Patrick Cockburn Ukraine

Putin is Being Written Off as an Ineffectual Monster, but a Russian Defeat is Far From Guaranteed

Putin’s political personality remains something of a mystery to this day, with many pundits excoriating him as a mad monster and war criminal.
Photograph Source: Lord Jim – CC BY 2.0

By Patrick Cockburn / CounterPunch

I arrived in Moscow as a correspondent in late 1999, just as Vladimir Putin was soaring from bureaucratic obscurity to the Russian presidency in the space of six months. He owed his swift rise to the backing of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, his success in the war in Chechnya, and a hope among Russians that he would end the chaos and poverty they had endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I was struck at the time by Putin’s cold smile and athletic stride, both self-consciously geared to conveying an impression of business-like authority. I wondered what the man was really like, as did many Russians curious about his public persona. One joke in Moscow, adapted from a jibe often directed at Soviet leaders in the past, asked: “Will there ever be a Putin personality cult? No, because to have such a cult you must first have a personality.”

This put-down probably underestimated Putin. And in any case, his control of the Russian media enabled him to pose as a competent “tough-guy” national leader. But for me he always remained an elusive figure, expert in the mechanics of gaining and keeping power in Russia while making a broad-brush appeal to Russian nationalism.

I tried to think of a historic leader whose life might illuminate Putin’s career. Just before he was first elected president in 2000, a Russian friend quoted to me the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s scathing verdict on Napoleon III, whom he described as “a sphinx without a riddle. From afar something, from near at hand nothing.”

The analogy looks even more appropriate today as both Napoleon III and Putin dealt in over-heated nationalism rooted in a glorious past when their countries were at the zenith of their power (Tsarist and Soviet in the case of Russia, Napoleon I at his peak in the case of France).

Both rulers grew in arrogance the longer they ruled. Napoleon III floundered into the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, some 22 years after he had first won the French presidential election in 1848, and was roundly defeated. After almost exactly the same period, Putin invaded Ukraine and found that he had underestimated Ukrainian resistance, exaggerated Russian military strength, and misjudged a powerful riposte by the Nato powers.

Putin’s political personality remains something of a mystery to this day, with many pundits excoriating him as a mad monster and war criminal. But such a description, justified though it may be by atrocities in Ukraine, is scarcely helpful in determining what he will do next, which, given his absolute power in Russia, will determine the peace of Europe.

Failure is a great teacher

Western governments purport to know what determines his thinking. “Even though we believe that Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth,” said Jeremy Fleming, head of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ, “what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime.”

True enough, failure is a great teacher for governments as for individuals, but this might only lead to Russian forces fighting more astutely as their failed multi-pronged advances, each too weak to reach their objectives, are now concentrating on the Donbas and south-east Ukraine.

Disclosures by Fleming and senior military officers drip with a dangerous sensethat Russian blunders are irreversible. Pentagon spokesman Jim Kirby says that “the fact that he [Putin] may not have all the context, that he may not fully understand the degree to which his forces are failing in Ukraine, that’s a little discomforting”.

Yet nothing said by American and British officers and officials is new. Intelligence agencies, even if they have some secret source information, seldom say anything that would reveal its existence. The CIA, for instance, was desperate to conceal the fact that it could monitor the car phone of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

No easy exit

Putin grossly misjudged almost everything to do with his Ukraine invasion, but the signs are growing that Nato powers are also being lured into wishful thinking as they start to divide up the lion’s skin though the lion is still breathing. Shambolic the performance of the Russian army may have been so far, but it will not necessarily stay that way. In past wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western governments have had a self-destructive willingness to believe their own propaganda about a beaten enemy being on the run.

Putin – however foolish his original decision to attack – still has a powerful army in Ukraine while the Nato powers do not have a single soldier there. This is a more important strategic fact than anecdotes about Russian tanks deliberately running over their own commanders or sabotaging their equipment.

