It’s a rainy day here in The Algarve and it promises to be a rainy several days. There’s a storm system off-shore that is doing its best to come onshore. My tranquil little channel has whitecaps. There’s a shutter banging next door. Winds are coming in at about 50 mph with gusts up to 60. In short, it’s a great day to be inside with my fuzzy socks on and my space heater by my side.
We’re coming off a week of overcast, some rain, but mostly skies obscured by dust from the Sahara. Saturday, however, was bright, warm, and sunny. A friend and I took advantage of that with a lovely riverside lunch (yes, of course wine). In fact, it seemed like all of Tavira was out, walking, dining, enjoying. The air was thick with the fragrance of orange blossoms and spring flowers. But the clouds were not far away.
As we crossed the Roman Bridge over the River Gilão, we saw that someone had put blue and yellow ribbons along each side.
Air of Uncertainty
For the past few weeks, friends in the States have been asking if I am okay or if I am worried. The entire world is watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Portugal included. I was worried enough to check the prevailing winds on the day Russia took the Chernobyl site. But other than that, I’m not worried for me.
Portugal is about as far west of Ukraine as you can get in Europe. I am probably safer here than I was sitting thirty miles away from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. I’m 2,500 miles away from Ukraine (more or less). We are concerned for the Ukraine people, not ourselves.
Unless, of course, Putin goes nuclear. I mean, that’s the big question, isn’t it?
It’s All on Putin
In 2020, rumors started flying that Putin had Parkinson’s Disease and might step down. That didn’t happen. Now the rumors are flying again: he’s exhibiting physical signs of Parkinson’s, his behavior is erratic, his reasoning is less cogent, he is keeping an odd physical distance between himself and people in the Kremlin, he has ‘roid rage, he is bloated from medications… The list goes on.
Is he ill? Certainly he exhibits the traits of a psychopath. He is organized, cold-blooded, calculating. He has no problem ordering the deaths of political enemies or innocent children. Face it: The KGB was the perfect nurturing environment for him. In that respect, he has always been ill.
Putin has had his eye on Ukraine for years. His manipulations to weaken the United States’ ties with NATO were largely successful—for four years. The miscalculation came with Trump’s loss of the 2020 election and Trump’s failure to overthrow the government on January 6th. If nothing else, Putin’s drive into Ukraine is evidence that he has cut his losses with Trump.
The question is whether or not Putin is so mentally ill that the idea of dying is enough to make him pull the plug on the world. Mutually assured destruction means little to a dying man.
How Will This End?
How the hell should I know? I’m a writer, not a military expert. But I do observe human nature and I notice patterns. I’ve had dealings with narcissists, though not on Putin’s level. They are not good sports. They do not like to lose. They do not take humiliation well. It merely makes them meaner and more dangerous.
Right now, Putin’s war machine is making very slow progress. They are suffering heavier losses than expected. Putin doesn’t grieve for dead soldiers or civilians. His army is not moving nearly as quickly as was planned. That does get Putin’s attention.
Experts estimate that over 7,000 Russian troops have been killed in the first three weeks of fighting. Compare that to the loss of 15,000 troops lost in 10 years in Afghanistan. Troop morale is low. Some crossed the border carrying MREs (already nasty) that expired in 2002. They were told that Ukrainians would welcome them with open arms. They were quickly disillusioned. Russia is using conscripts (men 18 to 27 who are required to serve for a year) with little more than 12 weeks of basic training. They have no battle experience. They are not supposed to serve outside of the country. They don’t understand why they are in Ukraine so they are not vested in the mission.
There are humiliating videos of Russian tanks being stolen by Ukrainian farmers. A Russian drone was brought down by a Ukrainian grandmother hurling a jar of pickled tomatoes (with plums). There’s a video of an older couple yelling at Russian soldiers, telling them to get lost, and the soldiers doing just that. There are videos of captured Russian soldiers calling their mothers and crying. Videos of Russian tanks out of fuel and stuck in the spring mud. People around the world are getting messages through to the Russian people about what is really happening in Ukraine. (Yelp is finally useful.) Ordinary Russian people are risking imprisonment to protest the war. These are the type of things that bug the shit out of a narcissist.
Peace talks are “progressing” but I don’t think Putin is the kind of person to start a war and four weeks later, negotiate a retreat. He needs something to save face and he’s not going to get it.
We’re Looking at You, NATO
The alternative is a NATO show of force to defend Ukraine, a non-NATO country. In 2020, Ukraine joined NATO’s “Enhanced Opportunity Partner” program and in June 2021, was approved as a member of its Membership Action Plan. It’s a rocky road to NATO membership, a journey that started in 2008. NATO is stepping lightly, lightly—no one wants to trigger World War III. Or perhaps that ship has sailed and no one wants to say it out loud. Just as Putin has put himself in a corner with this ill-fated invasion, he is simultaneously boxing in the rest of the world. A psychopath with nuclear weapons who does not like to lose is losing.
In the meantime, world-wide sanctions against Russia are decimating the economy. Putin and his friends are losing substantial amounts of money, not to mention their yachts and private jets. Russia can’t get the parts it needs to keep things running. Companies are pulling out of Russia leaving a vacuum in goods and services. The effect of the sanctions on the Russian oligarchs might have more influence on Putin than the military death count or world opinion.
The best solution will come from inside Russia, inside the Kremlin. That is for those in whatever circle of power (his inner circle, military, financial, administrative) to take Putin off the board, whether it is through pressure, coup, assassination, or a “medical incident.” There’s a reason why Putin isn’t letting anyone physically close to him and it’s not the six foot COVID rule. He’s crazy, not stupid.
In the Meantime
While rockets fall on civilians in Ukraine and the ruble falls in Russia, the world beyond governments comes together to help, person to person. Here in Portugal, there are food and supply drives—blankets, diapers, clothing, medical supplies. There are convoys from every country in Europe heading to Poland to deliver those supplies. There are buses to take refugees to new homes, homes that everyone hopes will be temporary. People are opening up their homes. They are donating what they can. Language schools are offering to teach Ukrainian refugees the local language for free. Children are greeted with stuffed toys as they cross to safety. Animal rescue groups are funding food and veterinarian services.
In short, people are demonstrating the best of themselves. They are doing that peculiarly human thing of rising above their own needs to help others.
Putin has made the mistake that psychopaths make: They don’t understand the concept of helping someone when there’s nothing to gain for themselves. They don’t calculate that people will do that because it is just not something that would occur to them. They have no real connection to other people so they don’t understand the human imperative to help one another.
It will not be military might that takes down Putin. It will be human strength.
How You Can Help*
*Thanks to mary anne em radmacher for researching these charities.