A few months ago I attended a two day conference on the subject of the future of U.S.-Russian relations, attended by an impressive array of officials from Administrations past and present and experts on things Russian. One of the subjects discussed was the possibilities for additional, even more dangerous crises between our two countries. There were lots of potential flash points identified, beyond the current crisis in Ukraine, ranging from the Baltics to Kaliningrad, Moldova, Kazakhstan and the Arctic. But for each of these there were also “cooler” heads who argued that it would be stupid for Putin to initiate a new crisis in any of these places. After all, given the declining state of the Russian economy, technology base, demographics and even military capacity, he was playing with a very weak hand. Finally, one former senior Pentagon official interrupted to say “you can’t take stupid off the table.”
I will point out that nobody at the conference suggested that Russia might open a second front in Syria, while telling the U.S. to get out of that country’s air space. If anyone had, I am absolutely certain that they would have been met by howls of derision from the assembled wise people. Why? Because for Putin to have done so would have been stupid. I am pretty sure the response would have been the same if anyone had suggested this time last year that Moscow’s reaction to the ouster of their puppet as President of the Ukraine would be the invasion and then annexation of Crimea. Even after that, they would have responded to the suggestion that the Kremlin would double down by fomenting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine by declaring it impossible because it would be stupid.
The point is not that Putin is doing stupid things. Far from it. It is our government officials and leaders who have been stupid. They have continually misunderstood and underestimated President Putin. Early on, even before the Obama Administration’s ill-fated “reset” of relations with Russia, we assumed that he was more or less a Western-style leader concerned about the state of his country’s economy, interested in Russia becoming part of the international political and economic system, constrained by domestic politics and unwilling to risk direct confrontation with the West. They dismissed his statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century as political theater meant only for domestic consumption. The same for his claim that Russia had a responsibility and a right to protect ethnic Russians stranded in neighboring countries by that collapse. They all but laughed at his repeated assertions that it was the West, in general, and the United States, in particular, behind the Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the revolt against the Assad government in Syria and political opposition to his own authoritarian rule. Our leaders believed that even if he didn’t like or trust his Western counterparts, he would not risk an open breach with them. Because that would be stupid.
In reality, all his dangerous initiatives – invading Crimea, starting an insurgency in the Ukraine, going to the rescue of the Syrian regime, violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, planting the Russian flag in international waters in the Arctic and harassing U.S. and NATO military forces – are only stupid if he wasn’t getting away with them. But each and every time he has. The sanctions imposed by the West were limited and even carefully calibrated not to place too much pressure on Moscow. Putin’s response which was to impose an embargo on the importation of Western foodstuffs was labeled by an attendee at the above mentioned conference as “stupid,” given the state of the Russian economy. There’s that word again. I wonder which of his cronies has the black market concession on importing those banned Western products.
Not only has Putin gotten away with his “stupid stuff,” he has actually benefitted from them. His popularity among the Russian people is sky high. His credibility in the world has increased. He has all but guaranteed that NATO will expand no further eastward. U.S. government officials are scared to death that he might make a move on one of the Baltic states similar to the way he destabilized Crimea. He has created a political-military power bloc that runs from Tartus on the Syrian coast to Tehran. Even if this coalition of evil cannot defeat ISIS alone, he is in a great position to broker the peace.
The trouble with dictators – and that is what Putin is in everything but name – and their “stupid” moves is that they get away with them repeatedly until their opponents finally say enough. That is the lesson from the lead up to World War Two. By the way, Putin has made it clear that in the event of a conflict with NATO he is prepared to use nuclear weapons to end the war. But he would never do that because that would be stupid.
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