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Putin and Xi Jinping are both fighting wars of choice that could undermine their power

Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine and Xi Jinping's war to totally defeat the coronavirus are beginning to boomerang against them.

hinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin entering a hall for talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on June 5, 2019.
hinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin entering a hall for talks in the Kremlin in Moscow on June 5, 2019.Read moreAlexander Zemlianichenko / AP

Monday, May 9, is Victory Day in Russia, celebrating the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany — at a cost of 27 million Soviet citizens killed in the war.

This year, speaking from a Red Square podium at the annual military parade, Vladimir Putin will falsely proclaim Russia’s victory over Ukrainian “Nazis.” He will praise key regiments that have fought in a conflict already infamous (outside Russia) for its military failures and slaughter of civilians.

Far from marking a triumph, this year’s victory parade will expose the pitfalls that can occur when an absolute ruler rejects all critical advice in the mistaken belief that he is infallible.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping, another strongman (and key Putin supporter), is facing blowback from his own war that has gone bad. Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, aimed at totally eliminating coronavirus cases in China, has locked down major cities, including Shanghai. Xi’s misconceived battle against the virus has sent the Chinese economy into a tailspin.

» READ MORE: Nancy Pelosi deserves thanks for stating US will help Ukraine win

So history may mark May 9 as a moment when the dictatorial excesses of today’s two most powerful strongmen triggered the start of their downfall. Of course, this may just be my wishful thinking. But bear with me as I make a case for why my theory might come true.

Let’s start with Putin.

From his platform, he will tout the Russian “liberation” of Mariupol from Nazis. Never mind that the city has been totally razed by Moscow’s missiles — and tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians still cower in basements or bunkers because the Russians won’t let them leave.

Some analysts even expect Putin to invoke the Russian public’s sacrifices during World War II’s anti-Nazi battles, and to officially redefine the Ukraine invasion as a war vs. NATO, rather than a “special operation” vs. Ukrainian “Nazis.” This would enable him to call for a mass mobilization to bulk up Russian military manpower after large losses. It would aim to whip up patriotic feelings as Western sanctions begin to bite harder.

I doubt, however, that Putin can afford to expand his war. Right now he can fool much of the Russian public with state TV propaganda. But a special military draft would bring the reality of the war home to those now lulled by lies.

Nor can Putin afford to play his big card — nuclear weapons. To use even a low-yield tactical weapon would boomerang without conquering Ukraine. Putin’s main goal is to keep power; he can’t risk the reaction of a now-unified NATO to his breaking the nuclear taboo.

And it will be impossible to keep Russians in the dark forever as Ukraine fights on and the West sends heavier weapons. Western sanctions will bite harder and Russia’s economy will sink further. The small circle around Putin will grow more restless.

Putin has trapped himself. His only exit is serious talks with Ukraine that recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty and prewar borders. But the Russian leader shows no interest.

Ukraine is Putin’s Afghanistan. I recall the bitterness and cynicism among alienated young Russian soldiers who fought in that war and whom I interviewed in Moscow in the late 1980s. They and their families believed the Kremlin had betrayed them. The blowback from that war ultimately helped drag down the Soviet Union.

“Ukraine is Putin’s Afghanistan.”

Trudy Rubin

If Putin is eventually unseated, the blame will lie with his self-imposed isolation and repression of all critics, which led him into a war of his own choosing. He will have only himself to blame.

Which brings us to Xi Jinping.

Xi has also been planting the seeds of his possible undoing. He has staked his reputation on a godlike effort to totally tame the pandemic in advance of the Communist party’s National Congress, where this fall he will seek an unprecedented third term.

As a result, according to the Wall Street Journal, 45 cities with 373 million people — representing 40% of China’s gross domestic product — were under partial or full lockdown in late April. They include China’s biggest financial hub, Shanghai, where 26 million people have been suffering enforced confinement for more than five weeks. Angry citizens are finding ways to protest, even via censored media.

» READ MORE: The key to curbing Putin is shutting down Russia's corrupt money, says Bill Browder

Like Putin, Xi is refusing to face facts — in this case, the realities of science. Attempting to copy Mao Zedong’s mobilization of the masses, the Chinese leader refuses to recognize that lockdowns are mainly useful to buy time for other critical measures against the virus. He has yet to face up to the very low vaccination rate among China’s elderly. And he insists on using Chinese-made vaccines that remain less effective than those developed elsewhere.

“China did well in the beginning. It’s a disaster now,” said Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, in a recent interview with Foreign Policy. “If you just lock down and wait for the virus to disappear, it’s not going to happen.”

Xi’s insistence on his zero-COVID policy is slowing China’s growth rate, already beset by his crackdowns on the tech sector and embrace of tighter party controls over business. Foreign investors have become increasingly leery about the predictability of the Chinese market.

Yet Xi appears wedded to his unscientific war, indifferent to the repercussions on his own people and on foreign investors. He has tied his reputation to a misguided battle.

Two political strongmen, resistant to facts or advice, wedded to failing wars that could undermine their power. One can only hope.