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Putin Rides the Tide

Putin looks like he will continue to ride the tide he has set into motion for the time being. But amidst his tactical successes we can already see the signs of a looming strategic defeat.

Published on: May 15, 2014
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  • Pete

    “The very idea of prolonging one’s rule by attempting to hold one’s country and the world in the past, after all, is in itself a kind of defeat.”

    In the past? Honey, the present is as the present does.

    And then she ends up wonder if China will act up too — i.e., going back to the past I suppose.

  • wigwag

    Walter Russell Mead is fond of defining the proclivities of American leaders by pinpointing where they would reside on a quadrant consisting of Hamilton, Jefferson, Jackson and Wilson. If we apply this same paradigm to Putin (which is admittedly a little bit of a stretch), its pretty clear that Putin would end up in Andrew Jackson’s camp. Like President Jackson, President Putin has said and done some pretty objectionable things and like Jackson, Putin is fervent about standing up for the interests of the nation that he leads. Also like Jackson, Putin is not particularly interested in how his critics define his nation’s interests; from his perspective defining those interests is his job. One doesn’t have to admire Putin to wish that American leaders would stand up for American interests with as much gusto as Putin fights for Russian interests. Unfortunately, both Democratic and Republican Presidents seem to admire the Hamiltonian, the Jeffersonian and the Wilsonian schools far more than they admire Andrew Jackson.

    I was struck by two aspects of Lilia Shevtsova’s sophomoric essay. She opens by saying,

    “…imagine, if you will, a country whose political establishment and society can’t stop talking about a neighboring country. This country obsesses over teaching its neighbor how to live and angrily punishes it for its disobedience. Moreover, this country and its media are fixated on this neighbor, even to the exclusion of domestic developments. What could we say about such a country? That it has lost its way. That it doesn’t have a feel for its own sense of identity…”

    Shevtsova is talking about Russia in 2014 and its Ukraine obsession but my first thought was that she must be talking about the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s and its Cuba obsession.

    I was also struck by the fact that Shevtsova chose the format of a 13 count indictment for her essay. What is remarkable is that with the exception of item 13, almost every other allegation that she makes is incorrect.

    1) She says that Russia has chosen the path of perpetual war. Does she really believe that Russia has become more embroiled in wars during the past several decades than the West has?

    2) She says that the cost of wars will eventually exhaust a war-weary Russian public and sites polls suggesting that this is already starting to happen. Does this sound familiar? Isn’t it the American public that is war weary and disinclined to devote additional resources to foreign conflagrations? Isn’t this especially true when the foreign conflagration in question is as irrelevant to American interests as Ukraine is?

    3)The author suggests that Russian elites will only voice objections to Putin’s policies if people take to the streets? Aren’t the Russian people already taking to the streets (figuratively if not literally) to thank Putin for his approach to Ukraine rather than to castigate him for it?

    4)Shevtsova makes the proverbial guns versus butter argument; doesn’t every nation in the world have precisely this same debate and wouldn’t Russia be having it anyway no matter what Putin decided to do in Ukraine?

    5)According the Shevtsova, Russians don’t like their leaders. Can she site an example of a large, diverse nation where citizens do like their rulers? Do Russians dislike Putin more or are Americans more fed-up with Democrats and Republicans?

    6)Shevtsova believes that Russians will soon be so fed-up with Putin’s Ukraine adventure that a revolution is on the way and that when it comes, it won’t be of the “velvet” variety. Can I have some of what she’s smoking?

    7)The author can’t keep her story straight. First she tells us that Russians are bound to become so fed up that they will take to the streets to throw Putin out and then she tells us that Putin is stirring up forces to his right that will consider him to be little more than a puppy dog. I guess that Shevtsova has a clearer sense of Russian politics than Putin does. After all, he’s only the Russian President and used to be a KGB man. Those credentials are nothing compared to a Kremlinologist currently residing at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    The US, and before that the UK, has been a stabilizing influence on the world stage for the last 150 years. We’ve made mistakes certainly, but on balance this stabilizing influence has been beneficial. Nevertheless, the left has always objected to this role, as well as isolationists on the right. Today we are seeing the results when the US declines to play this role.

