The West they visited was not the caricature of depravity presented by Mr. Putin or Patriarch Kirill. And their Russia was hardly a pure and spiritual model, with the alcoholism, corruption, drug abuse, homophobia and other sins so familiar to all Russians.
In the end, the question is whether any of Mr. Putin’s lectures on history really provide a justification for the death and destruction he has ordained. Russians know the horrors of all-out war; they must know that nothing Mr. Putin has concocted remotely validates the leveling of towns and cities, the murder, rape and pillaging, or the deliberate strikes against power and water supplies across Ukraine. Like the last great European war, this one is mostly one man’s madness.
If Ukraine was not an enemy before, Mr. Putin has ensured it is one now. Battling an invader is among the most potent methods of forging a national identity, and for Ukraine, Russia as its enemy and the West as its future have become indelible elements. And if the West was indeed divided and indecisive on how to deal with Russia or Ukraine before, Moscow’s invasion has unified the United States and much of Europe in relegating Russia to a threat and an outcast, and raising a heroic Ukraine to a friend and ally.
Claiming to champion Russian greatness, Mr. Putin has turned Russia into a pariah state in many parts of the world. He claims Russia has everything it needs to withstand the cost of the war and sanctions. But according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, Russia faces decades of economic stagnation and regression even if the war ends soon. Industrial production, even military, is likely to continue falling because of its reliance on high-tech goods from the West that it can no longer get. Many Western companies have left, trade with the West has dwindled, and financing the war is draining the budget. Numerous foreign airlines have ceased service to Russia. Add to that the millions of Russia’s best and brightest who have fled, and the future is bleak.
The true scope of Russia’s casualties is also being kept from its people. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November that Moscow’s casualties were “well over 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded.” About 300,000 men have been pressed into cannon-fodder duty in the army and many more may follow.
It is possible that Mr. Putin might eventually seek a negotiated settlement, though that becomes ever more remote as the Ukrainians suffer ever greater destruction and loss, and as their determination not to cede an inch of their country deepens. For now, Mr. Putin seems to still believe he can bring Ukraine to its knees and dictate its fate, cost be damned.
In his public appearances, Mr. Putin still cultivates the image of a self-confident strongman. Where there are failures, it is the fault of underlings who do not obey his will. He played out that scene on Jan. 11, in his first televised meeting with government ministers in the new year, when he tore into Denis Manturov, deputy prime minister, over aircraft production figures Mr. Putin insisted were wrong and Mr. Manturov defended. Mr. Putin finally exploded, “What are you doing, really, playing the fool?” “Yest’,” Mr. Manturov finally said, the Russian equivalent of “Yes, sir.”