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When The Godfather opened, fifty years ago this month, one thing that really made it hit home to so many Americans, especially “white ethnics” like me, and probably many of you, was its sense of rough urban justice; when crime is out of control and the police can’t or won’t protect you, there’s a strongman who’ll stand up for you and avenge the humiliations and injustices you’ve suffered, even if there’s always a price to be paid.
That was New York City in the Seventies; painfully aware of how far it had fallen, aware and bitter about how much of it had been the city’s own fault, defensive and angry about having it rubbed in our faces by outsiders.
And that’s also the story of Russia in the Nineties. To many of the working class Russians who experienced them, Putin is Don Corleone; sure, they’ll say, his methods are undeniably rough, but it’s a tough neighborhood and there are a lot of scores to settle.
Russia was screwed in the Nineties, yes. But they weren’t simply innocent victims; the transition away from Communism was never going to be soft and easy. We didn’t demand that they allow gangsters to have free run of the place. That part was them, not us.
There are a few points where I have to give even the devil his due. I wouldn’t have pursued Clinton’s air war against Serbia in 1999, and many Hollywood conservatives protested it as firmly as we could. Even the millionaire guys walked a picket line when Madeleine Albright gave a speech at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We had media coverage that didn’t air. No impact—zip, zero, nada. To the media, Hollywood being antiwar was only adorable most of the time, not all of the time.
Serbia is Russia’s little brother. That particular war seems to have really stuck in Putin’s craw. It’s a moot point now. We were never going to make the guy into Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, but we could and should have handled Russia better.
There’s a type of liberal who seemed to have no problem with Putin until he declared himself, basically, anti-gay. The dioxin poisoning, the Corleone-style government, etc. was nothing compared to the supreme importance of “He won’t let them read ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’!”
Of course, there’s also a type of conservative who’s the exact opposite. “Sure, he’s lying scum and a nuclear-armed thug who hates us. But the really important thing is, he knows what bathroom to use.”
As of Monday, February 21, Putin’s strategy looked like it was going to continue his shrewd ability to play a limited stake into a win. The world hesitated to evaluate what it would mean to go to war over internationally recognized Ukrainian territory that had more or less been controlled by pro-Russian locals for eight years. There were already Russian troops there. There was just enough ambiguity to give the cautious a reason to hesitate.
He could have got the Donbass “countries” up and running and made them a tempting economic magnet for the alleged pro-Russian hordes in the rest of Ukraine. Sure, Kiev and most of the West would have rightly steamed over it, but the way the rest of the world would have seen it, Kiev wouldn’t have lost anything they hadn’t already lost.
That was Monday.
Once he rolled tanks five minutes after his predawn speech on Thursday, his winning streak ended. Putin wanted Crimea 2014 writ large; at best, he’s got Hungary 1956 on his hands now. “Let them hate us, as long as they fear us” has the sound of cynical truth, but when it shatters, they no longer fear you, and they hate you for generations.
There’s always a place for speculation and strategy debates, and getting inside the mind and viewpoint of an opponent doesn’t make you a traitor or weakling. IMHO, there can sometimes be a problem of candor when someone starts out merely saying “Putin has a point about history” and then continues on to give every indication that they themselves see it totally his way. “Not that I’m defending that point of view…” That can be sincere, of course.
There was a time when it was useful to understand things from Putin’s side. There was a point when it was useful to listen to OJ Simpson complaining about his marriage. But when these guys reached for the knives, I lost my motivation to try to understand their points of view.