It is a mistake to belittle Vladimir Putin. Dislike and distrust him, fine. Believe he is a monomaniacal empire-builder determined to restore Russia’s former colonies and holdings, OK. To snicker at his bare-chested antics, particularly with animals, is probably unavoidable. But for all that, Putin is a man with a plan that should be understood by the American government, and in particular by Victoria Neuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Instead, Ms. Neuland glibly poked at RT (Russia Today) while assuring Putin of the peaceful intentions of the U.S. and the West.
The U.S. and West are not challenging Russia; Russia chose aggression toward its neighbors and brought on sanctions.
All you have to do is look at RT’s tiny, tiny audience in the United States to understand what happens when you broadcast untruths in a media space that is full of dynamic truthful opinion. State-owned Russian media spews lies about who’s responsible for the violence [in Ukraine]. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of media in this country. The question we ask Russians is why are you so afraid of diversity of opinion in your own space?
RT’s tiny audience in the United States is irrelevant. Putin is pitching not to Americans, but rather to the only audience that matters to him – Slavic Russians in Russia. Since Putin is enormously popular with them in part because of his nationalistic aggressiveness toward the United States and NATO, Slavs help balance the growing and discontented Muslim population in southern Russia. Putin needs their continuing goodwill.
After years of 80-plus-percent popularity, Putin has two clouds on his horizon:
First, Russian casualties in Ukraine. The Russian public is no more accepting of casualties there than it was in Afghanistan. Putin told them Russia would be protecting ethnic Russians; he didn’t say anything about “boots on the ground.” He said the same about Georgia and Crimea, but those were accomplished with relatively little bloodshed. Ukraine is becoming a drawn out process, and Russian troops are directly involved. In September 2014, thousands of Russians marched in an almost unheard of protest against the war. “Our country is acting as an aggressor, like Germany in the war,” said demonstrator Konstantin Alexeyev, 35.
Putin, naturally, shifted the blame, first to NATO. “There are official divisions of the (Ukrainian) armed forces but to a great extent there are so-called voluntary nationalist battalions. This is not even an army; it’s a foreign legion. In this case it’s a foreign NATO legion,” he said.
When the U.N. declared the shelling of the Ukrainian town of Mariupol, in which at least 30 people died, to be a war crime, Putin said Kiev was responsible because it refused to withdraw its forces and open negotiations with the rebels. “Unfortunately, Ukrainian authorities are refusing a peaceful solution. They don’t want political efforts,” he told a group of Russian students.
For Putin, Russian casualties are result of the duplicity of the U.S. and the West.
Second, a collapsing economy. Western sanctions plus the collapse in the price of oil have crashed the ruble and ensured difficult times ahead for the Russian economy. There’s no real way out of that, so for Putin, economic troubles are the result of the duplicity of the U.S. and the West.
He reads his public well. People generally see Western sanctions and the poor economy not as a response to Russian aggression, but as an unwarranted attack on Russia. This has led Russians to break out their famous (infamous?) political humor. The U.S. is referred to as Pindostan, a derogatory name for a backward place, and Americans as Pindos, equally derogatory. President Obama is referred to as Maximka, the black child of a 1952 movie, rescued by Russian sailors – and in this case, Maximka grows up to be ungrateful.
Not content to feather his nest at home, Putin has frontally addressed sanctions, and the proposed additional sanctions, by telling the Obama administration what’s good for it. “Sanctions usually have a boomerang effect, and without a doubt will force U.S.-Russian relations into a corner. This is a serious blow to our relationship. And it undermines the long-term security interests of the U.S. State and its people.”
What is our “relationship”? What are the long-term interests of the U.S. and its people? One would be to respond to Russian aggression – at a minimum – by calling it what it is.
On Ukraine, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg was admirably firm. “There is no NATO legion… The foreign forces in Ukraine are Russian.” But U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power hedged. “This offensive is made in Moscow. It is waged by Russian-trained and Russian-funded separatists, who use Russian missiles and Russian tanks, who are backed up by Russian troops, and whose operations receive direct Russian assistance.”
No. It is being conducted by Russian troops.
This hedging is the norm for the administration, which appears to think it impolite to address the aggressive behavior of Russia, or Iran for that matter. Early in his first term, the president canceled plans for radar interceptors in Europe on the grounds that we wanted Putin’s cooperation on Iran (and later Syria). The Russians responded with increasing support for Iran, and then Syria, including selling Syria weapons, protecting Assad from the U.S. red lines on chemical weapons, and publicizing plans to sell Iran the S-300 missile system and new nuclear reactors.
The U.S. abandoned plans for nuclear modernization and began cuts to the defense budget that threaten American military superiority worldwide. The Russians did not reciprocate. The Jewish Policy Center wrote recently:
Russian cybercrimes have become ubiquitous, and Russia has invested heavily in a military buildup that includes modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Challenging the U.S. directly, Russian bombers entered American airspace 16 times in August and 6 times in September. In October, Russian bombers circled Europe in an unusual pattern, although the planes remained in international airspace. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu… announced plans for long-range bomber flights near U.S. shores in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.
Blaming us, threatening us, and lecturing us while building his forces and attacking his neighbors, Vladimir Putin is proving to be a master at the West’s game – a good offense being the best defense. We’re not even in the game.