How scared should we be of Vladimir Putin?

Vladimir Putin is the authoritarian leader of a nation dominated by a corrupt oligarchy.  He is influenced by an ideology opposed to the ideals of freedom and democracy.  He appeals to Russian nationalism in a successful attempt to distract attention from his country’s unsolved problems.  I do not like Putin or what he stands for.

Putin_Valdaiclub.jpegAt the same time I think it is a big mistake for the United States to wage a proxy war with the Russian Federation in Ukraine or, worse, to risk nuclear war.

I have a good friend who has lived in Russia, understands and speaks Russian and watches Russian-language television.  She thinks Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a threat to the nations formerly under Soviet domination, to Europe as a whole and ultimately to the United States.  She tells me I am naive and misguided.

I don’t agree, but neither can I simply dismiss her arguments.  In this post I’ll put what I think are the strongest arguments for an anti-Putin foreign policy in bold face and my answers in italic.

Vladimir Putin justified Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of anti-Ukrainian rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk on the grounds that he is coming to the aid of fellow Russians.  This was the justification given by Hitler for occupying the Rhineland in 1936 and annexing the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border area of Czechoslovakia, in 1938. 

This is just the start of Putin’s territorial demands, just as it was for Hitler.  The time to stop him is now, rather than later.

Adolf Hitler laid out his plans in Mein Kampf.  He stated that he intended to wage war against France to reverse the outcome of the 1914-1918 war, then to conquer Poland, Russia and other Slavic lands to create living space for the German people.  There’s no such master plan in the writings or public statements of Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir-Putin_4Putin’s actions regarding Ukraine can be understood as a response to an anti-Russian government coming to power, and the potential threat this represents to Russian security.  The United States during the past 10 years invaded Iraq and threatens an attack on Iran based on the possibility them acquiring weapons of mass destruction and becoming a potential threat. 

From the Russian point of view, an American alliance with Ukraine would be much more of a potential threat than that.  The USA already has weapons of mass destruction, and, if Ukraine were to join NATO, they would be within striking distance of Moscow and other Russian cities. 

When Nikita Khrushchev attempted to introduce Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba, the United States risked war to prevent this threat from becoming real.  If I were Putin, I would regard the possibility of U.S. nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers off Crimea in the same way.

Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and has the right to make what alliances it chooses.  History gives the Ukrainians good reason to fear the Russians. 

The same is true of the Poles, the people of the Baltic states and all the other former subjects of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.  They all fear Russian aggression, and with good reason.

I believe in the right of self-determination.  I believe the Ukrainian people have the right to be free of domination by Russia, just as the Irish people have the right to be free of domination by Britain.  I also believe that the Russian-speaking people of Crimea, Lugansk and Donetsk have the right to separate from Ukraine, just as the people of Northern Ireland had the right to separate from the Irish Republic.

worldaccordingtoputinBut that is not the issue.  The issue is whether the United States should intervene in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Lugansk and Donetsk.  I remember being in the U.S. Army during the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and, as much as Americans sympathized with the brave Hungarian freedom fighters, we were unwilling to risk nuclear war on their behalf.  That danger is just as great now as it was then.

As for the Baltic states, the Poles, the Hungarians and others, the United States has ratified a treaty that obligates us to come to their defense if they are attacked.  We have not assumed any such obligation to Ukraine, Georgia and other nations closer to Russia.

If Russia were to invade and conquer Ukraine, it would change the balance of power in such a way as to threaten Europe.

vladimir-putin-time-magazineVladimir Putin reportedly said that, if push came to shove, the Russian army could march on Kiev in a week.  I’m sure this is so, but then American troops got to Baghdad in a very short time.  The question for Russians, as it was for us Americans, is what would happen next. 

It was one thing for Russia to conquer Crimea and support fighters in Lugansk and Donetsk, because Russians were welcomed in those areas.  The subjugation of Ukraine itself would be another matter. 

Russia lost its war with Afghanistan partly because the United States supplied resistance fighters with advanced weapons.  The USA and NATO would be just as willing to help Ukrainian resistance fighters and, even if they didn’t, Russia would still face a long war mutually destructive to itself and Ukraine.

I think Putin has sense enough to avoid a quagmire war, but if he doesn’t, it is Russia that would suffer.

Military confrontation with Russia is unnecessary.  Western countries should tighten economic sanctions until the Russian government gives in.

2014-03-07-PUTINThe United States has organized sanctions and embargoes against many countries, most of them weaker than Russia.  When have they ever worked?  I can think of only one example: South Africa.  And that is because white South Africans felt completely isolated.  Russia is not isolated.  It has good relations with China and other countries not under U.S. influence.

All-out economic warfare is destructive to both sides.  Russia has the power to cut off oil and gas to Ukraine and to much of Europe.  If this was done, Ukraine would collapse.  Putin so far has had the good sense not to do this because of the harm this would do to Russia, which needs the oil and gas revenues. 

Russia, Ukraine and Europe were, until about a year ago, part of a mutually beneficial economic web.  The destruction of this web, the breaking of logical economic relationships, has been harmful to all concerned. 

The long range effect of economic sanctions will be to force Russia to become more self-sufficient or more dependent on China or both.  This will not benefit Europe or the USA.

Vladimir Putin is stirring up Russian nationalism to distract attention from corruption and economic weakness.

Is that not also true of the government in Kiev?  And, to a certain extent, of the government in Washington?

Military confrontation is sure to whip up nationalism on all sides.  The cure for nationalism, if there is a cure, is peace.


I could be wrong in everything I’ve written here.  I link to articles below giving reasons why I could be wrong.  I claim to possess neither the power of telepathy to read President Putin’s mind nor the power of clairvoyance to foresee the future.  But this is how I see things now.


How Putin and His Cronies Stole Russia by Anne Applebaum for the New York Review of Books.  A review of Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawisha.

Russia’s objective is to increase the split between the United States and Europe, an interview of Karen Dawisha for The Ukrainian Week.

Putin’s World: Why Russia’s Showdown with the West Will Worsen by Vitaliy Katsnelson on his Inefficient Markets web log.

West struggles with Russia’s ‘ambiguous warfare’ tactics by Peter Apps for Reuters.

Putin Gambles on a Weak Ruble by Leonid Bershidsky for Bloomberg View.

Russia’s crackdown on Crimea’s Muslims by Mansur Mirovalev and Denis Sinyakov for Al Jazeera.

Washington Plays Russian Roulette by Pepe Escobar for Asia Times.  Pro-Putin.


EUROMAIDEN PRESS | News and Opinion from Across Ukraine.

The Vineyard of the Saker.  Pro-Putin.



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