Putin provokes … how should we respond?

In an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “Liberalism in Retreat, The Demise of a Dream,” by Dr Robin Niblett of Chatham House, he says that “Russia’s geopolitical influence has MUGSHOT-Vladimir-Putin_4reached heights unseen since the Cold War, as the country attempts to roll back liberal advances on its periphery … [and] … A Europe hobbled by institutional and economic weakness is more vulnerable to the diverse forms of pressure that Russia is currently applying, including financial support for European populist parties and threatening military maneuvers on NATO’s eastern borders. Despite Russia’s own economic weakness, Putin’s advocacy of a new European order based on cultural and national sovereignty appeals to Europe’s increasingly vocal nationalist parties, from the UK Independence Party to France’s National Front and Hungary’s Fidesz, whose leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has publicly advocated building an “illiberal state.

Small wonder, then,” Dr Niblett continues, “that the West’s opponents have interpreted calls to enlarge the liberal international order as an excuse to expand Western political power. Putin sounded this theme in October, at the annual conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, when he accused the United States of promoting globalization and security “for itself, for the few, but not for all.” It is also unsurprising that the world’s principal multilateral institution, the UN Security Council, remains frozen in the same old standoffs, riven by disagreements between China and Russia, on the one hand, and France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, on the other. As a result, liberal attempts to reform the concept of state sovereignty, such as the introduction of the notion of the responsibility to protect and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, have failed to acquire international legitimacy—take, for instance, the ongoing failure to stem the violence in Syria and the announcements in October by the governments of Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa that they will withdraw from the court. Even the Internet, which promised to foster a more liberal international order by empowering individuals instead of governments, is now increasingly dominated by ideological polarization over national firewalls, surveillance methods, and privacy violations.

Robin Niblett concludes on a somewhat optimistic note: “The countries that built the liberal international order,” he says, “are weaker today than they have been for three generations. They no longer serve as an example to others of the strength of liberal systems of economic and political governance. Autocratic governments may therefore try to establish an alternative political order, one governed by might rather than by international laws and rules … [but, he goes on to say] … liberal policymakers would be wrong to urge their countries to hunker down or resort to containment. An extended standoff between supporters of a liberal international order and those who contest it may accidentally lead to outright conflict. A better approach would be for liberal countries to prepare themselves for a period of awkward coexistence with illiberal ones, cooperating on some occasions and competing on others. The international political world will remain divided between liberals and statists for the foreseeable future, but both sets of countries will depend on a liberal international economic order for their prosperity and internal security. Time will tell whose form of government is more resilient. If history is any guide, liberal democracy remains the best bet.

Meanwhile, in Politico, Michael Crowley in a lengthy cover story, looks much more deeply at Putin and Russia as he suggests that there is more than just the “opportunistic 73951112-hyde-park-united-states-us-president-clinton-laughs-with-jpg-crop-cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpegadventurism” that I have often described at play. He begins by describing the friendly, even jovial meeting, in 1994, between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton: “Clinton,” he explains, “wanted a friendly and stable Russia as a foreign policy success story. Yeltsin needed American money to avoid a total economic collapse. When Clinton raised plans to expand the NATO alliance into eastern Europe, Yeltsin didn’t object. The men even agreed that Russia itself might one day join NATO—a concept that seems downright ludicrous today, as Putin threatens the alliance with nuclear exercises. At a press conference afterwards, the two men clowned around. Yeltsin was in an antic state that one White House aide dubbed “high jabberwocky,” while Clinton himself doubled over with laughter at his Russian friend’s playfulness … [but] … Looking back today, the scene is infused with almost unbelievable optimism: the idea that the U.S. and Russia could be military allies, with one helping the other to grow an open and truly democratic society.

But,” Mr Crowley goes on, “for one man in Russia, it symbolized a profound humiliation. Vladimir Putin was then a minor public official, serving as a deputy city functionary in St. Petersburg after ending his career as a KGB agent, withdrawn from East Germany after its communist government fell. The notion that the Soviet state in which he’d been raised and trained, whose demise he once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” had become a client state with a leader who was a source of Western amusement was stinging. It was a sting he never forgot, and when Putin met with Russian troops shortly after he took power on the first day of the new millennium, January 1, 2000, he told them their mission included “restoring Russia’s honor and dignity.

The politico story goes on to say about President Putin that: “He sees the 1990’s as one long period of humiliation—domestically and internationally,” says James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University and a former top Russia official on Clinton’s national security staff. “From Putin’s standpoint, the ‘Bill and Boris show’ was basically Boris saying yes to everything Bill wanted—and that was the U.S. basically defining the order of the world and what Russia’s place in it could be, and that Russia was too weak to do anything but go along.”

b-17Humiliation … we saw its toxic impact as one of the driving forces behind, sometimes violent, Quebec nationalism. The Chinese use it, today, as an education tool, to remind people that, for about 200 years, China was humiliated, over and over again, by the West. The list of Chinese “grievances”is long and detailed and, now and again, even based on fact. Humiliation can be a very useful tool to stir up “nationalist” emotions.

Yeltsin’s drunkenness,” Michael Crowly writes, “symbolized the self-loathing shambles to which the former superpower had been reduced. Russia was a defeated nation. It had lost the Cold War, and along with it millions of square miles of territory, as imperial possessions dating to the czarist era declared their independence. The country’s economy collapsed, impoverishing most everyone except the insiders who looted public assets. Alcoholism and prostitution boomed. Life expectancy shrank.” It is a view of Russia that many, me included, share at least in some measure. Despite its well earned reputation for high culture, big science and military courage, Russia remains, in many minds, a dim-witted, shambling giant.

