A few thoughts on Putin's "strategic genius"

Middle aged Russian man searches for his masculinity

Middle aged Russian man searches for his masculinity

It wasn't so long ago that gumflappers on both the left and right were swooning over Russian president Vladimir Putin's vim and vigor.

Pat Buchanan, that defender of all that is sacred and American, had this to say:

Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?

In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?

While such a question may be blasphemous in Western circles, consider the content of the Russian president’s state of the nation address.

With America clearly in mind, Putin declared, “In many countries today, moral and ethical norms are being reconsidered.”

“They’re now requiring not only the proper acknowledgment of freedom of conscience, political views and private life, but also the mandatory acknowledgment of the equality of good and evil.”

Translation: While privacy and freedom of thought, religion and speech are cherished rights, to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil.

No moral confusion here, this is moral clarity, agree or disagree.

President Reagan once called the old Soviet Empire “the focus of evil in the modern world.” President Putin is implying that Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.

Yes, because America is, finally, evolving beyond a blinkered social parochialism, it is now the "focus of evil in the modern world". I wonder what Mr. Buchanan's former boss Pres. Reagan would have to say about that?

Then on the left, we have the likes of Stephen Cohen, professional leftist apologist for the Putin regime. New York Magazine has a rather quick and dirty precis on Prof. Cohen:

The most prominent intellectual apologist for Putin is Stephen F. Cohen, Princeton professor, Russologist for the left-wing Nation. Cohen is a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism. The Cohen method is to pick away at every indictment of the Russian regime without directly associating himself with its various atrocities. Is Putin persecuting gays? Well, Cohen wants us to know that various Ukrainians nationalists dislike gays, too. And also Barack Obama’s claim to snub Sochi because of gay rights is probably not on the level. Is Putin bullying and killing journalists? Eh,says Cohen, “Every time a journalist breaks a leg, they say the Kremlin did it.” Accidents happen.

This Vladimir Putin must be some sort of man to unite people as supposedly disparate as Pat Buchanan and Stephen Cohen.

But, with a bit of thought, it's not that amazing that elements of right and left should view Putin as some sort of savior. What unites them is a vitriolic hatred of Barack Obama and the depths to which they view the country as having sunk. Thus on the right Putin is lavished with praise for his virility and family values. On the left, he's seen as a thorn in the side of US imperialism, and that black president who dares to work for US national interests, instead of abjectly apologizing for past US sins and ceding influence in the international sphere.

What both sides prattle about is that Pres. Putin is smarter than Pres. Obama, running rings around him diplomatically.

Yes, about that.

Let's the first flowering of Pres. Putin's genius, the settlement of the Syrian chemical weapons. Esteemed journals of left and right crowed that Mr. Putin "saved" Pres. Obama from a foreign policy blunder—the President's famous "red line".

Of course, this line doesn't withstand any cursory inspection. The threat of the use of force against Bashar al-Assad's regime was very much on the table. Even though Pres. Obama put Congress on the spot to authorize force, he still said that he had all the authority he needed to launch strikes. Pres. Putin's strong-arming of his Syrian client wasn't done out of a position of strength, but out of a fear of US carrier-based jets decimating that client's military, dealing an even more humiliating blow to Kremlin pretensions in the Middle East. Far from "saving" Pres. Obama, Russia partnered to achieve the main US goal, which was to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. Pres. Obama had said over and over that there was no military solution to the civil war—certainly not a military solution which involved US ground forces. He achieved his main objective without a shot fired, a dollar spent, or a soldier harmed. Pres. Putin got... the status quo, a slow bleeding of his client in an unwinnable war.

Pres. Putin's second diplomatic coup was his intervention in Ukraine after the revolution which ousted his creature Viktor Yanukovych. First he seized Crimea; then he supported separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia was back! It was again a Great Power!

Again, an examination of the facts belies this self-congratulation. Crimea is a sinkhole, sharing no land border with mainland Russia. It's only access to the wider world is via Ukraine. Soon Crimean Russians, eager enough at first to trade in their Ukrainian passports for Russian ones, were facing cut electricity and water, and empty market shelves, as all of life's necessities were provided from... Ukraine.

Okay, that didn't go well. But then Mr. Putin had another stroke of genius: he'd bankroll an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which would force Kiev to pull out, and Russia would have a contiguous space between the mainland and Crimea.

But you go destabilizing sovereign nations with the murderous insurgents you have, not the ones you wish you had. And that was proven to deadly effect by the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by a Russian-provided BUK missile battery.

Suddenly Mr. Putin's proxies went from being annoying chauvinists to war criminals. And the BUK battery is a sophisticated piece of equipment, probably beyond the capabilities of mere insurgents; there's a real question as to who manned and fired the fateful missile.

Pres. Putin's strategic genius has him teetering on the precipice of being an international pariah. The Soviet Union could survive the shoot down of KAL 007. Putin's Russia is more or less integrated into the world economy, and would crumble with the imposition of punishing sanctions.

The threat of sanctions against entire sectors of the economy is now very real and there are serious grounds for business to be afraid,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Russia’s prime minister during Putin’s first term as president, from 2000 to 2004, said by phone from Jurmala, Latvia. “If there will be sanctions against the entire financial sector, the economy will collapse in six months.

In less than a year, Russia has gone from bestriding the world to near-isolation, the death of 300 innocent civilians on its head. More strategic genius like this and the country won't long survive.

President Obama, as usual, allowed Pres. Putin to weave his own rope, then put it around his neck. He didn't react to the Ukraine crisis with belligerence or bluster, instead uniting Europe behind an ever-increasing ratcheting of pressure. Now Mr. Putin faces a choice: keep pursuing the will-o-the-wisp of Greater Russia, or hold on to the country he has. It's still early days as to which he'll choose. Perhaps his genius will finally manifest itself.

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