What is Vladimir Putin doing and why is he doing it? Putin has made his move into the Middle East. One of the most powerful, most calculating and richest men in the world, he has suddenly (it would seem) taken interest in the Middle East crisis. Russian air forces are attacking ISIL encampments in Syria, fighting against the enemies of Prime Minister Assad, of Syria. Coincidentally, he attacks the enemies of the U.S., which is also conducting air strikes against ISIL. So it would seem that for the moment we are on the same side. But that is certainly deceptive.
Remember that Putin has had his own Islamic problems. Some of his popularity and power comes from having defeated terrorists and separatists in the Russian Muslim state of Chechnya. The loosely affiliated but Russian-controlled state was effectively defeated by Putin-sponsored forces there by 2009. That hard-won victory helped to bolster his political image. The murder and mayhem in the long history of bad Russian-Chechnyan relations has given Putin a background that makes him quite capable of managing attacks in Syria. His main reasons, however, seem to have more to do with Europe than with the Middle East.
Let’s recall how Putin became the Prime Minister. He had been a middle-level KGB officer in St. Petersburg, (formerly Leningrad) where he was raised after the war. A bright student, he earned a degree from the law department of Leningrad University, in the mid-1970s and entered the KGB immediately. He became affiliated with the political organization of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, joined Sobchak in Moscow, “resigning” his position in the KGB.
After the fall of the Soviet Empire, the first round of conversion from Communism to Capitalism, resulting in a disastrous economy, Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin Prime Minister in 1999 and he became President in 2000. The next 8 years were among the most economically expansive and productive in the history of Russia. They were also among the most corrupt. As part of the conversion from Communism to Capitalism, major areas of government were converted to corporations. The Russian people were all given shares in those corporations. Desperately poor and lacking an understanding of private enterprise, Russian citizens often sold off their stock to manipulators who took over what became hugely valuable corporations. This is how many of the so-called Russian oligarchs were made billionaires. Yeltsin’s friends were among the first of those oligarchs.
Putin himself has been accused of owning large shares of stocks in oil and gas companies worth tens of billions. During the period in the mid-1990s, while the capitalist economy was being formed, many of the former Communist managers of steel and arms manufacturing and natural resource management, with the backing of banks, became the majority stockholders. Putin, the long-time KGB agent, knew just what deals were being made. Some of those who were involved in the conversions say that he enriched himself in the same way as many others. But there were basically two phases.
One was the period prior to 1999, roughly 1993 to 1999, before Putin was Prime Minister. Those oligarchs were primarily created under Boris Yeltsin. When Yeltsin retired and appointed Putin to run things, Putin made changes. The economy began to come together. Putin began to systematically remove Yeltsin’s “Family,” his cronies, from power and create his own. Any who did not agree, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky were threatened or jailed. (Khodorkovsky was jailed and only pardoned by Putin in 2013, long enough to make his point.) Other billionaire oligarchs, like Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Smolensky, Badri Patarkatsishvilli and Vladimir Gusinsky left the country.
But there is another set of oligarchs, close to Putin. Spinoff from their wealth, tens of billions, particularly in oil, is reputed to be the source of Putin’s own alleged billions. Men like Arkady Rotenberg, a friend and one-time Putin judo sparring partner, or Gennady Timchenko, oil billionaire, or Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s former neighbor, now a major banker and oil company investor. These are the new oligarchs and there are many more. In Russia, lines between politics and economic power are blurred. Political support can translate into financial reciprocity. It is not a parlor game. If you lose, you may decide to leave the country. If you fail to leave the country, it could be fatal.
Russia, for Putin’s own reasons, some of which may have to do with his own experience in Chechnya, has intervened in Syria to go after ISIL. Russia lost as many as 10,000 men in the fight to subdue Chechnya, and even now it is still a hotbed of intrigue and espionage.
But there is more to Putin than a reactionary response to terrorists in the Middle East. Putin is trying to get across a message that he has openly and clearly delivered directly to the American people. Putin’s recent speech was ostensibly an open letter to discuss American policy around the world, with particular emphasis on Eastern Europe, Lithuania, and some aspects of U.S. policy on the Middle East. Putin says that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has been playing an international game with no rules. Current international diplomacy is basically a game where the United States carries out its own policies, worldwide, based on the balance of power.