The British government in particular assumes that the war can only go one way, arguing that a peace deal today would be premature, letting Putin off the hookand requiring Ukraine to make concessions avoidable if it wins more military successes, which ministers consider inevitable. A senior British government source is quoted as saying: “We think Ukraine needs to be in the strongest possible position militarily before those talks can take place.” He said that Putin should be allowed no easy exit from Ukraine and Boris Johnson insists that sanctions should be intensified until Russian troops leave Ukraine including Crimea.

The idea is evidently that Ukraine should remain a lethal quagmire for Russia, much like Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union in the 1980s or Iraq was for the US and Britain after 2003. Ignoring the fact that a long war might doom Ukraine to Iraqi and Afghan levels of death and devastation, this assumes that the military pendulum is predictable and only swings one way, an assumption that is contradicted by half the wars in history.

Putin’s macho self-image

During his first two decades in power in the Kremlin, Putin’s capabilities were exaggerated inside Russia and in the wider world. Since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he tends to be written off as a mad but ineffectual monster going down to inevitable defeat. Possibly this is exactly what will happen, but those who are most energetic in demonising Putin, paradoxically assume that in defeat he will behave with calm restraint when it comes to using chemical or nuclear weapons.

Failure in Ukraine might force Putin out of the Kremlin just as success in the Chechen war 22 years ago opened its doors to him. Ideally, he and his inner circle might retire like Yeltsin and his family with their physical safety and vast wealth guaranteed, but to cut-and-run would be very much against Putin’s macho self-image.

Talk of trying him as a war criminal, which would only happen after foreign-backed regime change in Moscow, works in his favour by adding credibility to his claim that the Russian state is under threat and must defend itself. Over the next few months, we may see – after more than two decades in power – what Vladimir Putin is really like.

I feel frustrated with those who condemn war atrocities, but then use them as a reason to go on fighting a war that will inevitably produce even more such atrocities. If saying that “war is an atrocity” is to be any more than a platitude, then the only way to end the killing is to end the conflict. This is not to let the perpetrators of war crimes off the hook, but a recognition that wars makes such crimes inevitable – though no less culpable.

Yet there are a growing number of politicians and pundits willing to fight to the last Ukrainian to defeat the Russian bear. Some of this is fuelled by popular outrage at Russian brutality against civilians, which is on television every night. Politicians, particularly in Washington and London, relish the thought of Russia being trapped in a Ukrainian quagmire without much concern about what happens to more than 40 million Ukrainians living on this battlefield.

Worrying again is an almost light-hearted belief that Putin would never use tactical nuclear or chemical weapons in this conflict. Where this confidence comes from is a mystery to me. The Economist says sternly that “the best deterrence is for Nato to stand up to Mr Putin’s veiled threat, and make clear that a nuclear or chemical atrocity would lead to Russia’s utter isolation.” Now that will really have them quaking in the Kremlin.

Below the Radar

The atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine should lead to greater condemnation of similar crimes in Aleppo, Gaza, Raqqa, Sanaa, Mosul and a myriad of places in Afghanistan. But somebody will always stick up their hand and say that this is “how about-ism” – a silly argument which has become a hypocrites’ charter. It is also against common sense: would anybody argue that publicising a murder in Lancashire somehow devalues the vileness of a murder in Kent. Yet at the height of the bombing of Ukraine, a raft of US Senators want to do just that by closing down an investigation into Israel’s bombing of Gaza.

Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).


  1. Only a Rabbitpuncher like Patrick Cockburn( an embarrassment to his brother Alexander’s memory)
    Could write such drivel.
    Scheerpost embarrasses itself as Russia crushes the
    Ukrainian Nazi Regime like a bug while Rabbitpunchers
    Like former Counterpuncher who now whine and squeal as Vlad the Nazi
    Impaler performs his righteous Nazi Cleansing,
    You embarrass yourself here like Chomsky did about
    Jab managers.

    1. Dear Doctor Bennett: Sounds like you and the Israeli monster are related inmore ways than one. Take YOUR drivel and go back to the hole from whence you came.

