Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Putin’s Lectures

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center;
 Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left;
 and the commander of the Western Military
 District Anatoly Sidorov, right
March 3, 2014. Photo: AP
America and the West have had two recent experiences of Vladimir Putin’s lecture style: His New York Times letter on Syria in September last year and his March 4th press conference on Ukraine. They serve as Rorschach tests of his strategy and personality. They mix arrogance, sarcasm, disingenuousness, blatant misstatements of facts, and general disdain for democracy and the West, with a keen opportunism and single-minded focus on his and his nation’s insecurities.

In the September 2013 letter to the American people, he scolded our leaders and us for our arrogance, military interventions and our on policy in Syria in particular. Although the letter makes some valid points concerning our mistakes, it is drenched in hypocrisy of his and Russia’s culpability in the chaos, violence and extremism in Syria.

What now stands out in the letter is his condemnation of foreign intervention, namely in Iraq.

But, his latest “hour-long unscripted news conference” explaining the Russian military intervention in the Crimea is described in the New York Times as an edgy autocrat in the full glare of world opinion.

A few observations:
  • In spite of Putin’s disdain for democracy and its leaders, he has enough regard for international norms to lie about having Russian troops in Crimea.
  • Putin has worldwide ambition, but Russia has only a 36 percent international favorability rating. Putin has local power, but few international friends.
  • If one of Putin’s goals was to become the enemy of the American people, he’s hit the mark – 72% of Americans now believe Russia is an adversary (WSJ/NBC, 3-9-14). That may not change the behavior of this administration, but the 2016 presidential election and the next administration, unless something dramatically changes, expect an aggressive and hostile foreign policy toward Russia to emerge.
  • Ukrainians have not had a working system of government since its founding, but among the models of governance available, a non-Soviet-style system has majority support. Most of the public is divided between a system that leans toward a command economy with more democracy and market (29%) and a western-style democratic republic (28%) (Gallup 2014). But there is an additional grouping that would prefer either the old Soviet system (19%) or a strong authoritarian system (8%). 
  • And, of course, there are significant differences of opinion among Ukrainians by geography. The West prefers the western-style democracy by 57%. A narrow majority of the East prefers the old Soviet system (23%) or the close approximation (34%).
Putin is ambitious, he has a mission and the country currently has money. American policymakers’ effort to leave Central Europe to Europeans and pivot to Asia needs to be reevaluated in recognition of his aggressive efforts to dominate, including use of military power, the countries in the old Soviet Union. This may not be the Cold War, but it will require a more proactive and strategic European foreign policy than we’ve seen.

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