Posts Tagged ‘Putin’

Putin: a would-be Tsar of all the Russians?

May 5, 2015

russians_ethnic_94Source: University of Texas Libraries.

Back when the Ukraine crisis first broke out, I speculated that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal was to reconstitute the old Soviet Union, first by luring the former Soviet Republics into an economic “Eurasian Union” common market, and then to transform the economic union into a political union.

I then began to think, as I still think, that Putin’s policy was more a response to an external threat posed by Ukraine joining NATO and the Russian naval base at Crimea becoming a NATO base.

But there is a third possibility, and that is that Putin is trying to bring all the ethnic Russians back into the Russian Empire.  This would include not only the Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but in northern Kazakhstan.

The great Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a tract in 1990 in which he advocated a union of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, with northern Kazakhstan included in Russia, and independence for all the other Soviet republics and satellite states.

Maybe President Putin is thinking along these lines, and maybe he isn’t.  I have no power to read his mind.  But recent reports say that Kazakhstan’s leaders are worried about Russia’s ambitions and their Russian minorities.

Just as in Ukraine, there are reports of increasing Russian discontent and also increasing anti-Russian feeling.   It is easy to imagine Putin stepping in, as he did in Ukraine, to protect his fellow Russians.

The Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, among others, have large Russian minorities, and, as members of NATO, they are entitled to call upon the United States to defend them if attacked.

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What if Vladimir Putin was a nice guy?

February 26, 2015

The fundamental fallacy which is committed by almost everyone is this: “A and B hate each other, therefore one is good and the other is bad.”
        ==Bertrand Russell

Keith Gessen, an analyst of Russian politics, says Vladimir Putin is definitely not a nice guy.  He also says that, even if he were, his goals and policies wouldn’t be that much different from what they are.

Russia will, one hopes, eventually change its leadership, but it is not going to be able to change its geographic location, or its historic associations, or its longstanding wish to keep the West—which hasn’t always crossed the border bearing flowers—at bay.  And that holds many lessons for the future.

Let me be clear: The actual Putin is not at all nice.  To take just a few examples:

140801173429-exp-gps-0803-take-00030629-horizontal-gallery1) between 1999 and 2002 he prosecuted a vicious war in Chechnya, complete with rape, torture, filtration camps and mass graves;

2) in 2003, he jailed his leading rival, the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and, when the initial sentence was almost up, extended it;

3) in 2000-01, shortly after assuming the presidency, he oversaw a government takeover of the country’s main independent television channels, chasing their owners into exile;

4) over time he has enriched his friends to an astonishing degree, such that many of the leading billionaires in Russia owe their riches directly to their proximity to Putin;

5) it is becoming increasingly the consensus view that the September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk [attributed to Chechen terrorists] were the work of the secret services, and it is hard to imagine that Putin, as the prime minister of Russia and, until just a month before, the head of the FSB, would not have known about them;

6) in his third term he has unleashed the worst aspects of Russian street politics, mobilizing anti-Western, anti-gay and anti-liberal resentment to shore up his domestic popularity; and

7) in 2004, supposedly as an anti-terror measure after the terrible seizure of a school in Beslan by Chechen fighters, he canceled elections for regional governors, replacing them with appointees.

via Keith Gessen – POLITICO magazine.

His indictment could also have included the murder of journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya.

But, as Gessen pointed out, any Russian leader—and certainly any of Putin’s rivals—would have been a Russian nationalist who would have tried to restore Russia to the status of a superpower, who would have cracked down on internal opposition and who, given the experience of Russia and the USSR in the 20th century, would have resisted the expansion of Western military power to Russia’s borders.

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Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an empire in decline

February 18, 2015

In contemporary Russia … … the stage is constantly changing: the country is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away.

==Peter Pomerantsev.

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.

==Winston Churchill.

I write a lot about foreign affairs even though I have not traveled outside the USA (except to Canada) and I don’t speak, read or write any language except English.

putin.as.czarMy tools for understanding are to learn the basics by reading books and magazine articles, and then to try to imagine what I would do in the place of the citizen or leader of a foreign country.

My method obviously doesn’t yield profound insights, yet it is more than some of our leaders and analysts seem to be able to do.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about Vladimir Putin and Russia, which is my way of trying to clarify what I think.  I don’t admire Putin’s method of governing or his ideology, but I have a grudging respect for him as a Machiavellian statesman and patriot.

The other day I commented on an interesting post on the Vineyard of the Saker blog about how Russians are rallying behind Putin in the face of American and European economic warfare.

Today I read an interesting article by Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs which gave a counterbalancing point of view—Putin as a weak despot only tenuously in control of a ramshackle.

The methods Putin used to fix the corrupt, dysfunctional post-Soviet state have produced yet another corrupt, dysfunctional state. 

Putin himself complains publicly that only about 20 percent of his decisions get implemented, with the rest being ignored or circumvented unless he intervenes forcefully with the interest groups and functionaries concerned. 

But he cannot intervene directly with every boss, governor, and official in the country on every issue.  Many underlings invoke Putin’s name and do what they want. 

Personal systems of rule convey immense power on the ruler in select strategic areas—the secret police, control of cash flow—but they are ultimately ineffective and self-defeating.

This description reminds me of the China of Chiang Kai-shek or the 19th century Ottoman Empire.  Kotkin thinks that dysfunctional despotism is rooted in Russian culture and history.

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Putin couldn’t be a Hitler if he tried

February 16, 2015

In 1938, a ruthless autocrat named Adolf Hitler claimed to be protector of the Sudetenland, a border region of Czechoslovakia, in order to protect ethnic Germans who lived there.

