The big news on Thursday morning was that President Biden had sent a letter to President Putin and was awaiting his reply. Then the big news changed: They had received Putin's reply and were waiting while it was "analyzed." All of this followed the big news from Wednesday, shooting down the Russian claim that they had moved forces back from the border with Ukraine when, according to Western sources, they had moved 7,000 more troops into position to attack.
It's never a good sign — in fact, I'll coin an acronym for it: INAGS — when national leaders stop talking to each other face-to-face or on the phone and start communicating by letter. It's never a good sign when a country's spokesman or its national leader starts telling lies that can be easily disproved. In fact, it's never a good sign when anyone, especially the leader of a nuclear power, decides to go with that old chestnut, who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? because it means that logic and reason and facts have once again disappeared into the black hole all authoritarians dig for themselves in the end: the war against reality itself.
Vladimir Putin is conducting what amounts to an object lesson for authoritarians everywhere. Over a period of months, he has moved 60 percent of all Russian combat land forces into threatening positions around Ukraine, and then announced he has "no intention" of attacking. The Russian "reason" for deploying such a massive display of military might around the entire border of Ukraine, including its southern coast is so blatant a lie, it leaves you breathless.
The mistake I made from the beginning of this crisis was to assume there is a logic to what Putin is doing. There is no logic. It makes no sense at all for him to move 150,000 soldiers (perhaps now 190,000) hundreds of miles across Russia and park them in the boonies around Ukraine for no reason, especially when they are equipped with tanks and combat helicopters and cannons and rocket launchers and backed up by support units like field hospitals and food and ammunition supplies. It only makes sense if he intends to use all those forces — but using them doesn't make sense, either.
See what I mean? War is a black hole that kills logic and reason just as surely as it kills human beings. Diplomacy makes sense. Nobody dies when countries talk to each other. Talking saves lives because it is not war, which costs lives the minute the shooting starts.
But you cannot think this way with Vladimir Putin, because it's all personal to him. His claim that the breakup of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century" wasn't about the end of the Soviet empire. It was about him. It was a tragedy for him, not for Russia. The country of Russia is better off today than it was before 1990 or 1991. The shelves of its stores are full of food and clothing and even luxury items. Its people in the cities and far-flung rural areas are not starving. Russians can make money and save it. They can travel to other countries. They are not walled in from the rest of the world.
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But it's not about Russia, and it's not about the Russian people. It's about him.
Everything with Putin is about how he looks. Does he look "strong" and "powerful," or does he look "weak?" You know you're dealing with an authoritarian personality when you hear those words again and again. Anything weak is bad. Anything strong is good. If that reminds you of someone else who used the same words to describe himself, you are correct. If the enormity of Putin's lies about Ukraine remind you of someone else's numerous and gigantic lies, bingo again! It's like a certain political party denying that a violent assault was a violent assault and calling it "legitimate political discourse." Putin is aiming a gun at Ukraine and saying, "Gun? What gun? I don't see a gun."
Putin's rationale, if it can be called that, for massing his forces around Ukraine is that he is protecting Russia from threats by NATO forces. There is no threat by NATO to Russia of course, and it was pathetic on Thursday to watch Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he addressed the UN Security Council and felt the need to reassure everyone that he was "not here to start a war but to prevent one." It was an obvious reference to the last time a nation had amassed huge combat forces on the border of another country and its secretary of state addressed the same Security Council. That time, which was less than 20 years ago, it was Colin Powell, and he wasn't trying to prevent a war, he was providing "evidence" intended to start one. We were the Russians in 2003, and Iraq was Ukraine, and that fact hung above Blinken's head on Thursday like a dark cloud. When he listed all the justifications U.S. intelligence agencies believe Putin might use to attack Ukraine, even though he was probably using facts on the ground and real intelligence, not half-baked guesses and wishful thinking dreamed up by a gaggle of rep-tie sportin' neocons with itchy trigger fingers, every word he said was suspect.
Despite indications that the U.S. isn't having any problem rallying allies around the use of sanctions against Putin and Russia if they attack, the plain fact is that sanctions won't work — even sanctions designed to hurt Putin and his close allies and Russian oligarchs personally. He doesn't care if sanctions against Russian banks will mean that Moscow dwellers won't be able to withdraw cash from their local ATM as long as he looks tough, as long as he looks strong, as long as he looks like he's getting his way. Putin's power in Russia doesn't depend on votes. It depends on his ability to invent enemies and intimidate them. He exists at the top of Russia's political system and government as a faded memory of a Russia that he's trying to bring back to life with images of tanks and missiles and warships and bombers and attack helicopters. He's trying to force an inconvenient fact down the memory hole: that the last time Russia deployed its military might it got its ass spanked by a ragtag bunch of AK-47 wielding guerillas wearing tattered shalwar kameez and flip-flops. He wasn't in charge when Russia was defeated in Afghanistan, but that doesn't matter to him, nor does the recent defeat of his imagined enemy, the U.S., by the same country. He's not a "loser," and Russia didn't lose that war, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it wasn't his fault because the empire was stolen from him. In fact, his entire adventure with Ukraine can be seen as his own personal "stop the steal" moment. Russia won't be humiliated any longer and neither will he. He's going to overturn Russia's loss of the Cold War.
Joe Biden and Antony Blinken are doing their best to give diplomacy every chance. On Thursday, Blinken offered to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week in Europe. But the problem with diplomacy is that it's not tough. Nobody dies. You don't get to take a country's capital, the way we took Baghdad, with diplomacy. You take a capital with guns and tanks and cannons and attack helicopters and jet bombers and missiles. You take what isn't yours by going to war.
The decision on Friday by Russia's puppet rebel "leader" in the Donbas region to begin evacuating civilians from the breakaway eastern edge of Ukraine into Russia indicates that is where Putin will go to reclaim Russia's honor. It's pretty clear he intends to "take" the ethnically Russian slice of eastern Ukraine, but it remains to be seen what other parts of that nation he will attack and how much of its territory he will attempt to dominate. His problem is the same one we had in Iraq, even if we didn't know it at the time. The forces he has arrayed on Ukraine's border are almost exactly the same size and are of the same make-up we used in 2003. We had enough troops to "take" Baghdad, but then what? We learned over the next seven or eight years just how huge were our delusions about our own power, and now we're dealing with the same lesson in Afghanistan.
President Biden announced on Friday evening that U.S. intelligence believes Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine. When his forces cross the border with Ukraine, he will start the first land war on the European continent in more than 80 years. He's doing it to look tough and strong. He's doing it to Make Russia Great Again.
We dodged a bullet enduring the four-year rule of our own unhinged egomaniacal lunatic. But this time, another grievously damaged man will try to fill the hole in his soul with thousands of dead, the rubble of cities and the broken dreams and bodies of children. It won't work. His war won't fill holes, it will make them.
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