Vlad the Impaler Putin.

Vladimir Putin has proved an adept politician in several unforgiving systems.  Under Communism, Putin spent five years as a KGB officer in East Germany, then rose quickly through the intelligence bureaucracy.  When in August 1999, the ailing and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin looked around for a prime minister, the intelligence service pushed forward Putin.  The previously unknown Putin swiftly bolstered his claim to power by battering the rebellious Muslim province of Chechnya into ruins before Christmas.  Yeltsin soon designated Putin to be his successor.[1]  (Already post-Communist Russian “democracy” had begun to fail.)

American leaders soon took a strong dislike to Putin.  From the banks of the Potomac, this is easy to understand.  In domestic policy, he began transforming Russia from a proto-democracy into an authoritarian state.  He replaced the oligarchs who had seized wealth and power during the collapse of the Soviet economy with men loyal to himself.  A “free” press now exists only to the extent that it allows him to claim that everyone else has not been muzzled.  Elections have been ended for the regional governors and rigged to an uncertain extent for the national legislature, so his party now dominates the legislature.  Many of his opponents are in prison or dead under circumstances that would be “mysterious” only to a child.

In foreign policy, Putin has alarmed those who believed that Russia being “down” meant that Russia was “out.”  In addition to the blitzkrieg on Chechnya, Putin has ground away at the territory of the post-Soviet states.  First Georgia, then Ukraine felt Russian power.  In Ukraine, Putin took advantage of a revolutionary situation to seize the former Russian territory of Crimea, then sponsored a rebellion in the heavily Russian eastern districts.  Western countries imposed economic sanctions, but Putin shrugged them off and so did ordinary Russians.  In Summer 2016, Putin allied with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad regime in Syria.

Putin is deeply hostile to the United States.  The immediate roots of this hostility lie in events since 2011.  When the “Arab Spring” uprisings began, the United States abandoned its long-time ally, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, in favor of currying favor with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  When a copy-cat rebellion began in Russian-allied Syria, President Obama said that President Bashar al-Assad had to be removed from power.  When yet another rebellion began in Libya, the United States intervened to ensure the defeat of the dictator Ghaddafi, then walked away while the country burned down.  Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that there had been irregularities in the Russian parliamentary elections.  Existing Russian protest movements quickly expanded in scope.[2]  Then they were clubbed into submission.  Recently Putin launched a cyber-attack on the Clinton presidential campaign.

In the official American view, Putin is trying to discredit democracy as an alternative to authoritarianism.  The American official explanations don’t persuade.  He’s a guy who believes in vendettas.  Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov head a long list of Putin’s critics and opponents who have wound up dead.  Hillary Clinton couldn’t be killed, but she could be hampered in her desperately needy run for office.

More broadly, Putin is playing a classic game of great power politics.  Syria is a Russian client-state; he’s made a clear choice in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war; Crimea used to be part of Russia; and Ukraine is to Russia as Mexico is to the United States.  For the moment, he’s winning.

[1] “Putin’s Purpose,” The Week, 20 January 2017, p. 11.

[2] One recent study has calculated that, since 1945, the United States has tried to influence elections in 45 foreign countries.  “Noted,” The Week, 20 January, 2017, p. 16.

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