Vladimir Putin has failed to use the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 to exert pressure on the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to lay down their weapons. Rather, his administration has continually tried to place the blame for the MH17 incident on the Ukrainian government in Kiev, whilst allowing artillery and troop movements across the Russian border into the separatist camps.
Putin’s claims of a ‘smear campaign’ against Russia organised by the USA show his increasing detachment from reality. His bullying tactics have long won him internal control within the Russian Federation and scored him several successes in Eastern Europe (think Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine).
Yet the international outrage caused by the rocket attack on MH17, and the Russian leader’s refusal to accept any culpability, show a worrying disdain for peace. The selfish intentions of the European nations that rely on the Russian economy will not persist forever, and the potential for conventional ground forces to be sent to Ukraine by the West has become a possibility that just a month ago seemed impossible.
Putin, simply, sees himself as a god. His words, his whims, rule all manner of reason. In this way he differs from the infamous Grigory Rasputin, whose control over Russian politics in the build-up to and early years of WWI are as legendary as Putin’s actions will become in history. The Siberian mystic claimed himself as a transmitter of God’s will, his miracle cures a manifestation of divine intervention.
Rasputin won favour with the Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra by his apparent ability to ‘cure’ the symptoms of the Tsarevich Alexis’ hemophilia. As the only male heir to the throne, the well-being of Alexis was everything. Through a mixture of hypnosis, cunning, pure coincidence and blind ignorance on the part of the Tsars, Rasputin succeeded in creating the impression that only he, through his mystical connection with God, could assure Alexis’ safety.
Rasputin may have a been a debauched alcoholic but he was also an effective showman and he attracted a large group of followers wherever he travelled. Putin likes to portray himself as a sober fitness fanatic, yet the frequent images of him bare-chested in the Russian mountains or scissor-kicking an opponent during a judo competition are similarly cultish. Indeed, one only need look at the Nashi youth movement in Russia to see the cult of personality Putin has developed.
Such a status that both Rasputin and Putin developed for themselves rubs off on the political establishment and allows a degree of control unimaginable in any democracy. Even so, there is a lesson to be learnt from history.
The way in which Rasputin came to influence the Tsarina during the Tsar’s absence at the Front during WWI became increasingly alarming for both the Russian aristocracy and peasantry. Ministerial appointments, elections to the Synod, even troop movements were controlled by the erratic proclamations and suggestions of ‘Our Friend’, as the Tsarina affectionately termed her mystic. Rasputin’s murder at the Yusupov Palace in December 1916 had been a long-time coming, the disproportionate influence he wielded in the palace alienating nearly everyone around him.
If Vladimir Putin continues to drive Russia towards a deadly confrontation with the West, his political supporters and the people at large may start questioning his own ‘divine’ traits more vociferously. Another eruption of the pro-democracy movements seen in recent years, coupled with political defections and economic contraction might see his infallibility challenged.
Corruption (in political dealings and within the mind) will not go unnoticed forever. Putin is running out of time to ensure his supremacy on the Russian throne. Without reining in the separatists in Ukraine and allowing a European war to develop, even the timid Western powers will fight back.
He may not end up bullet-riddled in the Malaya Nevka River but Putin’s belligerence could well see his political death much sooner than people anticipated.