What we should look for, in this exercise, is not necessarily the kindest individual, but the one with the firmest grasp of reality. What makes the current regime so dangerous is precisely the fact that most of its members are to a greater or lesser degree unhinged, as quickly becomes evident when you review their public statements.
Start with Vladimir Putin himself. Not only did he launch his invasion of Ukraine last year in complete ignorance of the victim’s ability and willingness to resist – he expected three days to crush the Ukrainian resistance and then a victory parade in Kyiv – but from the start he saw them in purely stereotypical terms
At first the Ukrainians were Nazis (including even the Jewish ones, like Zelensky), and so bound to fail because they were evil. When they thwarted his invasion, they were American puppets without motives of their own, and Putin’s attack only failed because he was really fighting all of NATO.
By last September, he’s claiming that the West is trying to “dismember” Russia and turn it into a collection of weak mini-states. (He has “written proof”, he says.) He was forced into what looked like an unprovoked attack on Ukraine by the forces of “outright Satanism”, as he put it when annexing four provinces of Ukraine last September.
He’s not telling lies, although what he’s saying is untrue. His reality is infinitely flexible, and can be restructured at need so that he is never wrong. A lot of the people around him have the same reflexes, and are willing to invoke even the supernatural to justify their actions.
Russia’s mission in Ukraine is to “stop the supreme ruler of Hell, whatever name he uses – Satan, Lucifer or Iblis”, said Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s faithful sidekick for two decades. (Medvedev stood in for the boss as president in 2008-2012 while Putin was getting around the constitutional ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms.)
Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen leader of one of Russia’s private armies, agrees: “Satanic democracy is when children are taken from traditional families and transferred to same-sex families. I see degradation and Satanism in this.”
They’re all delirious, and none more so than Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s closest adviser and frequently tipped as his successor. Patrushev followed Putin as the head of the FSB secret police and now chairs the Security Council. But it’s not Satanism that is driving events, in Patrushev’s view. It’s geology.
Earlier this month Patrushev gave an interview to Izvestia in which he focused on the Yellowstone supervolcano in the western United States. He referred to (imaginary) research which said it might erupt soon. If it does, he said, it would mean “the death of all living creatures in North America is inevitable.”
Ah-ha! Now it becomes clear. “Some people in America insist that Eastern Europe and Siberia will be the safest places on Earth in case of a possible eruption,” Patrushev explained. “This seems to be the answer to the question of why Anglo-Saxon elites are aching to capture (the Russian) heartland.”
This is what passes for strategic thinking in Moscow today – so which of these moral and intellectual giants would you like to see take over from Putin when the time comes? None of the above? Well, then, how about Yevgeny Prigozhin?
He’s a thug, to be sure, but you’ll never hear him spouting the kind of fake geopolitical nonsense the others talk, nor the mystical pseudo-religious stuff either. He clearly knows how to run both a business and an army. And most importantly, Prigozhin has credit as a patriot for capturing Bakhmut, but no implicit obligation to fight the war until the end.
The soldiers and secret policemen around Putin hate him, because he’s from entirely the wrong background, but if Putin goes so will most or all of them. Does he see himself as a pretender to the throne? Well, he is just withdrawing his entire private army from Bakhmut for a couple of months of rest and retraining. Somewhere near Moscow, perhaps.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.