Writing on USA Today‘s blog Ralph Peters of the newspaper’s Board of Contributors argues that we should be scared by the racist evil that is Vladimir Putin:
Why Putin should scare us
He’s an ethnic nationalist with a mystical sense of Russian destiny.
Cold and pragmatic, he won’t play by the world’s rules.
Possessing a clear vision of where he wants to go and the ruthlessness to get there, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the world’s most effective national leader in power. He also might be the most misunderstood.
Grasping what Putin’s about means recognizing what he isn’t about: Despite his KGB past and his remark that the Soviet Union’s dissolution was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, Putin isn’t nostalgic for communism. By the time he joined the KGB in the mid-1970s, the organization was purely about preserving the power structure — not upholding abstract philosophies.
Far from being a Marxist, Putin belongs to a long tradition of aggressive Russian nationalists. A complex man, he’s cold-bloodedly pragmatic when planning — as both his rise to power and his preparations for the recent invasion of Georgia demonstrated — yet he’s imbued with a mystical sense of Russia’s destiny. The ambitious son of a doctrinaire communist father and a devout Orthodox mother, Putin’s straight from the novels of Feodor Dostoevski (another son of St. Petersburg)
Putin’s combination of merciless calculation and sense of mission echoes an otherwise different figure, Osama bin Laden. In both cases, Western analysts struggle to simplify confounding personalities and end up underestimating them. These aren’t madmen but brilliant, driven leaders who flout our rules.
Nonetheless, Putin did carry over specific skills from his KGB career: As a former intelligence officer myself, I’m awed by his ability to analyze opponents and anticipate their reactions to his gambits (Russia is, of course, a nation of chess masters). Preparing for the dismemberment of Georgia, the prime minister accurately calculated the behavior of that country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, of President Bush, of the European Union and of the Russian people. He knew he could get away with it.
Putin has a quality found in elite intelligence personnel: the ability to discard all preconceptions when scrutinizing a target. And when he decides to strike, he doesn’t look back. This is not good news for his opponents, foreign or domestic.
Among the many reasons we misjudge Putin is our insistence on seeing him as “like us.” He’s not. His stage-management of the Georgia invasion was a perfect example: Western intelligence agencies had been monitoring Russian activities in the Caucasus for years and fully expected a confrontation. Even so, our analysts assumed that Russia wouldn’t act during this summer’s Olympics, traditionally an interval of peace.
Putin had been conditioned to read the strategic cards differently: The world’s attention would be focused on the Games, and key world leaders would be in Beijing, far from their crisis-management staffs. Europe’s bureaucrats and senior NATO officials would be on their August vacations. The circumstances were ideal.
It has also become a truism that Putin’s foolish for relying on oil, gas and mineral revenue while failing to diversify his economy. But Russia’s strongman knows what he’s doing: He prefers a wealthy government to a wealthy society. Putin can control a handful of oligarchs whose fortunes flow from a narrow range of sources (once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky sits in prison for crossing the Kremlin), but a diversified economy would decentralize power.
Putin’s obsession with control — another national tradition — serves an overarching purpose: restoring Russia’s greatness. He realizes he can’t restore a Soviet Union that sprawled deep into Europe. What he hopes is to reconstruct the empire of the czars, from eastern Poland through Ukraine and the Caucasus to Central Asia. Putin’s expansionist model comes from Peter the Great, but his methods resemble those of Ivan the Terrible, not least when it comes to silencing dissent. The main thing the prime minister has salvaged from the Soviet era is the cult of personality. He knows what Russians want — a strong czar — and his approval ratings have exceeded 80%.
Does this ruthless, focused leader have a weakness? Yes: his temper. Despite his icy demeanor, Putin’s combustible. He takes rebuffs personally and can act impulsively — and destructively. Instead of lulling Europeans into an ever-greater dependence on Russian gas, he angrily ordered winter shut-offs to Ukraine and Georgia, alarming Western customers. Rather than concealing the Kremlin’s cyber-attack capabilities, he unleashed them on tiny Estonia during a tiff over relocating a Soviet-era memorial — alerting NATO.
Putin’s invasion of Georgia was also personal. In addition to exposing the West’s impotence in the region, he meant to punish Georgia’s defiant president. The lengths to which Putin was prepared to go in a personal vendetta should worry us all.
Such outbursts of temper suggest that Putin’s campaign to restore Russia’s greatness could end very badly. We needn’t take his dispatch of a naval squadron to Venezuela or bomber flights over U.S. Navy carriers seriously — they’re staged for his domestic audience and militarily absurd. But Putin’s willingness to use naked force against regional democracies suggests that, like so many strongmen before him, he’ll ultimately overreach.
Meanwhile, our next president will have to cope with this brilliant, dangerous man. That’s going to require the experience and skills to exploit every element of our national power; to convince Europe that appeasement will only enlarge Putin’s appetite; and to draw clear lines while avoiding drawn guns. Above all, our president will have to take Putin’s measure accurately and not indulge in wishful thinking. Managing Putin’s Russia could emerge as our No. 1 security challenge.