What has surprised me most about the history I have lived through is how often we get dragged on demented, destructive rides by leaders who put their personal psychodramas over the public’s wellbeing. And it always feels as though we are powerless to stop the madness of these individuals, that we are trapped in their ego or libido or id or delusion.
Now comes the insanity of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who has been feeling humiliated and furious ever since the red banner of the Soviet Union came down from the Kremlin 30 years ago. This demonic little man with the puffy, Botoxy face has been watching too many episodes of The Americans during his Covid isolation.
He decided to indulge his nostalgia for the days when American children had to practise diving under their school desks; when James Bond sparred with Soviet assassin Rosa Klebb, sprouting a knife from her shoe. He longs for the shadowy era when Moscow was a menacing superpower, not a withering autocracy.
To feed cold war dreams, Putin spun a nuclear nightmare. He invaded a peaceful democracy, Ukraine, vowing consequences "you have never seen in your entire history" to those who interfered.
Putin made clear that his invasion wasn't really about Ukraine. It was about the United States
"Even by his logic, I don't see how this ends well," the New York Times's Steven Lee Myers, a former Moscow correspondent who wrote The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, told me.
"He conquers Ukraine and people declare him the tsar of all Russian lands? That's not going to happen. There's not even cheering in Russia like there was after the annexation of Crimea, which was done with almost no bloodshed. And I doubt a majority of Russians believe the propaganda about the imminent Nazi threat." (Especially since the country is run by a Jewish comedian turned courageous president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. )
As Julia Ioffe wrote in Puck, Putin stewed in his begrudging juices for decades and then rang down a new iron curtain: "Even as his forces were shelling the entirety of Ukraine – north to south, east to west – Putin made clear that his invasion wasn't really about Ukraine. It was about the United States, about history and settling old scores, and rewriting the terms of surrender, 30 years later, that ended the cold war."
On Thursday, Putin tried to justify behaving like a war criminal, saying that Russia – that is, Putin – was being treated in an “insolent”, “contemptuous” and “disdainful” way by the West.
In the midst of his "extraordinary, if predictable, doublespeak", as Roger Cohen of the New York Times called it, Putin draped the albatross of the unwarranted invasion of Iraq around America's neck: to prove that there were WMDs in Iraq, Putin said, "the US secretary of state held up a vial with white powder, publicly, for the whole world to see, assuring the international community that it was a chemical warfare agent created in Iraq. It later turned out that all of that was a fake and a sham, and that Iraq did not have any chemical weapons".
Hard to argue with that. George W Bush and Dick Cheney let their own egos, gremlins and grandiose dreams occlude reality. W wanted to outshine his father, who had decided against going into Baghdad when he fought Saddam Hussein. And Cheney wanted to kick around an Arab country after 9/11 to prove that America was a hyperpower.
Putin no doubt has contempt for the weak and malleable Trump
So they used trumped-up evidence, and Cheney taunted Colin Powell into making that fateful, bogus speech at the United Nations, chock-a-block with Cheney chicanery.
Though Donald Trump was Putin's lap dog, upending traditional Republican antipathy toward Russia, Putin no doubt has contempt for the weak and malleable Trump. Putin could have been alluding to Trump in his speech on Thursday when he accused the United States of "con-artist behaviour", adding that the US had become "an empire of lies". Certainly, Trump was the emperor of lies.
Republicans used to be so allergic to communists that George HW Bush told this story in his memoir: in his 1964 Texas Senate bid, the John Birch Society slimed him by implying that Barbara Bush's father, the president of McCall publishing, put out a communist manifesto, Redbook, the women's magazine.
As President Joe Biden marshalled world opinion against Putin, Trump offered nauseating praise of this murderer. Like the thug he so admires, Trump let his fragile ego and world-class delusions distort reality. Trump politicised the Covid response in a dangerous way. And, unable to accept the designation of Loser, he helped spread the lies and misinformation that led to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol.
In a breathtaking betrayal, the president of the United States tried to scuttle the democracy he was running; Trump abandoned the constitution he was sworn to protect.
But if Biden got no back-up on helping Ukraine from the quisling Trump, he did get a boost on Friday from his inspiring supreme court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson, who reminded us, "The United States of America is the greatest beacon of hope and democracy the world has ever known."
As for Putin's Napoleonic megalomania, perhaps Russia expert Nina Khrushcheva summed him up best in a Vanity Fair podcast: "He's a small man of 5-6 saying he's 5-7." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times