Russia is internationally isolated, its forces are stuck in the mud in Ukraine, and it faces the toughest array of economic sanctions ever imposed on a great power. Yet Russian armies continue to advance, China appears to back Vladimir Putin’s play, Ukrainian negotiators are considering concession to some Russian demands, and Europe remains vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail.
So: Is Mr. Putin a political genius we underestimate at our peril, or is he an overrated buffoon who, intoxicated by a long run of good luck, has fatally misjudged his prospects in Ukraine?
History offers another way to think about figures like Mr. Putin. Benito Mussolini had an astonishing career, creating a political movement that ruled Italy for 20 years. His methods often were morally repugnant, but the Fascist movement he created found sympathizers and imitators from Germany to Japan. There was a time when Fascist Italy looked to be leading Europe out of the “decadence” of parliamentary democracy toward a postliberal era.
But Mussolini had an Achilles’ heel. His political project of re-creating the Roman Empire couldn’t be realized. He could build the most powerful political movement in modern Italian history, he could conquer Ethiopia, he could help Franco win the Spanish Civil War, but none of it brought his goal within reach.
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