  2. Sometime soon we need to see how our worship of power allows those without a conscience to become rulers of the masses. Humans have been traumatized by centuries of war and now we don’t have a way out. After Mussolini was Hitler then Stalin then Trump while citizens watch movies of cruelty and violence and good people can’t escape the idea there is no solution.

    Whatever the masses choose to do, if they feel they have no power while those who do simply kill or torture, we fail to fix the problems of despair, we fail to invest in ideas that care for the global mental illness of this last century.

    1. Uhh… Trump did not start any wars, that is apparently a Democrat thing. He may be vile, may be a proto-fascist, he may be a blowhard self-promoter, but at least he is not a warmonger like Clinton, Obama, or Biden.

      1. @Ted+Tripp
        I was going to write a long list of U.S. president-mass murders between Stalin and Trump, but your examples work well enough. People with TDS, which is almost every Democrat and even some former progressives, think that Trump is the root of all evil and the worst president ever. Not even in the ball park on either one, despite him being a disgusting pig as a person in almost every way imaginable.

  3. What on earth has happened to CounterPunch? Mr. Cockburn, every single paragraph has at least one lie and one misconception. Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe. The government parties in power are The Right Sector, Svoboda (Stefan Bandera-ites), all Nazis and fascists. Zelensky has to go along or die. The Nazi Azov Ballalion went into Bucha and killed those “traitors” who had cheerfully exchanged dairy products for army rations with the Russian soldiers. It’s disgusting that people don’t know that. USA propaganda is endless. Putin never lies. Our leaders lie all the time and assume others do the same. A CEO of a weapons factory said, “This is really good for us.” Don’t you know all US wars are money wars. You don’t mention “shock and awe” in Iraq which killed in the first day more than Putin’s entire time at war. Ukraine’s war began with the 2014 US illegal coup, and Nazis murdering nearly 15,000 Russian speakers in the Donbas. Where’s that info in your article? The most dangerous country on earth? The USA followed by Israel and the UK. You throw in Gaza like a sop.

    1. Oh, my god. This is on scheerpost? Can’t believe it. I thought it was on CounterPunch which get worse by the day. Please don’t go thataway.

    2. @Rob Roy
      I know! CounterPunch used to be so good, now it just publishes crap like this and has become just another U.S. establishment propaganda tool. When I saw this headline I thought that I was going to read some good information about Putin that the U.S. media censors or doesn’t bother learning in order to report, but instead I just got more U.S. propaganda in the form of calling Putin names. Sheesh, what a disappointment!

    3. I think not just for imperialism, but for our culture of militarism, violence and our nationalist concept of American Exceptionalism we must have an enemy. We view ourselves as Good, so there must be a Bad or an Evil. American Exceptionalism and the violence that comes with it, believed to be redemptive and justice-based, is a Manichean, binary framework, so Americans must have an adversary or an enemy. So sad and so tragic that so many have suffered, died and been made homeless all around the world, over the decades for such an absurd, ignorant, simplistic and false belief.

      Matthew Hoh on foreign

      1. I agree, and don’t forget the wars. The business of America is war. Money, money, money, the real god of the USA.

      2. To USam,
        Re Hoh – Go Matt! We need someone in Congress who gets it and who will fight to fix it – anybody out there who can, help Matt get on the ballot for Sen in NC …

    4. @RobRoy
      I agree and you let me off writing my own reply to Mr Cockburn. He was in Moscow and heard the street talk about Putin, but so was Professor Stephen F Cohen (Cockburn is not worthy to clean Professor Cohen’s silverware). Cohen shows that Putin was not just talk, but actually accomplished the turnaround in Russian economy that restored Russia to prosperity and greatness. For this, the West will never forgive Putin, and why this regime change proxy war in Ukraine exists at all.

  4. The problem with making the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, so to speak – is that it would be all too easy for someone who wants us to really whack Russia to use the – just as happened in Syria – luckily Obama hesitated to take that bait – but i am not so sure Biden would so hesitate …

  5. Oh, so many wrongs and idiocies here, but heck, Scheer Report just copies, reprints, so much junk, and now we have Counterpunch fools.

