Opinion

What does Putin want?

RussiaReligious ConflictsInternational Military InterventionsCivil UnrestWars and InterventionsBaltic Region

Today's question: Should the world prepare for an era of expanding Russia hegemony? How should the U.S. and its allies respond? All week, Andrew Meier and Michael C. Moynihan discuss post-Cold War Russia.

Putin's push for Western acceptancePoint: Andrew Meier
Aren't 21st century geopolitics amazing? Here we are, Michael, in the week that the Democrats will nominate an African American for president -- and we're debating Russia? Even more bizarrely, what's put U.S.-Russian relations back on center stage is a far-off province that, before this month, few Americans other than linguists who study endangered languages and military analysts who track low-intensity conflicts had ever heard of. South Ossetia is so small that you really shouldn't call it a "province." It's little more than a small town of Soviet cinder block, now nearly leveled, and a patch of sheepherders' villages.

And yet the fight there has stolen the headlines, moved Moscow and Washington into their coldest peace since Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" taunt and tipped the balance for Joe Biden -- that brash, young agent of "change."

How did we get here? If we can, Michael, figure that one out by Friday, we may begin to answer the second part of today's topic: What should the U.S. do about it?

Is Russia really intent on extending its reach beyond its borders and restoring the breadth and might of the Soviet Union? Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin's Russia is resurgent, no doubt about it. But it's not just the triumph in Georgia that's pumped up Russian pride.

While the West was averting its eyes, Russia has come back from the lowest depths. A decade ago -- on Aug. 17, 1998, otherwise known as "Black Monday" -- the Russian state devalued its currency, defaulted on its debt and fell into disgrace. Forget about a middle class; the barely sprouting business class -- that new generation of bankers, lawyers, salon-owners and aircraft makers -- sank overnight into bankruptcy. Russians rushed to stores with bags full of near-worthless rubles.

What happened in the wake of the crash? First of all, Russia weaned itself off imports, which disappeared almost immediately. Then came the great turn of luck, the skyrocketing price of crude, followed by America's war in Iraq. Now of course, the former KGB lieutenant colonel can claim little credit for either. But the economic revival will not only be Putin's legacy; it stands to go down as one of the greatest comebacks in history.

We can quote Putin on the tragic loss of the U.S.S.R., and if I can dig up my list of Putinisms on my computer's hard drive, you'll get a taste of his Soviet nostalgia and gutter humor. But Putin is, above all, a realist. He never promises more than he can deliver, as his former friends in the U.S. State Department used to say. And although he has a knack of being out of town when bad stuff goes down, he rarely hides his intentions.

Putin rose to power on the back of the second Chechen war, arguably the most brutal onslaught in Europe since World War II (the arguable part is the question of geography, not bloodshed). Now, hear me well, Michael, I'm no Putin apologist, as my books and writings on his regime make plain. But what Putin wants, ultimately, in that icy heart of his is for Russia to join what he and his compatriots longingly call "the civilized world" -- shorthand for the non-Slavic nations that boast strong cultural traditions, enduring institutions and economies that don't collapse overnight. In other words, Europe and the U.S.

Is this something we should fear? Especially at a time when NATO no longer has the guts to walk the talk of its own charter?

Andrew Meier is a former Moscow correspondent for Time magazine and the author of the new book, "The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service."

Deal cautiously with RussiaCounterpoint: Michael C. Moynihan
Andrew, you provide a succinct -- and much needed -- recapitulation of Russia's Yeltsin-era economic crises. In attempting to contextualize the political situation in Russia, countless pundits and Kremlin watchers have employed the word "humiliation" to portray a country desperate to reassert its power after the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the violent gangsterism and crony capitalism of the 1990s. Russia has been humiliated, and now it is having its revenge. And although it is true that opinion polls in the region show alarming levels of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, it seems rather more likely that seven years of economic growth (buoyed by high oil prices) and a rising middle class do more to explain the popularity of Putin's brand of authoritarian democracy and aggressive foreign policy.

This has doubtless put Russia in a better position to reassert control in its own backyard (which, during the Cold War, included the Middle East and Africa), as we have already seen during the second Chechen war, the Ukrainian election of 2004 and now the invasion of Georgia. And as countless commentators have noted, there is a distinct feeling of deja vu among Kremlinologists, though the current situation in Georgia is, contra Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in no way analogous to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979.

It is perhaps an obvious point, but one that bears repeating: Russian hegemony in 1979 included direct control over Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, the Baltics and indirect control over other "fraternal" socialist movements, allies and guerrillas in Nicaragua, Cuba, South Yemen, Syria and Angola. So if by Russian "hegemony" we are using the recent Soviet past as a point of comparison, I would argue that we are in a less urgent situation.

Whether all of this would have happened had Georgia already been a NATO member is an interesting counterfactual and raises a question about one of your key points, Andrew. You say that Putin is a realist (agreed) and that he desires inclusion in the West. I'm not so sure about the latter point, and it raises an interesting question: If Georgia had been a NATO member, would Putin's desire for Western acceptance have moderated his response?

Sure, Putin was the first person to express condolences after 9/11 and offer America assistance in fighting Islamic extremism (though in hindsight, this seems more like a cynical plan to win Western approval for his war against Chechen separatists). And we remember those chummy initial meetings with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and those days when President Bush looked into his soulful blue eyes and saw a man who loved freedom. (In his new book on the killing of Russian dissident and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, Alan Cowell reproduces a cringe-inducing Bush quote from that same U.S. trip, during which he proclaimed that Putin was "a reformer, a man who loves his country as much as I love mine; a man who loves his wife as much as I love mine; a man who loves his daughters as much as I love my daughters." Perhaps it was a reference to that hideous Sting song about Russians "loving their children too.") It could reasonably be argued -- and you allude to this -- that after the Iraq war and the rise in oil prices, Putin's interest in engaging with the United States dropped significantly.

As for how America should respond, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with the Bush administration's cautious position -- thus far, anyway. Supporting the sovereignty of former Soviet states by denouncing Russia's military actions and supporting the country's ascension to NATO is Washington's only plausible position right now. Russia knows this, which is why it took its sweet time disengaging its forces from Georgia. Indeed, recent reports have suggested that Russian soldiers are entrenching in Poti, a Black Sea port city in neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia, another breakaway area in Georgia. In other words, ignore those aggressive John Bolton opinion pieces and keep diplomatic pressure high.

Having spent some time in the area, I'd also like to make note of the actions of the Baltic countries. Although there was nothing to be diplomatically accomplished in such an action, in the days after the Russian invasion, the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed their own little version of NATO, traveling to Tblisi in a show of support. When some Georgian ministry websites were knocked offline by Russian hackers, they reappeared almost instantly on Estonian servers.

On a final note: As you mention, Andrew, there are plenty of creepy examples of Putin's Soviet nostalgia, which I suspect we will get to later in the week. Let me offer my favorite here: Not longer after succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president, Putin famously oversaw the rehanging of a plaque at the Lubyanka headquarters of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation celebrating the service of former Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov, gushing that he was an "outstanding political figure." Rather than remembering Andropov as the infirm, enfeebled leader who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev, I prefer to remember Andropov as the KGB boss who orchestrated the crushing of both the Hungarian and Czech uprisings. Now, the deification of a communist tyrant such as Andropov might not signal the renewal of a new Soviet Union, but it sure doesn't inspire confidence.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

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