What’s Up With Putin?

Well, it looks as if Russian President Vladimir Putin has snookered President Bush – and most West European leaders as well – during the run-up to the G-8 meeting in Germany. After purposely raising the temperature of his rhetoric and suggesting that he might start re-aiming some of Russia’s missiles toward Europe, he turned up at the meeting with a mild-mannered proposal for Russia to cooperate with an American anti-missile system by sharing data from a Russian installation in Azerbaijan. Later he suggested that the installation could be, "in the south, in U.S. NATO allies such as Turkey, or even Iraq."

Ah, Russia the mediator, Russia the wise, home of international statesmen, Russia the reasonable, Russia the relevant. And most of all, Russia the Great Power, once again.

It was always more than a little strange, given the materiel involved, that Putin chose the issue of a modest anti-missile site the U.S. wants to locate in Poland and the Czech Republic. The site was slated to have about 10 missile interceptors, which wouldn’t begin to be a deterrent against the vast arsenal Russia still possesses, estimated by various authorities at between 5,000 and 7,000 missiles.

For a teeny little anti-missile installation, obviously aimed at a first-generation power with only a few missiles, as most authorities expect Iran to be in a few years, Putin saw a huge enough threat that he just might have to redirect his missiles so more were aimed at Western Europe?

Viewed from the perspective of a long-standing desire on the part of many Russian elites to return from post-communist Limbo to the ranks of Great Powers, however, the calculated temper tantrum made a certain amount of sense. To a sensible ordinary Russian citizen, of course, having enough to eat and some hope of a more comfortable life is more important than being a Great Power. But it is apparently important to the kind of people who lust for political power.

It is significant to remember that Russia was an imperial power long before the communists took over, and that the Russians who worry about such matters miss the days when everybody worried and wondered about what the Russians were up to.


Veteran international reporter Arnaud de Borchgrave of UPI put the matter cleverly in a recent column. He asked readers to: "imagine the United States and its allies had lost the Cold War. NATO has collapsed.

"Next thing we know, capitalism collapses, along with America’s two political parties. In their place springs a one-party system, known as USA, which now stands for United Socialists of America. As we lick our military, diplomatic and psychological wounds, Canada and Mexico follow our former European allies into the Warsaw Pact. France. Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries join the COMECON, the Warsaw Pact equivalent of the now defunct European Economic Community. NAFTA also folds like a house of cards and is replaced by INTER-ARTA (Inter-American Regulated Trade Association). Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela become charter members.

"The Soviet leader – Gorbachev, Yeltsin or Putin – then embarks on a triumphant tour of the former NATO capitals, including Ottawa and Mexico City, now full-fledged Warsaw Pact allies.

"Soviet hubris has led the world’s most powerful nation to punish a recalcitrant dictator in the Middle East, say, Iraq. The men in the Kremlin decide to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, roping in key satellites in a coalition of the unwilling. Oblivious to local tribal and sectarian forces, Soviet and coalition forces find themselves bogged down in another Afghanistan."


The situation for Russia is at least somewhat similar to that unlikely scenario. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became the Russian Federation and had to give up territories and countries that had had been incorporated into the multinational empire that was the Soviet Union. Think Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan.

Along the way all the countries that had been Soviet satellites – Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary – became fully independent, most of them aligning with the West, even joining NATO. NATO bombed Kosovo over Russian objections, and is on the verge of supporting Kosovan independence from Serbia, a longtime traditional Russian ally.

Is it any wonder that many Russians, at least those perched atop the slippery pole of Russian politics, have longed openly for the old glory days, whether communist or czarist? During the 1990s, with an often inattentive Yeltsin in charge and corrupt crony capitalists and gangsters dominating the economy (and oil at $15 a barrel), they seemed gone forever.

These days, with oil at $65 a barrel, Western Europe largely dependent on Russia for natural gas and the much shrewder and more calculating Vladimir Putin in charge, the dream of restoring Russia to Great Power status doesn’t seem so unlikely.

Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told me he thinks the flap over the anti-missile system wasn’t so much about the defense system as about reminding the countries of Eastern and Central Europe that Russia is back. "‘You’ve had your fun aligning with the West, but you can no longer ignore the power to the East,’ is the message Putin is sending," Mr. Carpenter said.


It shouldn’t have been too difficult to see this coming – Putin has been sending signals for over a year – and the U.S. has not handled the situation very deftly. The anti-missile sites are not essential today (or maybe ever), but instead of negotiating quietly behind the scenes with his "good friend Vladimir," the president simply announced them in an in-your-face manner. In the process, however, he put himself into a diplomatic-political box. He could hardly back down without looking weak and foolish. In addition, the idea of having U.S. missile sites (all right, anti-missile sites, but still potentially provocative military installations), while nominally supported by the leaders, was opposed by significant majorities of the Polish and Czech people in opinion polls.

Enter Vladimir Putin. He railed and ranted, arguably compared the United States to the Third Reich, brought up Gitmo and torture, and declared himself the world’s only true democrat. Bush, no stranger to bluster himself, didn’t have much of an answer except to say he would jawbone Putin. Yes, Bush could and did note the Russia has "derailed reforms." But Putin knew, given that both the Iraq war and President Bush himself are increasingly unpopular in the United States (let alone the rest of the world) that he would have the upper hand.

Then he chose to be generous and statesmanlike on the surface, acting like the wise elder brother offering his foolish and inexperienced younger sibling a way out of the conundrum he had made for himself. I could have made you eat crow or look even more foolish on the world stage, was the hardly subliminal message, but I have chosen to take the high road, to rescue you from your bumbling ineptitude – while setting the stage for the kind of anti-missile system I want rather than the version you prefer.

None of this obviates the fact that Russia, after a brief flirtation with a more open society, has become increasingly less democratic and more centralized. In the long run, a centralized economy and society is less stable than a more decentralized, market-oriented society. State management of the Russian economy is likely to degenerate into gross mismanagement over time. And sooner or later oil prices will decline or alternatives will be developed. Russia’s demographic problems – declining birth rates and life expectancy – remain. Allocating too much money to military spending runs the risk of killing the golden goose of the civilian economy.

So Russia might not have the stuff the be a Great Power over the long pull. But for now Russia is back as a major player on the world stage.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).