Putin says that this has resulted in many contradictions in world diplomacy. He implies that there have been inconsistencies leading up to resentments and potential confrontations. (This , remember, from the President of a country where the media is controlled by government and where the messages being sent out from that media have regularly called the President of the United States a “liar.” Not “words to that effect,” but the actual word “liar.”)
Putin would like the U.S. to stay out of his sphere of influence, namely, Lithuania, Georgia and preferably places like Latvia and Estonia. He sees these countries as moving closer to NATO and sees this as a threat to Russia itself. For the generation after the second world war, Eastern Europe was a buffer zone. Now NATO countries directly about Russia, with no security zone at all. President Putin may have a point. Our Congress is filled with war hawks. Our military is the largest in the world, larger than all others combined. We hear terms about our wealth and power such as “American exceptionalism.” When those words are coming from the United States Congress, creating even greater and stronger methods of warfare and using those weapons in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, perhaps an already cautious nation like Russia might be prompted to say, “enough already.”
Russia doesn’t have the military capability to fight the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain and the rest of NATO in some belligerent plan. Just as the nations of Europe want to have peace, Russia needs peace. Their national median income is lower than the average income for the poor in the United States and even lower than the poverty level in every major country in Europe. The Chinese are no longer Communist and North Korea is a pariah among nations, and would lose a war with the surrounding powers, led by the U.S. in a matter of weeks. Any real nuclear threat would result in turning North Korea into a radioactive rice paddy.
What about Russia’s military aggression? Are we going to discuss everyone’s aggressive policies or merely those of the United States? What about 40 years of aggression and domination, thousands dead in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia? Looting of Germany, after the war, not for the common good of the world, but for Russia’s personal gain. And what of Russians who were all too eager to support Communist objectives by living and suppressing freedoms in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and other members of the Eastern bloc countries? Russians and Russian spies still live in those countries. It is what they do and what they have done since Czar Alexis Romanov in the 17th Century.
Putin maintains that many of the institutions that were created many years ago to insure global peace are in need of updating. But what about the Kremlin’s non-stop spy programs around the world? How much of a speech on world peace should we trust, given that the head of the country is also the highest ranking member of the KGB (or is it KSB now?)
Putin claims that merely “balance of power” is no longer enough. He seems to be saying that the balance of power exercised unilaterally by the U.S. is not enough. The impression he leaves is that he feels this “balance of power” rings Russia like a noose. Putin seems to be saying that Russia feels pressured and wants an international conference to jointly discuss a new set of international rules that can be used to go forward. If that is how he feels, as the head of a great and, frankly, long-suffering people, he deserves to be heard and to be heard specifically about American interference and how the West and the East can work together. But he cannot simply decide to get up in the middle of a conference and walk out. He understands the difficult of creating laws and treaties. He must work at it too.
It is difficult now to rule in a powerful country where it has created an opponent with the funds and the technology to bury you ten times over. Yes, we all know the real ratios by now. And that does not even include, Germany, Great Britain, France, Poland, Hungary, Italy and those dogs on the Russian borders, many of whose leaders would love to chew at Russian pant legs…the Baltic states.
The world is a much smaller place than it was in 1945. A message can be sent around the world in a matter of minutes. People can be shot in Moscow and before the body is cold, the word has reached Washington. It is true of course that the contemptuous Americans, awarding themselves a victory in the Cold War, decided the terms of the balance of power on their own. On the other hand, President Putin is only too aware that millions of Russians under a system, good or bad, had been influenced by a political system to move outside the traditional borders of the USSR. Now they are outsiders in territories where they previously had made a new home. Life is not simple. Americans did not tell Russians to move to Czechoslovakia or Poland or Armenia. This was a Russian government decision.
Putin sees Americans as nouveau riche who do not know how to handle the windfall they have been given. It is true. Americans have squandered good will and blundered into many difficult situations. The Russians are no different from us. Rich in natural resources, they have allowed a handful of well-connected aristocratic ex-Communists to virtually rob the country of its birthright. And now the only solution from the Russian President is this charade of an international conscience, hoping to persuade the Americans to go first. It won’t work. The world has become a dangerous place because of the abdication of responsibility by leaders such as President Bush but also President Putin. The Americans have interfered in other governments. So have the Russians, although in the case of the United States, it was to make alliances that would insure that, after the Second World War, Russia, having created a military dictatorship from one end of Europe into the middle of the other, would never be able to dominate the world and hold it hostage to military oppression again. That is how it is now. Russia is no longer protected by its distances, as the U.S. is no longer protected by the oceans. There is no reason not to do what President Putin suggests. The only thing preventing it is the truth. Honesty is paramount. What Russia wants is not more land, more wealth, more people under its control. Russia want security.
