Putin repeats Russian history – will it mean his own demise?

By Lt. Col. James Zumwalt

Knowing his country’s history, Russian President Vladimir Putin must reflect upon the fate of a predecessor. That predecessor led Russia into the 20th century, under the only form of government known for centuries at that time. However, failing to grasp the extent to which domestic turmoil was percolating and overconfident about his people’s loyalty, he sealed his own fate as the nation underwent a violent transition. The conditions back then are eerily similar on some levels to 21st century Russia today.

The predecessor was Nicholas II who, becoming czar in 1894, continued a Romanov family dynasty that had ruled Russia for more than three centuries. But, by the end of the 19th century, the Russian people wanted change. After the Russo-Japanese war erupted in 1904 over controlling territory both countries sought in Korea and China, more domestic discontent occurred. In declaring war against Japan, Nicholas anticipated, just like Putin did with Ukraine 116 years later, a quick victory. A year later, however, both Russian ground and naval forces had been soundly defeated.

With the war’s end in 1905, conditions continued to deteriorate within Russia. But it would be Russia’s 1914 entry into World War I, leading to civil revolution in 1917, that ultimately caused the dynasty’s fall. Initially seeking democracy, the revolution fell under communist (Bolshevik) leadership. In 1918, evermore influential, the Bolsheviks dispatched an assassination squad that brutally executed Nicholas, his wife and their five young children – seeking to permanently end the Romanov dynasty.

With the Soviet Union’s rise in 1922, 69 years of communist rule began. Among those devastated by its collapse in 1991 was a KGB officer named Putin. Later, in 2005, as president, he would proclaim the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” It was no surprise, then, ever since gaining power, Putin has sought a return to the days of the former Soviet Empire.

After serving over two decades as president – a period interrupted only by a hand-picked puppet successor, Dmitry Medvedev, serving so Putin could comply with a constitution limiting his office term but still maintain power – he effectively became a 21st-century czar seeking to restore the country to its Soviet Union “glory” days.

While necessary for Putin first to secure his czarist domestic powers, other aggressive or confrontational actions he undertook sought to help Russia’s restoration to the Soviet Union’s glory days including:

  • Moscow threatened neighboring Georgia that it would automatically be deemed an enemy should it join NATO as it had voted to do.
  • Expanding Russia’s territorial claims by exploring the Arctic with two submarines and planting a flag on the seabed at the North Pole.
  • Withdrawing Russia from the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty, limiting deployment of heavy military equipment there.
  • Conducting naval exercises in the Atlantic, including along the U.S. coast, in a demonstration of resurgent force not seen since the old days of the Soviet Union.
  • Supporting separatist movements in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions and shooting down a Georgian reconnaissance drone over the former.
  • Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists attacked a military vehicle, injuring five Georgian policemen.
  • In five days of fighting causing hundreds of casualties, Putin deployed tanks into South Ossetia in 2008, expelling Georgian forces from Tskhinvall, and later conducting airstrikes against Georgian military targets.
  • In 2009, in a foreboding sign for Ukraine, Putin cut off gas supplies over payment disputes, causing Ukraine and Europe to suffer billions of dollars in economic losses.
  • During February-May 2014, after the Ukrainian revolution erupted, ousting pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin sent Russian troops to capture Crimea – which then passed a referendum to join Russia, triggering the greatest East-West impasse since the Cold War – to which the West responded by imposing sanctions on Russia.
  • In February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine, naively told by his advisers – just like Nicholas was told by his – that it would be a quick victory.

The 1917 Russian Revolution began on Feb. 23 – International Women’s Day – as thousands of women of various backgrounds took to the streets, demanding food and increased rations for soldiers’ families. Ironically, the biggest threat posed to Putin today may well come from women taking to the streets again – this time mothers who have lost their sons. The number of casualties Russia has taken in Ukraine is uncertain, although the U.S. recently provided its best guess. While we know Russian casualties were extremely heavy during the early days of fighting, we know what has happened in just the last five months is horrendous. It is estimated in this period the Russians have lost more than three times what the U.S. lost during the bloody Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The numbers given include 20,000 Russian dead and another 80,000 wounded. It is believed most of these occurred in the brutal trench warfare seeking to capture the small eastern city of Bakhmut – a target in Ukraine Moscow has repeatedly claimed, without merit, is on the cusp of being captured. It has turned the war into one of attrition.

Recently, Putin brought in a new fighting force – the Wagner group – mercenaries formed by a close Putin aide that recruits heavily from Russia’s prisons. Prisoners surviving six months on the front lines receive amnesty. At least 10,000 of those mercenaries will make it back home in body bags. Such a high casualty rate is unsurprising as these prisoners are sent into battle as fodder, being given very little training. But even the mercenaries have protesting mothers.

While the domestic unrest is nowhere yet near the levels reached in the 20th century under Nicholas, what we are seeing is surprising for 21st-century Russia. Last year, furious Russian mothers criticized Putin in countrywide rallies that even brutal police attacks failed to deter.

On Aug. 24, A.D. 79, one of the greatest natural disasters in history occurred when Mount Vesuvius suddenly erupted destroying, within 24 hours, two ancient Roman cities. A similar firestorm – this one in a volcanic eruption of rage created by thousands of mothers losing sons to the senseless actions of a communism-seeking czar – could just as quickly annihilate Putin.

Hopefully, this is causing him many sleepless nights.

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