Who is Europe Dealing With?

blog post 4In periods where developments in international affairs are as dynamic as now, history screams. The public dreads the prospect of global leaders repeating historical mistakes and the old rule that “as a political debate goes on, chances of referencing Adolf Hitler approach 100%” gets confirmed. With the outcome of the war in Ukraine still uncertain, more people are asking about the nature of Putin’s regime in Russia – what are its essential characteristics? Does it have a foreign policy “master plan” and, if so, how serious is it about pursuing these goals? Can we predict its behavior and what sort of comparative examples ought we to use? The fact that these questions are being raised in Europe is indicative – for these are usually first steps in dealing with an opponent.

Former Secretary of State and Democratic Party’s nominee-apparent for POTUS, Hillary Clinton, broke the ice, as the Washington Post article reports:

“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Clinton said Tuesday, according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”

When thinking about this comparison, one should keep in mind the fact of its author – Hillary Clinton is no analyst, but an (albeit unofficial) presidential hopeful in America, whose plebs gorges on fiery rhetoric. And, if she’s anything like the 2012 or the 2008 lineup of presidential candidates, she’ll say literally anything to get elected. Yet, despite these precautions, the question “are we making Neville Chamberlain’s mistake?” is a valid one to ask, even if overtly paranoid.

However, when contemplating Vladimir Putin’s future behavior in terms of the Western response to his Ukrainian endeavor, we should not overlook his own backyard. Even if the diabolical Hitlerian comparison is fair game, Putin’s power (however monopolistic by Western standards) is far from the Enabling Act of 1933. Russia is not North Korea and domestic political considerations must play a crucial role in Putin’s foreign policy. I got a feeling that this point is very frequently ignored, and that analyzing “what will Putin do” is done solely in terms of “how will he react to whatever the West does”.

To this end, I’ve found a great article, penned by Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian-American writer and scholar of international affairs (by the way, she is Nikita Khruschev’s granddaughter and has published a memoir, “The Lost Khruschev”, which appears to be a good read). Khruscheva’s article references the recent downing of Malaysia Airlines’s plane in the Donetsk area, and uses it as a paradigm for comparing the future of Putin’s administration to that of Brezhnev’s government. Other than making a wholly inadequate comparison of Crimea and Afghanistan (I’m not an expert on either region, but the line of comparison between Soviet policy on Afghanistan and Russia’s stance on Crimea seemed quite weak), the article makes several great points. Here it is:

Putin’s Tipping Point?

When incompetence in the Kremlin turns murderous, its incumbents can begin to tremble. As news of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine trickled into Russia, people with a long memory recalled the Soviet Union’s attack, 31 years ago this September, on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and its political consequences.

Back then, the Kremlin first lied to the world by saying that it had nothing to do with the missing KAL plane. Later it claimed that the South Korean jet was on an American spy mission. But, within the Soviet leadership, the incident was a tipping point. It ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort, whose inconsistent and unconvincing efforts to justify the downing of the plane proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.

Ogarkov’s ineptness (and inept mendacity), together with the mounting failure since 1979 of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, exposed the system’s advanced decrepitude. The stagnation that had begun during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule deepened after his death in 1982. His successors, first the KGB’s Yuri Andropov and then the Communist Party Central Committee’s Konstantin Chernenko, not only had one foot in the grave when they came to power, but were also completely unequipped to reform the Soviet Union.

The huge loss of life in Afghanistan (equal to the United States’ losses in Vietnam, but in a far shorter period of time) already suggested to many that the Kremlin was becoming a danger to itself; the attack on a civilian airliner seemed to confirm that emerging view. It was this realization that spurred Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, as well as support among the leadership for Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Of course, history is not destiny, but one can be sure that at least some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, if not Putin himself, have been thinking about Ogarkov’s failure and its impact on the Soviet elite. After all, Kremlin leaders, Putin included, define themselves through what was, not what could be.

Indeed, Putin’s rationale for annexing Crimea closely resembles Brezhnev’s reasoning for invading Afghanistan: to confound enemies seeking to surround the country. In 2004, speaking to Russian veterans about the Afghan invasion, Putin explained that there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border, just as in March he cited security concerns to justify his Ukrainian land grab.

In the Brezhnev era, expansionist policies reflected the country’s new energy-derived wealth. Putin’s military build-up and modernization of the past decade was also fueled by energy exports. But Russia’s latest energy windfall has masked Putin’s incompetent economic management, with growth and government revenues now entirely reliant on the hydrocarbons sector.

Moreover, Putin’s incompetence extends far beyond the economy. His security forces remain brutal and unaccountable; in some parts of the country, they have merged with criminal gangs. His managed judiciary provides no comfort to ordinary people; and the country’s military installations, submarines, oilrigs, mining shafts, hospitals, and retirement homes regularly blow up, collapse, or sink, owing to neglect and zero liability.

When public support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea wanes – as it will – his failings will shine more starkly in the light of the MH17 catastrophe. If the Russian state functioned well, Putin could continue to withstand pressure from opposition leaders. But the opposition’s charge that Putin’s regime is composed of “swindlers and thieves” will resonate more strongly, because Russians can now see the results all around them.

By making himself, in effect, the state, Putin, like the gerontocracy that collapsed with Gorbachev’s rise, is increasingly viewed as responsible for all state failures. And though thoughtful Russians may be hostages to Putin’s arrogance and blunders, the rest of the world is not. Indeed, his partners – particularly the other BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) – are now unlikely to be able to turn a blind eye to his contempt for international law and for his neighbors’ national sovereignty, as they did during their recent Brazilian summit. And Europe’s last blinders about Putin seem to have fallen, with the result that serious sanctions are almost certain to be imposed.

Putin is only 61, a decade younger than the leaders who led the Soviet Union to the precipice, and the constitution permits him to remain in power for at least another ten years. But with GDP up by just 1.3% in 2013 – and with sanctions likely to hasten the economy’s decline – patriotic pride will not be able to shield him much longer.

By overplaying its hand in Afghanistan and lying to the world about the downing of KAL 007, the Soviet regime exposed and accelerated the rot that made its collapse inevitable. There is no reason to believe in a different fate for Putin’s effort to re-establish Russia as an imperial power.

You can read the article in its original form here, at “Project Syndicate”.

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