The Spy Who Stayed Out in the Cold

To understand the mess in Ukraine and the man behind it, Vladimir Putin, I have read sober, learned pieces by David Remnick in the New Yorker and David Ignatius in The Washington Post and by the former head of Georgia in The Wall Street Journal.

I have listened to talking heads disagree on the Sunday news shows and on Diane Rehm. I’ve listened to Republicans who think Obama’s weakness emboldened Putin, but then W.’s weakness must have emboldened him in Georgia and Clinton and Bush share the blame for letting him brutalize Chechnya.

Right or left, no one has a plausible course of action to offer. In short, like Omar Khayyam I “did eagerly frequent/ Doctor and Saint and heard great argument/ About it and about. But evermore/ Came out by the same door as in I went.”

In fact, no European coalition or American administration has any stomach for doing what it would take to prevent Putin from proceeding with his project of bucking up the Russians for the loss of their imperial pretensions. The Europeans want Russia’s oil so don’t favor economic sanctions and have no force to use in a show of force. America is weary of wars in faraway places where all the victories have seemed pyrrhic and may have done little to enhance our security.

So Putin will probably continue unimpeded on his path of suppressing dissent (murdering critical journalists, for example), flaying decadent modernity (criminalizing gays, jailing and siccing his pet Cossacks on outspoken girl bands), and trying to bully former satellites and Soviet Republics back under Moscow’s thumb.

The question is why Putin doesn’t devote his efforts to helping his country become a more prosperous and successful state instead of a crumbling basket case. The place is a wreck. Yes the kleptocrats at the top, including Putin himself with an estimated net worth of $70 billion, are having a fine time looting it. But the birthrate is dropping. Alcoholism is epidemic. The health statistics are those of a third world country. The economy outside the energy sector is backward and the mass of people are in the condition of serfs 150 years ago.

So what is to be done? We are dealing with a former KGB careerist who called the end of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” So his reality is clearly not ours. He abominates the West and all it stands for – democracy, rule of law, capitalism, individual free expression, self determination. He wishes us ill for having survived and thrived while the Soviet Union crumbled and failed. So he opposes us at every turn and strives to make mischief in Syria, the Middle East, Iran.

He fears further diminution of Russia’s power and role so reacts extravagantly to any wish by a former vassal state to lean to the West, to seek to join the EU or Nato. He imagines himself surrounded by ravening wolves who seek to dismember him and so his goal is not just to resist but to reassemble the empire that gave the illusion of might.

Russia is not the first country to fall low and brood on the injustice and seek to return to glory. The Fuehrer believed Germany lost the First World War not because the war was folly or because greater force was eventually massed against the Kaiser but because it was stabbed in the back by traitors from within. Similarly Putin seems to feel Russia has fallen so low not due to its own errors but due to outsiders and liked-minded enemies within. Hitler’s big lies led to an attempt at empire building and a purging of the traitors that coast millions of lives.

Putin may be able to sell his countrymen on their superiority and the outside world’s malice and hostility. That kind of demagoguery always finds an audience among the aggrieved. But the Russians aren’t likely to be as enthusiastic about the hard work it would take to rise to the challenge of compete with the West (unlike the Chinese, say) and are weary of the bloody fights Putin keeps getting them into.

So maybe he’s not Hitler but a plantation owner after Appomattox with Kossacks and KGB instead of the Klan. The defeated Confederacy too believed in a Lost Cause and blamed not their own folly but a wicked ideology that preferred industrial modernism to their chivalric feudalism and that had destroyed the slave basis of their economy. The defeated South couldn’t refight the war and win, but it could undermine the reforms of reconstruction, keep out the winners, opt for isolation rather than adaptation, oppress those inside willing to change and try to live in the past.

If that is closer to the truth of Putin’s position, the goal ought not to be to confront and defeat, but to isolate and outlast him. His project is doomed and combating it head on is not worth the blood and treasure it would cost. But that is small comfort to his own people and those on the periphery who have to live in close proximity to the death throes of an illusion.

I can’t help thinking of a high school age girl who guided a tour of Estonia not long after the end of the Soviet Union. She spoke English beautifully, was smart and charming, provided lucid and knowledgeable commentary on her homeland to a bus load of tourists and was waiting to hear if she had been accepted to attend college at Oxford. But as we were about to say good-bye her amiable face disappeared and she said with great seriousness that living under the Soviets had been hell and that they hadn’t liked giving up her lovely little country. Indeed, many still lived there. And suddenly there was fear in her eyes. “Please,” she said, “Don’t forget about us. Don’t let them come back.”

Realistically, we need to contrive to limit the mischief Putin can make and wait until his countrymen tire of living in a rotten system, but such waits can be long and the innocent victims of it ought to trouble our sleep. Sometimes realpolitik is a bitch.

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