    Western psychologists of the arm chair variety. This is foolish.

    “I was struck at the time by Putin’s cold smile and athletic stride, both self-consciously geared to conveying an impression of business-like authority. I wondered what the man was really like, as did many Russians curious about his public persona.”

    Man, western pukes really want to be Jung and Freud.

  6. Here is a timeline of events:
    October 2002 – “Full Spectrum Dominance” declared by the Pentagon to rule the world.
    January 2014 – U.S. military trainers arrive in Ukraine. [1]
    February 2014 – Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a violent coup.
    March 2014 – Ukraine started the war and killed 10,000 Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine.
    February 2015 – Ceasefire agreements at Minsk were violated by Kyiv, continuing war.
    May 2019 – Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine after false peace promise.
    May 2019 – U.S. Rand Corp. think tank issued a manifesto to destroy Russia.[2]
    March 2021 – Russian troops appeared at the Ukrainian border.
    Feb. 17, 2022 – Ukraine attacked a kindergarten in Donetsk, blaming Donbass separatists.[3]
    Feb. 21, 2022 – Kyiv increased its shelling of Donbass by a factor of 100 within four days. [4]
    February 21, 2022 – Russia recognized independence of Donetsk and Luhansk.
    February 22, 2022 – Donetsk reported intelligence that Ukraine planned invasion of Donbass [5]

    Secretary of War Lloyd Austin told Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation on March 20, 2022 “Our trainers have been in Ukraine since 2014.” ↑

    The US capitalist think tank, Rand Corporation, declared US war on Russia with their 2019 manifesto on how to destroy Russia, which has not been repudiated by any US government entity nor reported by any US mass media.
    Rand Corporation: How to Destroy Russia. “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia” | ↑

    Ukraine attacked a kindergarten, blaming Donbass separatists.

    Report of the Organization for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)

    The Monitoring Mission’s report on the kindergarten incident:
    “On 17 February, the Mission followed up on reports of damage to a working kindergarten in the north-western part of Stanytsia Luhanska (government-controlled, 16km north-east of Luhansk), located about 4.5km north-west of the north-western edge of the disengagement area near Stanytsia Luhanska.”

    Comment by munitions expert:

    “So the kindergarten was 4.5 kilometers inside Ukrainian-held territory. The monitors were denied access to the site by Ukrainian authorities and were only able to see it from a distance (very suspicious). Also suspicious is that the mission was told that “20 children had been in the kindergarten at the time of the incident but reported no injuries”. Really? An artillery shell bursts through a classroom wall, and no one was injured? More likely, they had been warned to get out ahead of time and evacuated before the shell was fired.

    “But there is no doubt whatsoever about how far away the tank (or artillery piece) was. The impact was dead on, and not from a descending shell. And the surrounding buildings mean that whoever fired at the kindergarten was situated in that very small open space right next to it. And we know it was a dummy shell, because of the unbroken windows. If there had been an explosion, they would have been shattered. Someone took deliberate aim from only a few hundred yards away and carefully fired a single shot on a flat trajectory. They probably weren’t interested in causing “collateral damage”, but just wanted a propaganda photo. How convenient that the damage was to a kindergarten and not to one or another of the anonymous buildings surrounding it.” ↑

    The Organization for Security & Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)
    reports each day on the security situation with daily reports:

    Wednesday February 16: number of explosions: 5 in Donetsk and 71 in Luhansk=76

    Thursday February 17: Kindergarten hit by Ukraine’s false flag attack

    Thursday February 17: number of explosions: 128 in Donetsk and 188 in Luhansk

    Friday February 18: number of explosions: 135 in Donetsk and 519 in Luhansk

    Saturday February 19: number of explosions: 553 in Donetsk and 860 in Luhansk-1,413. ↑

    Ukraine Army’s Plan to Attack Donbass
    Published on 21 Feb 2022. “In recent days, the number and intensity of shelling on the territory of the Republics by the Ukrainian army has sharply increased. The units of the People’s Militia are forced to constantly suppress the firing points of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in order to prevent the death of the civilian population.”