    Welcome to the Fall of the West, Act I.

  • Julie Leighton

    Post Soviet reconstruction and the formulation of a post-Soviet identity in Russia has neither maintained a steady trajectory nor been entirely successful; and this general imbalance is clear by the Russian media’s obsession with Ukraine.

    Putin has decided that Russian identity and patriotism are interlinked, and are defined by a series of exclusionary principles–you aren’t Russian if you aren’t heterosexual; you aren’t Russian if you don’t support the Orthodox Church; you aren’t Russian if you don’t support the Kremlin; and, more recently, you aren’t Russian if you don’t support the government’s actions in Ukraine.

    Another layer of this identity issue is based on acceptance of the government’s agenda: you aren’t a true patriot unless you support the Ministry of Education’s archaic stance on sex education; you aren’t a true patriot unless you accept that certain sectors- health, and education- must sacrifice so that the military can expand; you aren’t a true patriot unless you understand that the EU’s overtures towards Ukraine could be devastating to Russia.

    To complement this identity based on exclusion, Putin has incorporated historical events into his lexicon– WWll, the greatness of Stalin, historical justification for the Crimea annexation etc.

    So what you have is a group of people who, through a process of elimination, qualify as Russians, and a second group of people who have a common shared memory; and while there are some people who fall into both groups, the vast majority fall into one or the other, or neither.

    Because this determination of “Russianness” can be only minimally applied, the Kremlin is left scrambling. There’s a revolution happening next door, in a country that has many of the same problems, and the government has nothing to either protect itself or maintain order. It has not invested sufficiently in its people, and is now hoping that memories of past greatness will be sufficient to counteract future insurrections. In the meantime, it’s bombarding the populace with anti-Ukrainian propaganda, hoping that it will sufficiently distract them from their domestic worries and from noticing the situational similarities. The Kremlin is crossing its fingers that people won’t be able to see the forest through the trees.

    • TheBlogFodder

      Best comment on this article. Many thanks.

      • Julie Leighton

        Thank you!

  • rkuptsov

    wigwag:’The United States and Europe couldn’t fix Iraq, Afghanistan or Egypt; why should anyone believe they can fix Ukraine?’
    Ukraine is the place there West can engage and weaken revanchist Russia with relatively modest expenses before it became too late on eastern border of Poland , NATO and EU. There is completely different calculation is emerging compare even couple months ago (fix Ukraine:promotion of democracy, anti corruption and so on)

    • wigwag

      The idea that the West needs to fix Ukraine before Russia sets its sights on Poland is simply silly. Exhausting itself yet again on a hopeless reclamation project is not the best strategy for rebuilding America’s stamina for intervention in the world when that intervention is necessary. If to protect Poland we need to throw good money after bad and watch our dollars flushed down a rat hole by a society that unfortunately has little chance of achieving modernity or prosperity in the foreseeable future, than Poland is in trouble and so are we.

      Ukraine is broke, its brightest citizens have already emigrated, it has no history of liberal democracy, its energy poor, its economy is dominated by oligarchs, its government has been corrupt since the Orange Revolution and there is little reason to believe that it will ever be able to compete in an increasingly competitive world.

      Ukraine belongs with Russia; it is of the East. The idea that Ukraine will ever be anything but a drain on the already exhausted EU strains credulity. Let the EU worry about repairing Greece and the rest of its Southern Tier. Once it proves it can do that, then it can turn its gaze on Ukraine.

      Increasingly, America’s competitors will be found in the Pacific rim; wasting time, money and resources on Ukraine won’t help the United States. It won’t help Ukraine either.

      Sad as it is, Ukraine is beyond help.

  • Andrew Allison

    There’s a simple explanation for the fact that Russian television personalities, politicians, and pundits can’t stop talking about Ukraine and show not the slightest interest in anything happening in Russia itself: the Russian people are being distracted from what’s happening there.

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