had Ukraine received long-range missiles, such as ATACMS, in mid-2022 and started training for F-16s around the same time.
Nevertheless, Ukraine would continue making battlefield progress and hold Russia to minimal gains even though much of the military assistance they requested didn’t arrive due to bureaucracy. The more the Kremlin bluffed on red lines during the war, the more Ukraine would receive vital aid, such as Challengers, Leopards, Bradleys, Storm-Shadows, SCALPs, and cluster munitions. Putin, a man who always called bluff in the West, would have his bluff called as NATO heads of state realized his aura was relegated to words only.
When Faced with Strength, Putin Has Backed Down
Putin’s strongman aura was always limited to how the average diplomat and civilian perceived him. Through the façade of fear, Putin could get away with anything he wanted, but the Russian autocrat would show signs of weakness through force countered back at him.
In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane after it violated Turkish airspace, which Putin never responded to. In 2020, Azerbaijan downed a Russian military helicopter at the end of the 2020 Karabakh War. Instead of retaliating and defending their fellow CTSO ally, Putin rewarded Azerbaijan with lands not captured by the Azerbaijani military during their offensive operations.
The Wagner Group Mutiny also presented vulnerability for the first time in Putin’s two-decade rule, and the group had nearly reached Moscow with little resistance under Lukashenko mediated the uprising. As the war in Ukraine continues to go wayward, Russian bloggers and military officers have continued to push back against Putin’s inept leadership, which has led to further retaliatory measures by the Russian autocrat.
Appeasing Putin Would Embolden his Allies
A domino effect of hesitating on military aid for Ukraine or placating Putin will have far-reaching consequences outside of Europe. Hypothetically, if Putin gets away with favorable end-of-war terms, such as annexation or nuclear weapons use, nothing stops other despots from doing so.
Ongoing heightened tensions in the Korean Peninsula, South China Sea, Taiwan Straits, and the Middle East intertwine with the international community’s response towards Russian aggression. Strongmen such as Xi Jinping, Kim Jung Il, and Ali Khamenei are all watching how the world reacts to mass deportations, filtration camps, mass graves, and nuclear threats for their conflicts against their neighbors.
Autocrats Have only Understood Strength Throughout History
There has always been one constant throughout history—autocrats only respect power. When the world placated and appeased tyrants such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, and others, they left behind an endless trail of blood and untold devastation in their paths.
The world dealt with these tyrants through force when diplomacy failed or by calling them bluffs. Putin, who built his life on bluffs, has nothing left to win the war in Ukraine except his empty threats, hoping that gullible politicians will fall for his mind games and concede demands to Russia.
Ultimately, the only way to secure Ukraine and the rest of the world from Russian threats is to arm Kyiv with the tools it needs to regain its territory. The more Putin continues to escalate a war in which he still hasn’t reached a single primary objective, the more degraded the Russian military and labor force will be for the next several decades.