March 06, 2014

An Epidemic of Putin Derangement Syndrome

Washington D.C., points beyond and assorted ‘elite opinion’ appear to be undergoing another period best described as a moronic inferno (if memory serves, an old Martin Amis phrase). The immediate cause of this epidemic of hysteria is of course Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Crimea. Mr. Putin’s actions have been compared to Adolf Hitler’s, with former Secretary of State, putative next Democratic President and dynastic doyenne Hillary Clinton peddling such comparisons (at a private fundraiser in California, of course!). Sharp—if somewhat Russophobe—voices like Zbigniew Brzezinski have made similarly hyperbolic statements--showcasing the perils of too breezy historical analogizing by even some of the brightest lights among us. It has come to the point that the Washington Post published yesterday something of a non-tongue-in-cheek primer, addressing whether dastardly Vladimir is or isn’t a “modern-day Hitler” (one positively squirms imagining impressionable imbeciles on The Hill reading such fare). And no, Crimea is not Sudetenland, nor even would potential incursions into southeastern Ukraine constitute something akin to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 (marching into Kiev—rather than exerting influence from more afar--would be a different matter, but this is not happening, nor is fanciful talk of the soi disant now newly imperiled Baltic States being invaded by Vlad the Impaler).

Subsequent to the Crimean incursion (sorry, Anschluss), Putin gave a press conference. This set-off another cacophony of mockery, piggy-backing on a phrase attributed to Angela Merkel (the meaning was probably materially distorted) that Putin was “in another world”. It was as if a madman were on the loose, and the entire planet in peril. Over at the New Republic, a hastily turned and chirpily self-assured piece of hackery poked fun at the presser. As this piece was linked to by arguably my favorite foreign affairs columnist—Gideon Rachman—I asked him via Twitter whether he was endorsing such ribald claptrap. No, Mr. Rachman advised, he doesn’t “endorse” anything (more than fair, imagine if all our links constituted endorsements, thus the near-universal and boilerplate RT ≠ endorsement caveat), but found it “an interesting take.” Well, indeed it was, to a fashion. Over at Strobe Talbott’s Twitter account—lest we forget, a former Deputy Secretary of State, Russia expert and head of an important ‘think-tank’--Mr. Talbott approvingly linked to a piece that contained this gem of hi-falutin’ fare: “perhaps, just to break the ice, Obama should solemnly promise Putin that he won’t have to have sex with a gay guy.” Impressive! Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, David Brooks weighed in on Putin’s horrific apostasy against the diktats of the West. “Putin Can’t Stop”, the piece was titled (not smoking pot, mind you), but evidently being on the cusp of becoming a “Russian ayatollah” potentially captured by a “messianic ideology” that “point(s) to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage” (if that mélange sounds somewhat familiar, congrats, you’re old enough to remember the Bush 43 years kids).

I could go on. And on. But you get the picture. Putin derangement syndrome is in full effect, no meds are apparently on proffer, and sane voices far and few between (for those interested, see Anatol Lieven here, Dimitri Simes (interviewed by John Judis) here, Stephen Cohen speaking on PBS and just for fun, my (extremely modest) contribution here. Thankfully, by the way, a real tried and true grown-up (love him or hate him) has joined the fray too, one Henry Kissinger, provisioning a dose of sobriety and realism that should be read by everyone at the State Department and other National Security instrumentalities whom are apparently instead busily conducting diplomacy-by-listicle (where as Matthew Rojanksy points out, State is effectively en passant ‘dignifying propaganda’, albeit I might add not always wholly accurately) and/or Tweet-umientos (a Susan Rice specialty, the Tweeting intensity in inverse proportion to her ability to execute any cross-agency coherent national security policy of note).

This is not the time or place to re-hash the overarching bill of equities here. Any fair observer must have sympathy for the more moderate revolutionaries of Maidan struggling for national dignity, self-determination and, perhaps more than anything, less corruption. But, alas, we must also remember hard-scrabble inhabitants of places such as Kharkiv or Donetsk; let alone Sevastopol or Simferopol, many of whom place their primary kinship with Mother Russia. Indeed, it was certainly unfortunate that one of the first acts of the new Government in Kiev was to repeal a 2012 law recognizing Russian as an official regional language. Nor does it help that Svoboda party members hold posts in the new Government, including Chairman of the National Security Council Andriy Parubiy, who worth mentioning, has a deputy (Dmytro Yarosh) who is the chief of the extreme group Right Sector.

Irrespective of the above, some quick facts require highlighting as well: Russia has profound (yes, truly, profound) historical interests in Ukraine, especially Crimea and Southern and Eastern portions of the country. Our imbecilic zero-sum policy cheerleading Kiev pivoting wholly westward was bound to cause such trouble, even before the inglorious denouement with Yanukovych’s defenestration. Amidst the radicalization of Maidan and events constituting a de facto coup d’etat in Kiev from Moscow’s vantage point (Putin had likely already written off Yanukovynch but wanted a window of time to better protect Russian interests), I began to suspect that Putin would feel he had no choice but to intervene (as I Tweeted at the time, see my linked piece above).

