Ideas
February 25, 2022 12:28 PM EST
Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He is a Senior Fellow at SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

Vladimir Putin is an old man scared of death trying to turn back time. Ukraine and Ukrainians are as his blood sacrifice. His invasion of their country is his attempt to forestall his personal, inevitable demise.

As we grow older, death becomes harder to ignore. As it approaches it’s natural to want to reverse time. We become nostalgic, a little bitter about the present. As death closes in we commit silly acts to prove we are still young. We try, a little comically, to thumb our nose against the inevitable. Dodge reality.

But a dictator with limitless power, who has been in power so many decades he thinks he can do anything, who has murdered and imprisoned anyone who told him the truth, that sort of dictator, thinks he can take on time itself.

Putin fears death—like any 69-year-old. His fear, however, is particularly acute. He makes (or so the consistent rumour goes) visiting officials submit faeces test to ensure they are disease free. Since COVID-19, officials have to isolate several days before they see him. Those who don’t, like the visiting French President Emmanuel Macron, are seated down the other end of an absurdly long table. Is Putin immune-compromised? Maybe. He’s clearly petrified and paranoid of death. His extreme botox treatments, which gives his skin the look of melting wax, are yet another desire to turn back the clock.

Unlike the rest of us, he can project his fears onto whole countries. In his embarrassing ramblings about Ukraine he never talks about the future—he wants to escape the future and what it brings. He “justifies” his invasion through the desire to return the past: take Ukraine back to the 19th century, to the Soviet Union, to his youth. He rambles menacingly about restoring the glories of the Russian Empire, picking apart Lenin’s creation of Soviet Republics, undoing the revolution against his satrap Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. One plausible rumour about Putin’s invasion plan is he wants to cancel all Ukrainian laws passed since the revolution of 2014. A wilder, but symbolic one is that he will try to put Yanukovych back in power: as if the last seven years never happened. As if he’s still 62.

To stave off death and replenish himself the aging tyrant needs a youthful blood sacrifice—Ukraine. Ukraine is, of course, an old idea: a dream carried by Ukrainians through the prison camps of the Russian Empire and in Soviet Gulags. But it’s most recent iteration of independence is also its longest: thirty years. Just a youth in nation-years.

Read More: What the West Doesn’t Understand About Putin’s Ukraine Obsession

When he met President Macron, Putin quoted a vile Russian rape joke where sleeping beauty is sexually abused. Conflating Ukraine and Sleeping Beauty, he put himself in the role of the rapist: “Whether you like it or not my beauty, you will need to put up with all I do to you.” The choice of fairy tale was telling. Sleeping Beauty never gets old, even as the castle around her overgrows with rust and ivy.

In his replies the 44-year-old Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quipped “Ukraine is indeed a beauty but she’s not yours.” Replying to Putin’s historical fantasies he replied that instead of history lessons Ukraine thinks about its present and its future. If the Kremlin is death, Ukraine is life. Putin likely plans to kill him. And to make Ukraine his youthful, violated, slave-bride.

How easy it would have been for Putin to create a flourishing Russia, with its vast oil wealth and human talent, to become a country that Ukraine would want to be close to! Instead, he created a country that stinks of fear, death, and murder that Ukraine has been trying to escape from. The Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn once found a metaphor for the Kremlin’s system in the title of one of his novels: Cancer Ward. It remains a potent metaphor. Cancers want to spread: to metastasize through Europe and beyond.

Putin’s diagnosis is terminal. Who will it kill? Ukraine is fighting to the death—and choosing life.

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