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Vladimir Putin: Thug, Crazy Man … Or Something Else?

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We’ve heard various commentators with differing degrees of expertise calling Russian president Vladimir Putin a thug, a crazy man, a delusional tyrant, etc. in the wake of Russia’s having effectively seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.  

Mr. Putin is neither a thug nor a crazy man; he is a serious geo-political thinker with a sense of history. Admittedly, his sense of both geopolitics and history may be a bit grandiose. Further, given that we in the United States have not had a president with a sense of history or the finer points of geopolitics for decades, we may have a hard time dealing with, or even recognizing, a leader with such a perspective. 

Given Mr. Putin’s defensible view of the world, his actions in Ukraine may be reprehensible, but they are also completely understandable. I will doubtless be accused of being an apologist for Mr. Putin, but I am not. I am simply doing what most people, and even most people whose “specialty” is foreign policy, are seemingly incapable of doing:  understanding the perspective of other countries and other leaders.

The geopolitical reality is that Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula is Russia’s, and was the Soviet Union’s, only warm water port. This is the reason that Sevastopol was not part of the deal when Soviet strongman Khrushchev ceded Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. In Sevastopol, the Tsars’ dream of a warm water port were finally achieved; the Soviets were not about to give up that hard-won dream and neither are the post-Soviet Russians. 

They simply cannot tolerate Sevastopol falling into the hands of even a potentially unfriendly state.

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Further, Sevastopol, the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, is one of only two Russian bases outside Russia in conjunction with the ancillary bases also on the Crimean coast. The other is at Tartus in Syria, which explains a lot about the Russians’ “uncooperative” attitude toward Syria. Again, the Russians are not going to let either of these assets fall into potentially unfriendly hands.

The historical reality, as I explained in an earlier post, is that Russia was invaded on a large scale from the West three times in the last two centuries, each time with increasing ferocity. 

Perhaps the most salient event in Russian history, at least to the man on the street, is World War II, which resulted in anywhere from 20 to 40 million Russian deaths. Sure, many of those deaths and much of the damage was self-inflicted in a sense at the hands of the murderous Josef Stalin. And maybe some will argue, from the relative comfort of our World War II experience, that the Russians should just get over it but refuse to do so for their own political purposes. 

No doubt Russian governments keep the World War II experience alive to serve their own purposes, but keeping those memories alive takes no great effort; the memories of that endless parade of horrors are seared into the Russian people.  

No responsible Russian leader or leadership can ever allow anything like World War II to happen again. It was a hell that we, and even countries that experienced the western front of that conflict on their own territory, can never imagine. The Russians aren’t paranoid; they are wary and vigilant, and often see as subtleties distinctions that we see as incredibly clear.  

Russia was invaded from the West three times in the last 200 years. She won each time, but at great human cost. The Russians can therefore not allow the West a foothold anywhere on their borders. This is indeed unfortunate for Russia’s neighbors who may harbor no, or perhaps even some understandable ill will toward the Russians, and yet have found themselves under the oppressive Russian thumb.  

But the Russians can’t take the chance that “this time it’s different.”

Otherwise serious people accuse Mr. Putin of having a “Cold War mentality,” as if a substantial number of our politicians don’t, but I digress on the latter. They make this contention with a straight face, which is amazing.  Of course Mr. Putin has a Cold War mentality and this leads to a second historical reality. We think of the Cold War as a dark time and from our perspective, it was.  The costs of that war, not only in money, time and lives (the last when it got hot), but also in the militarization of our country and economy in the form of what President Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex,” were huge. 

From the Russian perspective, however, the Cold War was not nearly as bad. Why? Because during the Cold War, the Russians, or the Soviets, were somebody. Russia was a great superpower, one of the arbiters of world events. This was perhaps because we overestimated the capabilities of our adversary, but perception becomes reality. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, however, Russia became the economic backwater that it is today. It has a resource-based economy, much akin to the economies of countries in what we used to call the Third World. Its manufactured goods and exportable services are woefully uncompetitive. Its financial system is a joke. Its economy runs on exports of raw materials, primarily energy, to its more economically advanced neighbors.  

The former military and economic colossus has become an economic pygmy. Any wonder then, that Mr. Putin, who shares with his countrymen a longing for Russian greatness, has a “Cold War mentality”?

We don’t like Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and understandably so. Yours truly is especially annoyed by Mr. Putin’s hypocrisy as he constantly preaches non-intervention, but has no compunction about intervening in the affairs of other countries when it suits his purposes. But we ought not to dismiss Mr. Putin’s moves in Ukraine as the actions of a crazy man or a thug.  

They are, instead, the actions of a man whose understanding of his country’s geopolitical and historical realities trumps his fealty to the niceties of “international law.”