In 2015, a ruthless autocrat named Vladimir Putin claims to be protector of the eastern border region of Ukraine in order to protect the ethnic Russians there.

putin.as.czarIs Putin another Hitler?  Would his next step be to conquer all Ukraine, as Hitler conquered all Czechoslovakia?  Would Poland be next, as it was for Hitler?

I don’t believe these are Putin’s intentions.  Everything he has done so far is consistent with his stated goal, which is for the world’s great powers to accept Russia as a peer and to take Russia’s vital interests into account.

But, for the sake of argument, suppose Putin’s aim is to reconquer eastern Europe or even all of Europe.  How could he carry it out?

The old Soviet Union was unable to pacify Afghanistan, and had to retreat in ignominious defeat.  Putin’s Russian Federation was barely able to crush the rebellion in tiny Chechnya.  How could he hope to conquer a nation as large as Ukraine?

Germany in Hitler’s time had world-class science, technology and industrial power, an efficient government and possibly the best army, man-for-man, in the world.

The Russian Federation is ruled by a corrupt oligarchy.  It lacks high-technology industry.  Its economy is based on exports of natural resources, like Venezuela’s or Iran’s.  The military potential of Putin’s Russia is not comparable to Hitler’s Germany

Russians would no doubt fight valiantly to protect their homeland, if invaded, as they always have.  They have succeeded in protecting their compatriots in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where most of the local people welcome them.   The Russian army could probably occupy Kiev as quickly as the U.S. army occupied Baghdad.

But then what?  The USA was able to quickly occupy Baghdad in 2003, but then became bogged down in a quagmire more.   A Russian conquest of Ukraine would be an even bigger quagmire.   The result would be a devastated Ukraine and a Russia that had been bled dry.

The Russian Federation has the power to destroy the USA with nuclear weapons, just as our government has the power to destroy them.  What neither country has the power to do is to defeat a determined insurgent force being armed by the other side.

Vladimir Putin is too intelligent and realistic to put Russia into such a situation situation.  I think that what he wants is a neutral and, if necessary, a neutralized Ukraine—to have enough of a foothold in that country, as in Georgia and Moldova, to prevent that country from allying itself to a hostile foreign power.

If that is his desire, I think it is completely reasonable—certainly not something for the USA to risk nuclear war over.

LINKS

What does Russia want? by James Meek for the London Review of Books.

Russian science is amazing.  So why hasn’t it taken over the world?, an interview of MIT’s Loren Graham for the Boston Globe.

Has the IMF Annexed Ukraine?, an interview of Michael Hudon for the Real News Network.  Ukraine faces other worse threats than Putin.

Don’t Arm Ukraine by John J. Mearsheimer for The New York Times.  (Hat tip to Bill Harvey).

How scared should we be of Vladimir Putin?

December 2, 2014

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.

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Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and Ukraine’s future

October 29, 2014

I don’t know Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Ukraine, but I don’t see anything that threatens the United States or is worth risking war over.

_77307916_ukraine_voters_regions_624mapUkraine held elections Sunday which evidently were won by anti-Russian, pro-European parties.  But the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk districts did not take part, and will hold their own elections this coming Sunday.

The government in Kiev objects to the Donetsk-Lugansk vote, but spokesmen for the Russian government say they’ll honor its results.

A smart Ukrainian-American friend of mine said Putin’s policy to Ukraine is the same as Hitler’s policy toward Czechoslovakia.  Hitler’s demand was to annex the Sudetenland border region, where Germans were in the majority.  But Hitler went on to annex the whole of the country and then to attack Poland, launching the Second World War.

In the same way, he said, Putin’s aim is to first annex Donetsk and Lugansk, then take over the whole of Ukraine and then move against Poland and the Baltic states.

worldaccordingtoputinAnother friend, who speaks Russian and watches Russian television, agrees with this assessment.  She said Putin is an extreme Russian nationalist and imperialist.  Russians despise other nationalities, and especially look down on Americans as naive and weak, she said; it is important to stop Russia in Ukraine and nip Putin’s ambitions in the bud.

My impression of Vladimir Putin is that he is a tough and ruthless, but realistic.  He may lie, but he doesn’t deceive himself.  As a Russian nationalist, he no doubt regards himself as the protector of Russians wherever they are, including Russians in Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan.  Putin is trying to organize something called the Eurasian Union, an economic bloc consisting of the republics of the former Soviet Union, as a rival to the European Union.  No doubt, like all Russian statesmen before him, he thinks it essential that Russia have access to the Baltic and Black seas.

I don’t see anything in this that threatens the interests of the United States or the European Union, and certainly not anything worth risking war over.

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The world according to Vladimir Putin

September 8, 2014

The following is from a January, 2012, interview with Gleb Pavlovsky, a former top adviser to Vladimir Putin, about how Putin sees the world.

worldaccordingtoputinPutin is a Soviet person who did not draw lessons from the collapse of Russia.  That is to say, he did learn lessons, but very pragmatic ones.  He understood the coming of capitalism in a Soviet way.

We were all taught that capitalism is a kingdom of demagogues, behind whom stands big money, and behind that, a military machine which aspires to control the whole world.

It’s a very clear, simple picture which I think Putin had in his head—not as an official ideology, but as a form of common sense.

His thinking was that in the Soviet Union, we were idiots; we had tried to build a fair society when we should have been making money.  If we had made more money than the western capitalists, we could have just bought them up, or we could have created a weapon which they didn’t have.

[snip]  Putin’s idea is that we should be bigger and better capitalists than the capitalists, and be more consolidated as a state: there should be maximum oneness of state and business.  A two-party system like in the US?  Wonderful, we’ll have that too.

Click on New Left Review – Gleb Pavlovsky: Putin’s World Outlook to read the whole article.