Why Putin is pushing the door open to a New Cold War

Putin

In a March 17th article in Foreign Policy Magazine Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, advices that we “Don’t Poke the Russian Bear.” It is Professor Adams’ contention that the reasoning behind Russia’s actions in Ukraine is driven by traditional Russian paranoia, and I agree. He also states that American policymakers do not get it, and again I agree. He then goes on to discuss how there is not only little we can do about it but that we should just accept the current reality and accept these actions as an inevitable part of Russia protecting its interest and its borders, now I have to disagree. According to the good professor the current crisis:

“It’s not about democracy. It’s not about annexation. It’s not about aggression or a new Munich. It’s not about a return to the Cold War. It’s about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.” [1]

I am sorry professor, but it is about democracy, it is about annexation, it is about aggression, it is about a new Munich and it most certainly is about a return to the cold war.

So let us discuss these points. Is it about democracy? When did Vlad the impetuous decide that the evil government in Kiev was subjugating the Russian-speaking people of the Crimea? If I recall it was after the Ukrainian people in a popular move removed the President of Ukraine who just happened to be pro-Russian and was refusing to accept a relationship with the European Union, supported by most Ukrainians, in favor of closer ties with Russia. Of course this raises the question, does the removal of a duly elected president, by popular rebellion, encompass democracy, or is it an undemocratic action. I would remind Mr. Putin that he became the second (and fourth) president of Russia due to the removal of the Soviet era government by popular rebellion, supported by the military. Russia will not accept the new government in Kiev and considers Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate leader of Ukraine. This following an election considered by most to be free and open, even those in the rebellious east had an opportunity to vote. Understanding that a reason for keeping control of the Crimean peninsula was to maintain a warm water port for the Black Sea fleet, allowed under treaty, there was no attempt to discuss this with the new government. The democratic loving Putin fermented a revolt supported by Russian forces, even though Moscow denied it, and then sending in the Russian army to keep the peace. So much for democracy, let us try aggression.

Well I guess we kind of did aggression but let’s recap. A large country with millions of soldiers under arms backed up with modern equipment attacks a smaller country with a small army and little in the way of modern equipment and secures some land. That’s aggression, oh no I guess it’s not really you see Putin got permission from the Russian Duma (Congress) to use the army if needed to protect the subjugated Russian speaking population of a foreign country. You see that’s not aggression…its war. Of course, the professor wrote this article before the downing of Malaysian Air flight MH17 and before the revelation that the Russians were firing on Ukrainian positions from inside of Russia, but nonetheless to say that this is not about aggression is a little much.

What about this being a new Munich. This requires us to understand the full implication of what happened in 1938 and how it does relate to Russian and Western actions today. The short of it is that the United Kingdom and France in order to appease Hitler gave Germany a portion of Czechoslovakia based on the argument that it was home to mostly German speaking peoples, without the Czechoslovakian government being invited to the table. The Czechoslovakian government considered this a great betrayal as they had a pact with both Britain and France to protect Czechoslovakia. Ok so we have not signed a pact with Putin to cede eastern Ukraine. The military actions taken by Russia violates a treaty signed between the US, UK, Russia and Ukraine to protect Ukrainian borders in recognition of Ukraine giving up its Nuclear arsenal following the breakup of the USSR. Germany completed the takeover of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. While Britain and France protested, they could only increase military preparedness with no other follow on action. WWII started in September after Germany invaded Poland. This should also cover annexation.

As to the return of the Cold War, we would need to define Cold War. According to most, it is a heightened level of political and military tensions between two sides. In the old days, that was the West (NATO and others) and the East (Warsaw pact and others). While NATO still exists, the Warsaw pact is gone. Putin however is trying to reestablish it through a Russian federation. This new federation established the same way as the Warsaw pact was, through force of arms. The real question is this a new Cold War or a continuation of the original following a lull. Does not matter, ITS BACK.

Which raises the question, does Putin know what he is doing and does he care. From a Western mindset, it would appear that everything Russia is doing is counterproductive to a desire to be a full partner in the world community. Nevertheless, let us return to the last part of what the professor said. “It’s about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.” [2] Russia has always been an outlier to the western world.

