GettyImages-1238684562 MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to the Jungle

As a paranoid dictator, Vladimir Putin has survived by eliminating anyone who could pose a threat to him. But now that he has triggered the survival instinct of Europe and the broader West, the world is entering a dangerous new phase of existential conflict.

BERLIN – In his 1960 book, Crowds and Power, Elias Cannetti observed that paranoid autocrats who identify as “survivors” will surround themselves with empty space so that they can see any approaching danger. The only dependable subjects are those who will allow themselves to be killed. With each execution that the dictator orders, he accrues “the strength of survival.”

How better to describe to Vladimir Putin? Russia’s autocrat prefers to sit alone at the end of a long white table – issuing ultimatums, launching invasions, and ordering the arrest (or assassination) of his political opponents. Putin has built his power through bloody wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. His survival depends on ending others’ existence.

But now, Putin has triggered others’ own survival instincts. Ukraine’s actor-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has emerged as the hero who embodies his nation’s existential struggle. NATO has been revived from its creeping “brain death.” And the European Union has suddenly been transformed from an inward-looking peace project into a community of sovereignty and security. As one senior European diplomat told me this week, “Russia is too big and too connected to us to be allowed to behave like a bully that is freed from all norms. Either our response to this war puts a stop to it or our world will collapse.”

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