How on earth was Putin able to talk his people into invading Ukraine? The simple answer is he has his hands on the means of communication, which includes the news agencies and education systems of the country. He also has his hands on the regular police force, the secret police, and the military. Putin can get away with a lot of terrible things inside and outside Russia because there is so much power in the hands of one man. When he says do it, people do it, and don’t ask why.
And how did this situation take place? The answer is, not quickly. It took a couple decades. Putin managed to talk the people into changing the law several times to allow him to stay in office past legal limits. Over the past 22 years he has been in power, Putin managed to put people loyal to him and him alone into positions of power everywhere in the government, in the economy, in the education system, and in the military. He gave them lifetime benefits so he in turn would have their support for him to stay in office for a lifetime.
But Putin had to do more than this. He had to slowly centralize decision-making in Russia by taking power away from local and regional governments and transferring it to the national government which he controls. And he put people loyal to him in those local positions to deal with the functions he could not transfer to Moscow. He has stocked the executive, legislative, and judicial branches with his people. He has given business leaders monopoly privileges so they are loyal to him. He has even put his people into the Russian Orthodox church. In short, he has acted exactly like a feudal king instituting absolute power over all of the people.
But why did Putin do it? The answer is easy. Having so much power leaves a person very insecure and vulnerable. He knows, and Russians know, that he has taken many freedoms away from many people in order to feed his lust for power and wealth. He has many enemies and so he takes many measures to protect himself. That is what his secret police are for and his toady judges. The police will find dissenters, and the judges will convict them of trumped-up crimes.
Putin also feels that the free world outside Russia is hostile to him and his methods. He looked about him for a country that could serve as a good buffer between him and the outside world. He saw that in Ukraine. Ukraine is like a mountain range that would have to be crossed to get to him. Putin invaded Ukraine because he wanted to build a moat around his castle, so people could not get in or out without his permission.
When he completes his planned takeover of Ukraine, or part of Ukraine, he will have a new place to install new loyal friends who live outside of Russia and who will help him out when he needs help. The new government there will be a puppet-government. However, Ukrainians have not been very friendly to autocrats. They have always liked freedom more than control because of their ownership of agricultural land. He couldn’t just invite them to be friendly and turn over their liberties to him. He had to forcefully take them.
In 2022, since he had things under control inside Russia, he felt it was time to put his plan into action. He invaded Ukraine to create a buffer under his control, to demonstrate his great masculinity and success as a ruler, and because he felt he could get away with it. But there was still another reason he did it.
The autocratic system in Russia is not very good at inspiring people to work hard, because the system takes away the fruits of their labor and leaves them discontented. So, Putin also invaded Ukraine because it provides him with natural resources he needs like coal, nuclear energy, farm land, and millions of new workers. All in all, it’s a win-win situation for Putin. It benefits him, even if nobody else.
(Robert Kimball Shinkoskey is a historian of democracy and has written several books, including “The American Kings: Growth in Presidential Power from George Washington to Barack Obama”)