    Watch the documentary “Ukraine on Fire” by Oliver Stone, producer of “JFK.” Dmitry Yarosh’s highly trained and disciplined paramilitaries had dressed during the coup as if they were state security troops, and they fired down upon the Maidan demonstrators and police, in what’s called in the trade a “false flag” attack—one that’s designed to appear to have been perpetrated by the side you’re intending to defeat, so as to deceive the public about who had caused the violence and thus get your enemy to be blamed (by your own electorate) for the bloodshed, and thereby unite your country to fear your chosen (typically foreign) enemy and so to be willing to invade them. Adolf Hitler had most prominently pioneered the false-flag technique, both in his burning of the Reichstag, and in his setting up the incident that became his excuse to invade Poland in 1939. Dmitriy Yarosh is a proven master of this craft.; Graham McQueen, The 2001 Anthrax Deception: the Case for a Domestic Conspiracy (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2014). ↑

    1. Putin is actually an excellent leader, having turned around the USSR to guide the country into becoming the opposite. He does not want the return of the Soviet Union and he doesn’t want to be a Tzar. He’s wants a world at peace and has tried many times to befriend the US yet is treated with zero respect, let alone appreciation. Our country thinks it can rule the world and all must obey its dictates. Countries are beginning to say “no” to US imperialism.

      1. @Rob Roy
        Consider the level and effectiveness of U.S. propaganda that it takes to make people think “Putin is evil” or some such crap. (Actually, he IS evil, but so are the leaders of almost all countries, and certainly all of the large ones, and he’s nowhere near as evil as any U.S. president.) Like all world leaders, Putin certainly has his ego problems, but the level of hysteria that’s been created against him is astounding.

        One area where the U.S. truly is number one is propaganda, and you can see the results here.

  7. I see no evidence that Russia is not achieving its military goals in Ukraine. If the idea is to crush the Ukrainian military, as Putin said it was, then much has ALREADY been achieved. Worse is likely to come: the potential (certain) crushing of the Ukrainian Army in Donbass may go down as a historical military debacle like Napoleon III’s disaster at Sedan.

    Cockburn is a ‘limited hangout’. Here, he makes assumptions that are not matched by the facts as well as touting evidence-free western MSM allegations (Russian atrocities).. He is best avoided.

  8. Scheerpost:

    I, too, have witnessed a stark change in Counterpunch as a result of the Ukraine war. I have actually written to them about Patrick Cockburn’s essays, which echo much (but not all) the mainstream media is saying: a kind of gaslighting or cognitive dissonance. Cockburn tries to analyze Putin’s mind and decisions, when public knowledge of what’s happening on the ground is distorted by the media, yet finishes this essay by calling out the hypocrisy of the US govt.

    It is in the interest of the US govt to co-opt not just mainstream media, but independent media sites, and like much in life, it is not all black and white. Counterpunch, for example, puts out many scathing articles about climate change, but its coverage of Ukraine has mirrored US propaganda efforts.

    Here is one of the letters I wrote Counterpunch, from last month:

    “What are you thinking publishing Patrick Cockburn’s latest article? If your intent is to support US propaganda efforts, please continue to print his work. There is an information war going on between the US and Russia, and it’s hard for western media, even independent media, to know the facts on the ground and create a truthful picture. Both the US and Russia have for profit military complexes. Both the US and Russia have passed laws to criminalize dissent. Both the US and Russia want to show they are arbiters of morality, when neither deserves to be.

    There are competing factions on each side: the oligarchies of the US and Russia, the for-profit military complexes of both countries, the manipulation of media by both the US and Russian gov’ts. As per an earlier article you published by Michael Hudson, the US has a global empire built on a “Treasury Bill Standard”, where Dollar surpluses of other countries are used to buy US treasury bills, which in turn fund the operation and expansion of US global interests, including hundreds of military bases. The US empire is being challenged by the existence of Russia and China, which have their own ambitions.