The cultural bias that drives the why a person or government thinks and acts is no small item. First, let us define cultural bias. Most of us view cultural bias as the problem with standardize test, such as the SAT. This is a good place to start to understand. When a group of people designs a test, whose questions are constructed in a manner that is unintelligible to the intended audience, based on a different worldview or understanding, it is cultural bias. There is a lot more to it than that but you get the idea. A case in point of the larger picture of cultural bias is a recent posting from Russia that set out side by side a photo of Putin petting a leopard and one of President Obama holding a dog. From the Russian perspective, this shows Putin as a “MAN” who is fearless and capable of standing up to a west as defined by Obama holding a tamed dog. From the western perspective we see a kind and humanitarian Obama (no politics here just an observation making a point) and a person doing something (holding an animal that can tear you to pieces) only a circus performer or an idiot would do. The photo was in a Tweet from the deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and captioned “We have different values and allies.”

Let us now extend this to the current crisis. Is Vladimir Putin acting as a lone wolf, angry at the west for some perceived slight or is he acting like a, well, Russian. To re-quote the professor “It’s about centuries-old Russian paranoia about the states on its borders and what Moscow think the Europeans, the Chinese, or the Americans are up to in its near abroad.” This is not a condemnation of Russia or Russian leadership or a statement of good or evil, it is a statement. If we accept that there is truth to the statement, then we can look for answers to the crisis. I warn you these answers are not always the ones we want or want to deal with.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, David Remnick discusses the problems Michael McFaul, who recently resigned as the US Ambassador to Russia, had with Putin. McFaul an academic and an expert on Russia should have understood the culture and cultural bias. Like many Americans, however McFaul was caught up in his own worldview, which sees only the good. When nominated Dmitri Medvedev was President of the Russian Federation and US-Russian relations was OK, not great but OK. After his official appointment, Putin declared his intention to run for the office, which sparked demonstrations in Moscow.

“In the three months between McFaul’s appointment and his arrival in Moscow, a great deal changed. Putin, feeling betrayed by both the urban middle classes and the West, made it plain that he would go on the offensive against any sign of foreign interference, real or imagined. A raw and resentful anti-Americanism, unknown since the seventies, suffused Kremlin policy and the state-run airwaves.”[3]

From the beginning, Putin was set to prove that Russia was going to be a great power once more. As before, the concept of power was through force of arms and other traditional Russian methods. Most recently, the management of REN TV canceled a Russian political program, which was the last TV show to be critical of Putin and the current government. Is Vlad just being an impetuous leader out of touch with the Russian people? His latest approval rating is 80%.

We are in what appears to be a cold war with an advisory that is trying to compel us to do something. So what is the something we need to do. We can discuss diplomacy but to Putin that just give him more time to do what he wants. We can discuss economic sanctions, which will be of little effect on a country that does not have a strong economy outside of oil and gas exports and does not fear losing that revenue. We can discuss deterrence. Yes, we can discuss deterrence.

To be up front I am not suggesting that the next time Russian artillery fires into Ukraine that we nuke Moscow. What I am saying is that we can provide weapons and training, intelligence and logistics support. What I am saying is that the 6th Fleet can run some exercises in the Black Sea. We can make life more difficult for the Russian military as it tries to reinvent itself into what was the Soviet military. Back in June, some Russian bombers flow off the coasts of Alaska and California to within 50 miles of the US. Bing honest they were within their rights and according to the Air Force the encounter was “professional.” Next time maybe a little less professionalism and a little more swagger.

Putin is not going to stop until he sees the potential of an encounter that may cost him masculinity points. An old saying goes something like this “All evil needs to succeed is for good men to do nothing.” We need to do something to shut the door on this new cold war.

Adams, G. (2014, March 17). Don’t Poke the Runnian Bear. Retrieved July 24, 2014, from foreignpolicy.com: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/03/17/don_t_poke_the_russian_bear_ukraine

Remnick, D. (2014, August 11). The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/watching-eclipse

[1] (Adams, 2014)

[2] (Adams, 2014)

[3] (Remnick, 2014)

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