Putin needs to be sincere, which he is not. And the U.S. needs to change its political leaders. Because only when both sides are honest, will Putin lay out his problems and his true view of the future. And only with a truly honest and firm (we have no reason to be any other way) United States government can we make the necessary accommodations…yes, the U.S. must make them…to begin a process of truly working together.
If countries adjacent to Russia feel that their legitimate best interests lie in affiliation with the European Union, and NATO, then this changes the balance of power that worries Putin. Does Putin speak for the Russia people? If he does, then we should listen to him. Putin asks if the community of nations should all agree to allow the United States to run around the world interfering with other countries? The answer is no, of course not. But it begs the question, who, then, should run around the world, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, stopping the massacres of women and children? Should one group of human beings be allowed to kill off whole societies because of some foolish religious fanaticism. Putin wants order. But he cannot have order by supporting despots and allowing tens of millions of people to be starved to death,, raped, and hacked to pieces. Russia should be helping in these efforts, not hindering them. Should the American President, when he could prevent it, allow monsters to torture, mutilate and murder innocents? Americans do not do this for popularity. We do it because it is right.
As the Russian President has said, the acts of Americans often lead to unintended consequences. But the inactivity of the Russian KGB-President is clear. Wealth is his goal and that of his colleagues in the Kremlin. Billions have already been taken from the Russian people. That is an internal Russian problem but it is a sad fact. The “oligarchs” as they have been called and whose wealth could have been used for better purposes, only mirror the similar problems within the United States itself. Our President has worked tirelessly not only to create world peace but has done everything legally possible to thwart inequality in his home land. And he most certainly has not spent his recent years in personal enrichment.
The Russian President conflates the foolish and aggressive U.S. – Iraq War, a criminal behavior that should result, even to this day, in the indictment and trial as war criminals of the former President and Vice President of the U.S. with other actions that have saved lives, built democracies and torn down tyrants. For the KGB-President to parade himself as some kind of moralist while condoning torture and murder of innocent people in his early years as a KGB officer, is unfair, sad and stupid. No one believes him.
The United States is not perfect. But the Russian leader should attend to his own people, with a far better lifestyle than prior to 1993, but still far, far behind the rest of the advanced countries. Even the median income of Russia, equivalent to our poorest citizens, is not representative of how much may have been stolen. In the late 1970s, when American military analysts knew that Russia could not pay its troops or find parts for its military hardware, and Ronald Reagan touted the Russians as a dangerous force…in those days we knew that Russia needed huge investments in infrastructure to being to catch up with the rest of the modern world.
It is 2015 and those investments still have not been made. The money went into the pockets of the oligarchs, first under Yeltsin and now under Putin. The KGB-President wants to pretend to an escalation in arms with the U.S., although he doesn’t really want one. He wants the return of the political image that gave him the power to build his fortune. He sees his chafing of the international situation as a way of distracting the world while once again defeating Muslims and restoring his image as a military leader. It won’t work.
Internal controls on freedom of the press and individual freedom have been tightened in recent years. This phony exaggeration of international relationships will not make the Russian people forget. Just as the doors of the monasteries and fortresses of the Czars were pulled down and the people rushed in, so will the Russian people pull Putin down if he lies to them about war and they discover the truth. Moscow has the world’s biggest population of billionaires. Corruption is rampant. The country’s huge wealth from natural resources is very unevenly spread. Russia and the United States are similar in that it is very difficult to change governments considering the ways that both systems protect the powerful.
One recent mega-deal shows the trend. Last month, state-controlled oil giant Rosneft said it would take over the number three oil producer, TNK-BP. Rosneft will buy out the current owners – four Soviet-born oligarchs and Britain’s BP – to create the world’s biggest publicly listed oil company.
At a time when Russian oil production is falling and large-scale investment is badly needed to open up new fields, the Kremlin is instead spending $55 billion in cash and shares to acquire control of a major oil company from the private sector. The question is—who benefits from the acquisition of that oil company? Is it more oligarchs? Putin needs to remember one thing. Revolution is never very far from the surface in Russia.