The musician and actress Selena Gomez has twice as many followers on Instagram — over 298 million — as Russia has citizens. Yes, Vladimir, I can hear you laughing from here and echoing Stalin’s quip about the pope: “How many divisions does Selena Gomez have?”
She has none. But she is an influencer with followers, and there are thousands and thousands of Selenas out there on the World Wide Web, including Russian celebrities who are posting on Instagram about their opposition to the war. And while they cannot roll back your tanks, they can make every leader in the West roll up the red carpet to you, so you, and your cronies, can never travel to their countries. You are now officially a global pariah. I hope you like Chinese and North Korean food.
For all these reasons, at this early stage, I will venture only one prediction about Putin: Vladimir, the first day of this war was the best day of the rest of your life. I have no doubt that in the near term, your military will prevail, but in the long run leaders who try to bury the future with the past don’t do well. In the long run, your name will live in infamy.
I know, I know, Vladimir, you don’t care — no more than you care that you started this war in the middle of a raging pandemic. And I have to admit that that is what is most scary about this World War Wired. The long run can be a long way away and the rest of us are not insulated from your madness. That is, I wish that I could blithely predict that Ukraine will be Putin’s Waterloo — and his alone. But I can’t, because in our wired world, what happens in Waterloo doesn’t stay in Waterloo.
Indeed, if you ask me what is the most dangerous aspect of today’s world, I’d say it is the fact that Putin has more unchecked power than any other Russian leader since Stalin. And Xi has more unchecked power than any other Chinese leader since Mao. But in Stalin’s day, his excesses were largely confined to Russia and the borderlands he controlled. And in Mao’s day, China was so isolated, his excesses only touched the Chinese people.
Not anymore — today’s world is resting on two simultaneous extremes: Never have the leaders of two of the three most powerful nuclear nations — Putin and Xi — had more unchecked power and never have more people from one end of the world to the other been wired together with fewer and fewer buffers. So, what those two leaders decide to do with their unchecked power will touch virtually all of us directly or indirectly.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is our first real taste of how crazy and unstable this kind of wired world can get. It will not be our last.