In parts of the US, gun ownership is a rite of passage. Children are given one at a certain age as a marker of their transitioning into adulthood. That, anyway, is a trauma physician’s explanation on National Public Radio of why successive administrations have failed to enact meaningful regulation of gun ownership. That is, despite daily gun violence and increasingly routine massacres, including of school children.
The physician recalled, in any case, that when he received his gun, it came with a caveat from his father: “Pray that you never have to use it, because if you ever use it, your life will never be the same.”
That, in microcosm, is the paradox of power. Guns confer power, but the owners are better off never using them. It is a paradox that even ancient kings and emperors were well aware of, at least the wiser among them. Every instance of the exercise of power exposes its underbelly and undercuts its seeming invincibility.
It is a paradox that Russian President Vladimir Putin is learning now, to his distress and that of his country. Just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin seemed to be the most powerful man in the world. Emissaries from all over Europe, including French President Emmanuel Macron, flew to Moscow to dissuade him from launching the invasion. Other leaders, such as US President Joseph Biden, tried the same through phone calls. It was to no avail.
Putin must have realised now that the greatest value of power is in its perception rather than its use. Putting it differently—borrowing from physics—power commands more awe in its potential rather than its kinetic form. Once put in action, power invites resistance that often undermines it. And the more brazen the exercise of power, the greater the resistance and likelihood of exposure.
That’s the case with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The goal—and expectation—was to rapidly overrun Ukraine and replace the government. The Russians and pretty much everyone else around the world were certain that it would be accomplished in short order. That’s why even Western countries closed their embassies and evacuated their personnel. They were acting on Russia’s potential power.
The kinetic power has turned out not to be so potent. Although Russian forces got close to Kyiv and Kharkiv — the capital and second largest city, respectively—they couldn’t advance any further. After taking enormous casualties, the troops were withdrawn and redirected to the east, which borders Russia. That was supposed to be an easier territory to take, but so far, they’ve been stymied as well.
One of the liabilities of power is the compromised ability to assess the resistance. Yet, in modern warfare, there is the David vs. Goliath phenomenon. The most powerful warship can be sunk or at least incapacitated by the equivalent of a sling shot. Jet fighters that can inflict enormous damage are now readily downed by a shoulder-fired Stinger missile. And tanks that used to be impervious to bullets are now similarly knocked off by Javelin missiles.
Accordingly, disabled Russian tanks litter the Ukrainian landscape, the Ukrainians have sunk at least one of Russia’s major warships and damaged another, and the Russians are avoiding Ukrainian airspace. Above all, up to 15,000 Russian soldiers, including several generals, have been killed in the war, according to Western estimates.
From all indications, the war has also taken a toll on Putin personally. His iconic photo is that of a man in his 70s posing shirtless on horseback, displaying a muscular physique, and grinning at the camera. Within weeks after the war started, that same man has turned frail. There are reports that he has cancer. And though he tries to conceal it, his trembling hands could be Parkinson’s.
It’s much like Nigerian leaders falling ill once they’re put on trial for abusing their power by engaging in corruption. The widespread belief is that they fake it to curry sympathy. That may be true in some cases. But as I have written some time ago, most of the sudden afflictions are probably real. Intense emotional distress often triggers illnesses that were hitherto latent or exacerbates conditions that used to be mild. In all likelihood, that is what is afflicting Putin.
The Russian president must be wondering whether it has been all worth it. He has to be wondering whether he should have tried harder to use Russia’s potential power to wrest whatever concessions he could from Ukraine and the West.
And rather than the big gamble of going for Kyiv, might they have occupied a small Ukrainian territory to boost the potential power without putting it all at risk? President Biden unintentionally suggested this option when he told reporters that the US response would be proportional to the scope of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. The Russians didn’t capitalise on that, to their distress.
The invasion has now brought about the worst of what Putin and his advisers say they feared the most: the presence of NATO at Russia’s borders. The neighbouring countries of Finland and Sweden, which had hitherto remained neutral, have now applied to join NATO. They fear that Russia might do to them what it is now doing to Ukraine.
Whether that is a reasonable fear — given Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine and the degradation of its military —is a different matter. Those countries’ decision is of itself another illustration of how power undermines itself. After blustering that Finland and Sweden would face consequences if they joined NATO, Putin subsequently conceded the inevitable by claiming that he had no problem with it, provided that NATO doesn’t install nuclear weapons in those countries. That was a humbled Putin speaking.
The paradox of power has also played out treacherously in Nigeria since 2015, when Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) was elected president. Given the prevailing sense that his predecessor was weak and ran a corrupt administration, Buhari was enthusiastically welcomed by quite a few as a strong, ascetic leader.
Alas, as his critics had warned, Buhari pursued a parochial agenda: the Fulanisation and Islamisation of all of Nigeria. He began with a proposal for cow colonies, then RUGA, and then livestock settlements. The obvious goal in all cases was to create swaths of land in the Middle Belt and the South exclusively for the Fulani. In the last two cases, the implementation was underway even before the policies were announced.
Yet the policies faced fierce resistance. So, despite his corresponding strategic appointments to the leadership of Nigeria’s security apparatus, Buhari couldn’t impose the policies. In a year or so, he will leave office without accomplishing what was apparently his primary objective in doggedly seeking to become president even after repeatedly failing.
Rather than a wholly Islamised Nigeria, Buhari will leave behind the legacy of unprecedented Islamist violence that is especially wracking his own North-West. As a candidate, Buhari repeatedly threatened to make Nigeria ungovernable if he wasn’t elected president. It is the ultimate irony that he is accomplishing that as president.
Back to Putin, who knows what exactly will become of Russia when—if—its war with Ukraine ends. What is almost certain is that it will become a much weaker country. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently warned that that is not necessarily a good thing for the West.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort town of Davos, Kissinger made the paradoxical argument that Russia is a linchpin of Europe’s security. It is currently a bulwark between the West and China, Kissinger said, and a weakened Russia is likely to form an alliance with China and create a formidable foe. So, Kissinger cautions, though a weakened Russia would seem to ever more empower the West, the power could boomerang if not exercised with prudence.