    The US could have peacefully resolved the issue of Ukraine by supporting the Minsk agreement. However, it is in the interest of both countries to sell their weapons systems, and the war has provided opportunities for both gov’ts to become more authoritarian, and ostracize dissent. The US is the more powerful nation, and so deserves more blame for this outcome, but that does not mean both nations have not seen opportunities in war. It is too early to ascertain Russia’s goals in Ukraine, and whether they intend to stay or pull back, or how well the attack was planned or not: none of this excuses the US from goading Russia, nor Russia from deaths in Ukraine.

    Portraying this conflict as a bad decision by Putin, without greater context, does a disservice to your readers and helps the US propaganda efforts, which judging by corporate media are doing just fine, thank-you. “

  9. This is one of these posts where the replies are far better than the post itself. Much more factual information, etc. We don’t need to hear from U.S. establishment propagandists in order to hear from “all sides,” we already know what they think and are saying. Unless there’s something new from them, please refrain from publishing crap like this, it serves no purpose here.

  10. In past wars in *Russia*, western leaders have had a self-destructive willingness to believe their own propaganda about an enemy on the run: Napoleon, anyone? Or Hitler…

  11. Putin approval 80%—apparently some people do cherish democracy—more prosperity and optimism in Russia than any time since 1985

    1. @george simmel
      Yes, but what you said doesn’t fit the narrative that the U.S. establishment is pushing, so your comments are not allowed! That’s how free speech now works in the U.S. and Europe.

  12. This article is about as good as an opinion piece from that egregious knucklehead Thomas Friedman of the NYT.

    It uses weasel words with no factual evidence to draw conclusions about Putin that fit the Collective West’s narrative regarding Putin and the Russo-Ukraine war.

    I am not concerned that Cockburn, holds these prejudices and opinions. People who share his beliefs, that he propagates using his dog-whistle are in the majority in the West. You have to suffer these people, but your shouldn’t have to read them.

    What I’m not happy about is how the editor of Scheerpost published such mendacious nonsense, which provided NO hard evidence of any of the opinions presented to appear in my inbox.

    Did the editor lose his blue pencil that day or what?

    If I want to read this stuff I’ll watch Fox News, CNN, MSNBC or even our own Australian Broadcasting Commission.

    The Russian people have done it tough for most of their history, Putin may not be perfect, but he has done a lot more for the Russian people than any of the so called liberal democracies ever did. Especially the one that calls itself the indespensible nation.

  13. I gather Mr. Cockburn isn’t familiar with the highly successful military tactic of forcing one’s opponent to fight on two fronts at the same time.

    “I never met the man, and I know nothing about him other than my personal opinion of his character based on absolutely nothing, but I feel that qualifies me to smugly determine he’s overreaching and out of his depth.” Yeah, okay. That would be bad enough. But to then compare him to a historical figure who lacked a shred of actual capability to lead a nation and came to power solely because his name?

    Go home, Mr. Cockburn. Your imperialism is showing.

  14. Demagogy shows the weakness and falsity of the position of the author of the article. There is no evidence that the Russian army committed any “atrocities” in Ukraine. All videos and photos posted on Ukrainian social networks turned out to be fakes. Moreover, this annoying demagogic message with taking the event out of context is to talk about the “attack” of Russia, and not about the true reason – the desire to ensure security.

  15. Mr Cockburn was in Moscow and heard the street talk about Putin, but so was Professor Stephen F Cohen (Cockburn is not worthy to clean Professor Cohen’s silverware). Cohen shows that Putin was not just talk, but actually accomplished the turnaround in Russian economy that restored Russia to prosperity and greatness. For this, the West will never forgive Putin, and why this regime change proxy war in Ukraine exists at all.

    1. @Ted+Tripp
      And for that economic turn around, Putin is very popular in Russia, despite U.S. lies & propaganda to the contrary.

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