When Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office in 2014, none would have predicted that the fatal outcome of the unrest in Ukraine would be a seemingly endless battle between government forces and separatists (which in fact is a proxy war between Russia and the West), or even the annexation of the territory of a sovereign state by an aggressive neighbor. As the world watched on in disbelief at what certainly seemed like a plot out of Hitler’s playbook, I began to wonder, “just how far would Russia- and indeed Vladimir Putin- go in this battle for supremacy?”
The country now known as Russia is the successor state of a conglomerate of 15 Soviet Republics once referred to as the USSR. After the Cold War, the USSR disintegrated in 1991 into various separate states, with Russia being chief amongst them, as it was indeed the heart and soul of the Soviet Empire. In understanding the rationale of Russian leaders from Josef Stalin, it is important to understand this little piece of history. This is because much- if not all- of the actions of Russian leaders, are hinged on their deep emotional connection to what they see as Russia’s glorious past i.e., the Soviet era, and how they can recreate that glory again, in modern times. You see, just as Adolph Hitler saw himself as the “Emperor” of the third Reich, Vladimir Putin also sees himself occupying the same sort of messianic position in present day Russia. To him, the annexation of the sovereign Ukrainian territory of Crimea into the Russian fold, is much like Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland…it is a piece in the larger portrait of a greater Russian geopolitical dominance…a rebirth of the Empire…and it is by no means the end.
An offspring of the Soviet system and a former KGB agent, Putin has been in charge in Russia since 1999, alternating positions from time-to-time between Prime Minister and President, but always very much at the helm of Russian affairs. During his acceptance speech before the Duma in 1999, he showed a deep longing for a reclaiming of Russian prestige and respect…but when he declared that “Russia’s territorial integrity is not subject to negotiations”, I guess most of the world did not understand that in essence, what Putin saw as “Russian territory”, in addition to the homeland since 1991, were also bits and pieces of the disintegrated Soviet Empire, which had now become separate sovereign states!
As I watch the game unfolding on the international political chess-board, it seems to me that the West is playing a losing game, and it has been doing so for some time now! While the West tries to be diplomatic and charming, Russia has defied the odds, and marches on undeterred. And one way by which Russia has strengthened its position, is by cementing alliances seen as abominable to the West. As the USA and the EU hit Russia with sanctions over its annexation of Crimea, Putin turned to strengthening economic alliances with China, signing on the dotted lines of a contract worth billions of dollars for the supply of Russian gas. Even the EU has had to tread softly because it is largely dependent on Russian gas. You see, one thing that Putin is highly skilled at doing, is playing “mind games” with the West. From Russia’s standpoint, anything that raises even the slightest bit of annoyance for the West is a valuable tool in Russia’s propaganda arsenal, and its actions overtime has certainly proved that. Earlier this year, Putin extended an invitation to the reclusive North Korean dictator, to attend Victory Day celebrations in Moscow’s red square. Now even though the North Korean leader eventually did not attend, an extension of the invitation alone, showed Russia’s willingness to jump into bed with strange bedfellows as a means of not just strengthening its position in other parts of the world, but also angering the West. Also as Greece tethered on the brink of economic disaster, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister at one point seemed to be dancing to the tune of some sort of economic collaboration with Russia. Vladimir Putin knew very well that at the end of the day the Russian economy could not support extending a lifeline to Greece, especially not with biting sanctions; but an opportunity for photo-ops and showmanship is something that the Russians never turn down, and Putin milked the opportunity- to the chagrin of the West- as long as it lasted! In addition, can we forget the Iranian nuclear deal? In talking about the issue, Russia has been one of the strongest supporters of the deal…especially pushing for the lifting of the weapons ban in order for it to supply weapons to Iran. You see, Russia bargains from a position of strength- or at least a pretense of it- something that the West seems incapable of doing in recent times. The only thing that brings Russia to its knees is force…strong credible force…but sadly, Barack Obama has managed to convince himself that soft-spoken diplomacy is the key to preventing aggression and achieving sustainable peace! For Russia, this is a great show of weakness, which only serves to further strengthen its aggressive position…and it will continue to act the part, as long as the West permits!
Now back to the issue of Russian glory. It is interesting to note that Putin’s popularity at home has continued to soar, even in the face of Western opposition to his antics. You see, Putin is a full-blooded Russian; and like himself, all full-blooded Russians are motivated by the glory of yesteryears. In Russia, Western opposition only serves to strengthen national resolve, and revive old battle cries of an empire that must be restored. When Russia annexed Crimea under the pretense of its so-called “Patriot Act”, majority of Russians celebrated this as not just a welcoming of the kindred back into the fold, but as a strengthening of Russia’s power, especially as it was achieved with the least amount of economic or even military strain. As I have said, Vladimir Putin is a product of the Soviet system. He is no different from Josef Stalin the brutal dictator, or Nikita Khrushchev the great showman, and he will do anything and everything within his power to solidify Russia’s global position regardless of whose Ox is gored; and his countrymen would gladly support him for as long as they have caviar, bacon and vodka! Russia is a moving train that cannot be stopped by Obama’s brand of diplomacy. In fact, even in the diplomatic sphere, Russia keeps winning. Sergei Lavrov the Russian Foreign Minister is a master diplomat. In my opinion, he is probably the best in the world today…much better than John Kerry could ever be…and he would lead Russia to many victories as it continues playing the aggressor and the mediator at the very same time! As long as the rest of the world permits!
As the world approaches a critical moment in history, we must understand that the ideological divide between the East and the West only grows larger; and in a period of increased irrationality, the danger this poses, grows ever greater. The Soviet Union may have disintegrated, but the quest for Russian supremacy certainly did not perish in the ruins. So one might ask, “how then do we stop- or at least slow down- the raging Russian Bull?” Again I will answer, only through the use of credible calculated force. The kind of force that Ronald Reagan applied in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the fall of the Berlin wall…the kind of force which John F. Kennedy applied in dealing with Nikita Khrushchev, and bringing an end to the Cuban Missile Crises. The kind of force that says what it means, and means what it says. The kind of force that always bargains from a position of strength, and shows a determination and willingness to stand in defense of its allies, and in defense of the principles of global civility. The kind of force that does not give even the slightest bit of room for acts of sabotage by would-be aggressors in different quarters. It is this kind of force which is needed today; but sadly, it is this kind of force which Barack Obama is not willing to employ!