And more facts which must be grappled with: the United States—and even Europe’s—interests in Ukraine are far less than Russia’s. The EU and U.S. will not wholly see eye-to-eye on all the policy choices in coming days. Nor does anyone in the West have the appetite to go to war over Ukraine. So we can hand-wring about the 21st Century and international boundaries and such (albeit with our standing to do so grievously harmed by the Dubya Administration’s rogue actions in Iraq) but the fact is Crimea was a part of Russia proper as recently as 1954 (not to mention has a majority—not minority mind you—Russian population). Much like Mikheil Saakashvili’s stupendously idiotic provocations in Georgia circa 2008, Putin felt compelled pursuant to his geo-strategic framework and interests to take action in Crimea, as he’d done in Abkhazia and South Ossetia a half decade before. These have all been quite calibrated actions, and perhaps literally without a shot being fired Putin has reclaimed Crimea for Russia.

Meantime he observes the spectacle of more NATO overflights in the Baltics, or whether the storied legacy G-7 members will deign to keep Russia in the Club, or lots of loose talk about sanctions that, deep down, none of the key powers involved really want to implement (let us see if countries like Spain and Italy—or even Germany, France and the UK—end up playing ball regarding executing truly robust sanctions). If Putin continues to see a spectacle of provocative incompetence (including NATO saber-rattling, particularly counter-productive as this is one of the key historical sensitivity points and ‘victor’s justice’ lietmotifs of the end of the Cold War, and also why influence on Ukraine's future is considered an existential issue by many in Moscow), he might be likelier to escalate. He doesn’t really care a whit about the G-8, or NATO overflights in Latvia. He might care some regarding Iran-style sanctions, but as above, these will be difficult to implement, will involve blow-back risk, as well the Russians will have ample options to circumvent them. The point is it is high time to cease this empty theater.

But, make no mistake, this is a perilous moment. Inhabitants of Donetsk might be the next to ‘call’ for help (whether genuine or fabricated, or likeliest, a combination of both). What is needed instead is treating Putin like an adult—with real interests—and de-escalating the situation by forcing compromises (real ones, not Potemkin ones) from the new authorities in Kiev too, not just from Moscow, regarding special arrangements and protections for Eastern Ukraine. Putin will respond better to such serious policy, rather than gratuitous insults and peevish half-measures that will not amount to much. The reality is—and it pains me to say this as the man is deeply corrupt and an autocrat—Putin is likeliest the most exacting leader--with the possible exception of Xi Jinping--on the world stage today. With a very weak hand given the secular decline in Russia’s fortunes, where he has seen key interests (Syria, Georgia, now Ukraine) and/or propaganda value at play (Edward Snowden) he has quite consistently outmaneuvered his opponents. We are witnessing the same now.

So no, Putin is not Hitler. He is not looking to exterminate a race, march into the Baltics and/or Eastern and Central Europe, or even retake all of Ukraine, and/or otherwise act like a genocidal maniac intent on taking over an entire Continent (incidentally, how insulting these comparisons to Hitler must be to Russian ears, given their immense sacrifices beating back Nazism, far greater than America’s in terms of loss of life). He is a quite able tactician protecting key interests when he has reached a limit of patience, in ’08 with Georgia, today with Crimea given the events in Kiev. The entire focus now needs to be focused on restraining Putin from entering Eastern Ukraine proper (forget about bona fide ‘observers’ in Crimea for now, that’s done!) to mitigate further room for miscalculation and gross bloodshed such an expansion of military action could engender. If Dr. Kissinger were younger, we might dare to hope we could nominate him for such a complex task. In his absence, retire the list-icles and schoolmarm remonstrations and let us get to the hard-work of interfacing with our opponent intelligently. The stakes are high, and President Obama—whatever you make of him too—must become directly involved even more, to include further dialogue at his level with Putin, and the new authorities in Kiev.

Given the schism that has plagued Ukraine for decades and longer (between its Catholic Ukrainian speaking West and its Orthodox Russian-speaking East) federalization and/or de-centralization schemes may ultimately need to be implemented to forge a sustainable solution, as well perhaps ultimately securing an explicit commitment that Ukraine (no part of it) will ever join NATO. Maximalist incantations that Ukraine will chose all aspects of its national destiny and enjoy unfettered dominion over every square inch of its erstwhile territory, given the above realities, are simply pretense. Reality matters in geopolitics, as does pursuing policy in pursuit of a coherent end-game, not as a clanging tantrum.

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Posted by Gregory at March 6, 2014 05:45 AM | TrackBack (0)

Most appreciative of Greg's two posts (this and 3 Mar) on the Ukraine situation and the public commentary that followed. Outstanding writing (as always) and broad scope on the Russian-Ukrainian history and intricacies. True, the punditry is miserable. However, I am reading cautionary notes from several sources warning about showy reactions by the West. I have the feeling, or at least the hope, that there is a solid segment in the governments of all affected nations which will work to bring down tensions and establish a reasonably fair outcome for all parties. You might even call it Kissinger-like, which is something I didn't expect to be typing in the second decade of the twenty-first century. But who else of stature is out there?

One aspect of this whole affair that I have yet to fully comprehend is the bizarre nature of Ukraine. By language and religion, it's two completely different parts. Yet there is a unity from history and of course the occasional, arbitrary, "Here's your new borders" established by stronger entities.

Posted by: Quiddity at March 7, 2014 01:28 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

All this Hitler business is backward. It was Hitler who was behaving Russian, not the other way around -- even now. From two quarters of Russian history years ago it's my impression that Putin is cut from very traditional, historic Russian fabric.

Posted by: John Ballard at March 8, 2014 02:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the fact is Crimea was a part of the Soviet Union as recently as 1954

Surely, you meant Russia proper. Ukraine, with or without Crimea, was part of Soviet Union till 1991.

Posted by: daksya at March 10, 2014 07:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

daksya: duly corrected w/ tks. rgds, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at March 10, 2014 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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