With an eye on Napoleon Bonaparte and his nephew Louis, Karl Marx once observed that history sometimes repeats itself — first, as a tragedy; then, as a farce. Something of the sort can be said of Lenin and Stalin in relation to Vladimir Putin. The current Russian leader is pathetically and dangerously intent on refighting the Cold War. It is, I suppose, the only thing that he knows.
There is nothing that post-Soviet Russia could do that would be more self-destructive than to attempt to re-litigate the verdict reached late in the twentieth century, and that is precisely what Putin is doing.
First came Chechneya. To recover that lost imperial province, Putin had to send the bully boys produced by the old KGB to blow up some apartment blocks in Moscow, kill a few hundred Russian citizens. blame it on the Chechens, and send in the Russian army to level the place and massacre the locals. If you doubt the truth of what I say, you should read The Moscow Bombings of September 1999: Russian Terrorist Tactics at the Onset of Vladimir Putin’s Rule by John Dunlop (whose office is two doors from mine this year at the Hoover Institution). Hardly anyone (apart from Holman Jenkins at The Wall Street Journal) has bothered to read John’s book — which does not fit the predilections of an administration set on a “reset” of relations with Russia — but it leaves little doubt that Putin’s aims and methods are incompatible with our own.
After Chechneya came Georgia. Then, Syria. And, of course, now it is the turn of the Ukraine. Do not kid yourselves. The masked gunmen who seized the Parliament building in the Crimea earlier today were not locals. They were Spetznatz — special-purpose forces — dispatched by Moscow to carry out a coup d’etat and prepare the way for Russia’s seizure of that Ukrainian province, and the odds are tolerably good that they will succeed in doing just that. Vladimir Putin knows that words of warning from Barack Obama mean nothing at all. The only people who have any reason to fear retaliation on the part of the President of the United States are the man’s domestic opponents.
Nor will this stop with the Ukraine. Consider Wednesday’s news:
Russia is planning to expand its permanent military presence outside its borders by placing military bases in a number of foreign countries, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday.
Shoigu said the list includes Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles, Singapore and several other countries.
“The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu told reporters in Moscow.
The minister added that the negotiations cover not only military bases but also visits to ports in such countries on favorable conditions as well as the opening of refueling sites for Russian strategic bombers on patrol.
As things stand, the Russians have only one foreign base — at Tartus in Syria. But that is not enough for Barack Obama’s “strategic partner.” Vladimir Putin wants to be remembered as the man who restored Russia to its proper place in the sun as a world power.
There is only one problem with this ambition. Russia does not now have the means by which to pursue it, and it is not going to acquire the requisite means. Even if Putin succeeds in dismembering the Ukraine, he and his country will lose, and they will lose big.
To begin with, they will alienate all of their neighbors in Europe, and they will persuade not just Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Roumania, and Slovakia that Russia is a rogue power that must at all costs be weakened and contained. They will persuade the Germans, the Italians, the French, and the British that their neighbors to the East are right. And this means that NATO will be rejuvenated, and that the Europeans will once again look to us for leadership.
That is one problem. There is another. The Russians do not have the economic base requisite for such an assertion of power. Russia is a banana republic with nuclear weapons. Economically, it is almost as dependent on resource extraction as Saudi Arabia, and the pertinent resource is slowly being depleted. In effect, Putin’s Russians are eating their seed-corn. They could have liberalized the Russian economy. They could have drawn closer and closer to the European Union with an eye to joining it eventually. They could have reinvested the profits from their sale of oil and gas in industry. They could have prepared for a future in which they will have little in the way of oil and gas to sell. Instead, they are wasting their resources on ships, planes, and soldiers that they do not need and cannot to good effect use.
At the same time, Putin’s Russia is ignoring the only strategic threat it faces. The United States is not Russia’s enemy. It is not even a rival. We once had an interest in containing and dismembering the Soviet empire in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. We have no interest in further reducing Russia’s extent; and, insofar as we see Russia as a potential trading partner, our interest lies in Russian economic development. The same can be said even more emphatically for Germany, France, Britain, and the other countries in Europe.
There is, however, one country with an imperial past and a renewed craving for empire that has territorial ambitions which make of it a threat to Russia, and that country is China. Russia is suffering a demographic implosion. It will be difficult for it to hold what it has. It is, moreover, well nigh impossible to get Russians to move to Siberia. It is not a pleasant place in which to live. The majority of those who live there today are not Russian. Many of them are Chinese who have journeyed north in search of well-paid work; and China, which is just across the border from Siberia, is an economic juggernaut increasingly desperate for resources of the very sort that are found in abundance in Siberia.
Vladimir Putin should think hard about the precedent he is setting in the Crimea. The day may come when China does to Russia in Siberia what he is trying to do right now to the Ukraine in the Crimea. Putin’s government piously states that its only concern is to protect the majority Russian population in the Crimea from the Tatars and the Ukrainians there. China, in time, will say the like about the Chinese in Siberia. And when that day comes, he will have alienated everyone of any significance who might otherwise have rallied to Russia’s defense.
Our aim for the past seven decades has been to reorder the world in such a fashion as to make war counter-productive. The name of the game is commerce. The weapon we deploy is simple and powerful. Those who agree to leave their neighbors alone and to allow freedom of commerce can profit from a a world-wide economic system that will enrich everyone. Those who buck that system and opt for imperial ventures will be contained, weakened, and defeated.
This is a lesson that France and Germany have taken to heart. But Vladimir Putin is simply too dumb to notice. He is a product of Russia’s attempt to imitate Charles V of Spain, Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte of France, and Adolf Hitler of Germany in attempting to establish a universal monarchy in Europe and beyond. They failed, as did Joseph Stalin and his successors, and Putin, who has forgotten nothing that the Soviets taught and learned nothing from the failure of the old Soviet Union, will fail as well. In failing, moreover, this product of the old KGB will do his long-suffering compatriots a great deal of unnecessary harm.
In folly, in today’s world, there is no one to compare with Vladimir the Great!