Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly out of his mind. Only a deranged and isolated leader stuck a 20th century time warp would launch an unprovoked and barbaric attack against a people he says are the same as his own – and say he is saving them from Nazis. The insanity of it all has freaked out his European neighbors, most notably the once-fiercely neutral Finland and Sweden.
Only last January, the Finnish ambassador to the United States said that his country did not plan to apply to NATO – that Finland has lived next to Russia for a long time and knows how to deal with Putin. In February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said his country still didn’t see any reason for “dramatic sudden changes.”
By May, however, Finland realized that it didn’t really know how to deal with Putin. And probably of greater concern, it can’t figure him out. It’s joining NATO.
Asked last weekend about this rapid change in heart, Niinisto cited the “huge attack on Ukraine.” No one expected that level of brutality against a peaceful neighbor of shared ethnicity. “The situation is changed,” he said with great understatement.
The sight of advancing tanks and threats of annihilation may have toppled some European governments in the middle of the last century. Such strategies don’t seem to be working so well in Ukraine, a 21st-century country looking West.
Putin wrongly assumed he could easily recruit Ukraine’s many Russian speakers to commit treason. One formerly Russia-friendly official in an eastern Ukraine city recalls a Putin ally telling him, “Cooperation with the Russian army means preserving the city and lives.” The official responded with an obscenity on Facebook.
“Nobody wanted to be part of that thing behind the wall” is how another official in eastern Ukraine put it. The Ukrainian side of the border represented “something bright.”
Messaging is a massively important weapon in 21st-century warfare. It’s true that Ukraine’s military victories owe much to the West’s delivery of advanced military hardware. But the reason the United States and Europe opened the firehose of help, both in weapons and economic sanctions, was Ukraine’s vow that its own people would face the violence and would not stop fighting until the foe was gone.
As Russian tanks first rolled in, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy doubled the power of that message by refusing safe passage out of Kyiv and appearing with members of his government on the streets, reassuring the people that their leaders were going nowhere. And he called up all combat-age men to defend the country.
The Ukrainians’ skilled use of mockery provided a certain bravura that kept the world glued to its predicament. When Putin proclaimed he was protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine, Zelenskyy retorted, “Russia should take care of the rights of Russian-speakers in Russia.”
Early on, when a Russian tank broke down over the border in Ukraine, some locals famously offered to tow them – back to Russia. Ukrainians enjoy an asymmetrical advantage over Russia in messaging.
By contrast, Putin’s communications are as pathetically lacking as was his reading of the Ukrainian resistance. He thought the sight of a long line of tanks rolling toward the capital would summon quick capitulation. Then he thought raining destruction on civilians would win them over.
The threats, the crazy distortion of history, the crimes against civilians, the overestimation of his own military’s ability: This is a study in delusion that has proven disastrous to those trying to run an actual war, however unjustified. Putin is stuck in the mud of primitive thinking, and Ukraine seems less and less interested in offering him a tow out of his humiliation.
Froma Harrop is a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.