06 June 2007

What is Putin up to?

The increasing rhetorical belligerence of the Russian regime raises the question of what exactly Putin is trying to accomplish. The most recent example seems especially baffling. The US, along with the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic, wants to install anti-missile defenses in those countries. Putin vehemently objects, claiming that the missiles are in some way directed against Russia; the regime has even threatened to aim Russian nuclear missiles at targets in Europe if the plan goes through (a symbolic step of much less real importance than it might appear, since nuclear missiles can be re-targeted in a matter of minutes, and Europe would inevitably be involved in any nuclear conflict between the US and Russia, whether missiles had been aimed there before the conflict or not). Russia has also recently tested new ballistic and cruise missiles which, it claims, can penetrate any missile-defense system.

What's really going on here?

First, it is simply not possible that Putin really believes that the US anti-missile system is directed against Russia. Even if it were to work perfectly, it would be totally useless at stopping an attack by a huge nuclear arsenal such as Russia's. It would be effective only against isolated missile launches such as those of which Iran may be capable. Russia has no shortage of missile experts, so Putin undoubtedly knows this.

I think the regime's aggressive rhetoric has to be understood in the context of its recent actions toward Estonia and of its efforts to convert its position as major supplier of fossil fuels to Europe into political leverage. Like France, Russia is having difficulty coming to terms with its fall from superpower status (especially since that status was far more real, and far more recent, for Russia than for France). Inevitably, there are elements in Russia -- elements to which Putin certainly belongs -- who want to re-assert Russia's power, especially its dominance over the countries which were part of its empire in Soviet times. Poland and the Czech Republic, like Estonia, fall into the latter category. The increasing American military presence in those countries -- not only the proposed anti-missile system, but the fact that most of the ex-Warsaw-Pact states and even the Baltic states have joined NATO -- is resented because it takes those countries "off the table", making them practically immune to being incorporated into a revived Russian zone of domination. By forcing those countries to bow to Russia's will in some area -- any area -- the regime would convince itself (and perhaps more importantly, the Russian people) that its dominance is being re-asserted.

What the regime does not seem to understand is the intensity of other eastern European nations' determination never to allow themselves to be forced into such a position. Even tiny Estonia, a former constituent republic of the USSR which borders on Russia and is far from the centers of Western power, did not knuckle under. It is very unlikely that larger countries such as strongly-nationalistic Poland will do so either. Even western Europe, which many American conservatives claim is so feeble that it is doomed to be taken over by a bunch of loudmouth mullahs in a matter of decades, has reacted by pushing for greater energy independence. It may be significant that western Europe's two new pro-American leaders were touched personally by Soviet domination -- Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany, while Nicolas Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian refugee. Every effort by Putin's Russia to bully its neighbors will merely frighten them and drive them closer to the United States, which they see as the strongest potential protector of their independence.

In short, the Russian regime's efforts to browbeat its neighbors seem doomed to produce nothing but a series of embarrassing failures, with the Estonian confrontation being only the first.

It is understandable that any country wants to maximize its power. It is even more understandable that Putin is popular among the Russian people, who want their country's power to be respected, and who have grown far more prosperous under his rule than they were during the chaotic Yeltsin period (and remain much freer than they were under Communism). But it is essential, for them and for us, that they realize that Putin's approach to foreign affairs is not the way. It will lead only to Russia becoming isolated and losing what it has gained. Furthermore, the real existential threats to Russia come from Islam and China (which are, note, also adversaries of the US), not from the West. It is not in Russia's interest to foment pointless and artificial conflicts with the West.

Every ex-superpower faces a choice. It can join the US-dominated global system as an ally, or it can stand outside that system and try to assert itself as a rival. Britain and Japan chose the first option a long time ago. France, in this year's election, may finally have chosen it. Russia is about to learn that the second option is a dead end. And the sooner the better, because Russia joining the American camp would be the best thing that could possibly happen for both countries and for Western civilization in general.

I've thought for a long time that what Russia really needs is something like the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, where popular protests against an obviously-rigged election led to a peaceful transition to democracy in a country very culturally similar to Russia. Given the Russian people's nostalgia for superpower status (something which Ukraine, as such, never had in the first place) and the regime's ability to buy popular support with fossil-fuel revenues, the likelihood of such a thing has been looking remote lately. But if Putin bulls ahead and leads Russia into a series of embarrassing foreign-policy disasters between now and next year's Presidential "election" (which will undoubtedly be rigged in favor of his chosen successor), he just might manage to awaken his subjects in a way he never expected.

Update (7 June): Bush is adopting a conciliatory tone and offering to open the anti-missile system to Russian inspectors. Responding to Putin's belligerence, Latvia (another tiny ex-Soviet republic sharing a common border with Russia) is offering to host American missiles.

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