Who and What Is Vladimir Putin?
Vladimir Putin seems to have lost touch with reality, Angela Merkel reportedly told Barack Obama after speaking with the Russian president. He is “in another world.” “I agree with what Angela Merkel said … that he is in another world,” said Madeleine Albright, “It doesn’t make any sense.” John Kerry made his contribution to the bonkers theory by implying that Putin was channeling Napoleon: “You don’t just, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.”
Now that Putin has taken Crimea without firing a shot, and 95 percent of a Crimean electorate voted Sunday to reunite with Russia, do his decisions still appear irrational? Was it not predictable that Russia, a great power that had just seen its neighbor yanked out of Russia’s orbit by a U.S.-backed coup in Kiev, would move to protect a strategic position on the Black Sea she has held for two centuries? Zbigniew Brzezinski suggests that Putin is out to recreate the czarist empire. Others say Putin wants to recreate the Soviet Union and Soviet Empire.
But why would Russia, today being bled in secessionist wars by Muslim terrorists in the North Caucasus provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, want to invade and reannex giant Kazakhstan, or any other Muslim republic of the old USSR, which would ensure jihadist intervention and endless war? If we Americans want out of Afghanistan, why would Putin want to go back into Uzbekistan? Why would he want to annex Western Ukraine where hatred of Russia dates back to the forced famine of the Stalin era? To invade and occupy all of Ukraine would mean endless costs in blood and money for Moscow, the enmity of Europe, and the hostility of the United States. For what end would Russia, its population shrinking by half a million every year, want to put Russian soldiers back in Warsaw?
But if Putin is not a Russian imperialist out to re-establish Russian rule over non-Russian peoples, who and what is he?
In the estimation of this writer, Vladimir Putin is a blood-and-soil, altar-and-throne ethnonationalist who sees himself as Protector of Russia and looks on Russians abroad the way Israelis look upon Jews abroad, as people whose security is his legitimate concern. Consider the world Putin saw, from his vantage point, when he took power after the Boris Yeltsin decade. He saw a Mother Russia that had been looted by oligarchs abetted by Western crony capitalists, including Americans. He saw millions of ethnic Russians left behind, stranded, from the Baltic states to Kazakhstan. He saw a United States that had deceived Russia with its pledge not to move NATO into Eastern Europe if the Red Army would move out, and then exploited Russia’s withdrawal to bring NATO onto her front porch.
Had the neocons gotten their way, not only the Warsaw Pact nations of Central and Eastern Europe, but five of 15 republics of the USSR, including Ukraine and Georgia, would have been brought into a NATO alliance created to contain and, if need be, fight Russia. What benefits have we derived from having Estonia and Latvia as NATO allies that justify losing Russia as the friend and partner Ronald Reagan had made by the end of the Cold War? We lost Russia, but got Rumania as an ally? Who is irrational here?
Cannot we Americans, who, with our Monroe Doctrine, declared the entire Western Hemisphere off limits to the European empires—“Stay on your side of the Atlantic!”—understand how a Russian nationalist like Putin might react to U.S. F-16s and ABMs in the eastern Baltic? In 1999, we bombed Serbia for 78 days, ignoring the protests of a Russia that had gone to war for Serbia in 1914. We exploited a Security Council resolution authorizing us to go to the aid of endangered Libyans in Benghazi to launch a war and bring down the Libyan regime. We have given military aid to Syrian rebels and called for the ouster of a Syrian regime that has been Russia’s ally for decades.
At the end of the Cold War, writes ex-ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock, 80 percent of Russia’s people had a favorable opinion of the USA. A decade later, 80 percent of Russians were anti-American. That was before Putin, whose approval is now at 72 percent because he is perceived as having stood up to the Americans and answered our Kiev coup with his Crimean counter coup. America and Russia are on a collision course today over a matter—whose flag will fly over what parts of Ukraine—no Cold War president, from Truman to Reagan, would have considered any of our business.
If the people of Eastern Ukraine wish to formalize their historic, cultural and ethnic ties to Russia, and the people of Western Ukraine wish to sever all ties to Moscow and join the European Union, why not settle this politically, diplomatically and democratically, at a ballot box?