Putin,” who had been appointed President of Russia in 1999 when Yeltsin resigned under pressure, “didn’t challenge the U.S. right away,” Mr Crowley adds. “In 2000 Russia was too weak for a return to confrontation, its military still a hollow shell, and distracted by the brutal Chechnya campaign. In fact he and George W. Bush got off to a chummy start, with the president famously declaring after their first meeting in June 2001 that he looked into Putin’s eyes and was “able to get a sense of his soul.” After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Putin was the first world leader to call George W. Bush, with whom he hoped to partner against Islamic terrorism—Putin’s label for what others called a Chechen independence movement.

Michael Crowley then deals with the “other half” of the Clintons, Hillary: “As secretary of state, [Hillary] Clinton played into Putin’s long-held anxieties about the U.S.—all of which were echoes of the American policies launched during her husband’s presidency, and the boozy Bill-and-Boris show of the 1990s  One was Putin’s belief that America blithely staged military interventions around the world with little regard for international—or at least Russian—opinion. Hillary Clinton had been a supporter of the 2003 Iraq War and Obama’s 2011 intervention in Libya. Putin opposed both those campaigns—and, as a paranoid autocrat, particularly resented Washington’s record of regime-change policies. It didn’t help that the Clinton name already reminded Russian officials of the 1990s U.S.-led NATO interventions in the Balkans, which many hardliners considered to be outrageous Western aggression against their Slavic brothers … [and] … Related was Hillary Clinton’s enthusiasm for NATO’s further expansion into Eastern Europe. That process was based on the well-founded idea that Eastern Europe needed—indeed, was asking for—protection from Russia aggression. But Russia’s military establishment treated it as a slow-rolling invasion of their sphere of influence.

So, there was Putin, humiliated, as a Russian, by Bill Clinton, rebuffed and, he felt, betrayed by George W Bush and brushed aside by President Obama and Hillary Clinton: humiliation turned to rage.

Putin hadn’t given up his fight,” Michael Crowley explains. “He shifted his attention from domestic political intrigue to exercising Russian power abroad—and restoring Russia to what he considers its rightful place on the global stage … [and] … After 20161022_cuk400another pro-Western uprising in Ukraine, Putin seized the country’s Crimean peninsula. He supported a pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, where combat has left nearly 10,000 people dead. And his unexpected military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s longtime chief ally in the Middle East, boxed in Obama; it has recently left him looking impotent as Russian forces join up with Syrian’s regime in a vicious campaign to drive rebel forces from Aleppo … [then] … In a March 2014 address shortly after claiming Crimea, Putin made clear that he was re-establishing Russia’s place in the global order. He said the world had to “accept the obvious fact: Russia is an independent, active participant in international affairs. Like other countries, it has its own national interests that need to be taken into account and respected.” Translation: Russia would no longer be seated at the kids’ table while Washington dictated world events … [and] … Increasingly, it has become clear that another foreign nation where Russia has exercised its new influence is the United States itself, where Hillary Clinton’s campaign was beset for months by a steady flow of stolen emails—hacked, according to U.S. intelligence officials, by agents of the Kremlin, likely at Putin’s personal direction.

4844555085_putin_vs_stalin_903555_xlargeAnd so we have Putin’s Russia today: still weak and shambling and badly governed but, equally, seething with humiliation and anger and wounded pride and memories of times when it was one of two global superpowers: feared and respected. Many, many Russians want to return to that state, it’s not just Putin, and many Russians seem to see him, as he appears to see himself, as the right man to return Russia to it’s former glory. In my opinion that cause is almost hopeless … at least, it is if Russia follows Putin’s preferred mode of operations. Russia is, potentially, a rich, productive, prosperous and powerful nation, IF it can harness all of its resources and let them reinforce one another. But oligarchs like Putin are never able to do that … it actually requires a free and open society, not a return to Stalinism.

But, Stalinism is what Putin believes and so Stalinism is what we will get.

There is nothing wrong with trying to build better, more harmonious relations with Russia, as many believe President elect Trump want to do; Churchill was right, as a general rule: “Jaw, jaw (talking) is better than war, war!” But President Putin is on a quest and, sooner or later, his goals and those of the US led West are almost certain to collide … the potential for conflict is real and dangerous.

But, Putin does not have many advantages:

  1. The West is large, rich and powerful and cohesion is not hard to manage if pressure is applied ~ right now Putin is applying pressure;
  2. Russia is surrounded by the Arctic, by Europe to the West, by the Islamic Crescent to the South and by the menacing giant of Russia’s ancient enemy, China, to the East; and
  3. Russia is not a great trading nation, it does not have important trade relations with other great and friendly powers.

Putin is provoking us, but he is doing so from a position of social, political, economic and military weakness, but, given his own and Russia’s profound sense of humiliation, it makes it more likely that he will, given an opportunity, embark upon some dangerous adventure just to try to show his own people that he is powerful, and so are they. For that reason Putin’s Russia remains the most significant threat to global peace today and it is one that the US led West would be well advised to contain by political, economic and military means … if he really wants a war we should give him a new cold war that, just like the 20th century version, he cannot hope to win.

2 thoughts on “Putin provokes … how should we respond?”

  1. Ted, thank you for a very interesting read. We would be well served to at least give the ideas you and Crowley proffer, due consideration.

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