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Nina L. Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, is the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

A grim old Soviet joke probably rings far too true to Ukrainians today. A Frenchman says, “I take the bus to work, but when I travel around Europe, I use my Peugeot.” A Russian replies, “We, too, have a wonderful system of public transportation, but when we go to Europe, we use a tank.”

That joke emerged in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev ordered tanks into Budapest to crush the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution, and reappeared in 1968, when Leonid Brezhnev sent tanks to Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. But in 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev chose not to send tanks or troops to Germany to preserve the Berlin Wall, the quip seemed set to become a thing of the past. If President Vladimir Putin has shown us anything, however, it is that we cannot believe the present, and all that matters for Russia’s future is its past.

There is good reason to believe that Mr. Putin alone is behind the Ukraine war and that not even the highest-ranking Russian officials have had much of a say. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has put forward conflicting explanations and objectives. The head of Russia’s central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, attempted to resign shortly after the invasion, but Mr. Putin refused to allow it.

As for Russia’s Federal Security Service, it seems that the FSB’s Department for Operational Information was responsible for feeding Mr. Putin the Ukrainian narrative he wanted to hear: Russia’s Slavic brothers were ready to be liberated from the Nazi collaborators and Western puppets leading their government. It probably never crossed their minds that Mr. Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine – a move clearly running counter to Russia’s interests – based on this information. But he did, and some 1,000 personnel have reportedly lost their jobs over the operation’s failure.

Those job losses extend beyond the FSB to the military, which seems also to have been kept mostly in the dark about whether, when, and why an invasion would occur. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – the longest-serving member of the government – has largely disappeared from the public eye, prompting speculation that Mr. Putin may have planned the war with his fellow former KGB officers, rather than with the military brass.

However it started, the war will probably end in one of four ways. Russia could seize control of part or all of Ukraine, but only briefly. The Russian military’s struggle to gain control over Ukrainian cities, and to keep control over the one major city it has seized, strongly suggests that it cannot sustain a long-term occupation. The disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan, which hastened the USSR’s collapse, comes to mind.

In the second scenario, Ukraine agrees to recognize Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk as Russian territories, enabling the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to churn out stories of “liberated” Ukrainians. But, even as the Putin regime claimed victory, Russia would remain a global pariah, with its economy permanently scarred by sanctions, abandoned by hundreds of global companies and increasingly devoid of young people.

In the third scenario, an increasingly frustrated Mr. Putin deploys tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, recently warned, Russia is prepared to strike against an enemy that has used only conventional weapons. Kremlin propaganda would surely present this as a victory, most likely citing America’s 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as precedent for the use of nuclear weapons to end a war – and proof that any Western criticism was rank hypocrisy.

In the final scenario, U.S. President Joe Biden gets his wish: Mr. Putin is removed from power. Given that Russia has no tradition of military coups, this is highly unlikely. Even if it did happen, the system Mr. Putin built would remain in place, sustained by the cohort of former KGB colleagues and other security goons (“siloviki”) that he has been grooming for two decades. While foreign adventurism might abate, Russians would remain isolated and oppressed.

By attacking another European country, Mr. Putin crossed a line drawn after World War II – and changed the world. But he also changed Russia from a functioning autocracy into a Stalinesque dictatorship, a country characterized by violent repression, inscrutable arbitrariness and a massive brain drain. While the fortunes of Ukraine, Europe and the rest of the world after the shooting stops remain to be seen, the outcome for Russia is all too obvious: a future as dark as its darkest past.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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