Who is Putin?

The media is outraged that Tucker Carlson interviewed the enemy Putin and asked softball questions. None of the rough and tumble – “You said that.” ”No, I didn’t.” – that characterizes a real interview. But that was not the point. Carlson wanted the Russian leader to explain himself in ways that would be useful to an American and indeed global audience. With considerable candor that is what he did in over two hours. The gist of it? A plea for better relations with the U.S. Not exactly the voice of an enemy.

He had every reason to be triumphant. He was on the verge of victory in the war with Ukraine despite all the dire predictions of defeat in the American media. Though Russia had been slapped with myriad sanctions, its economy and its military had been strengthened during the war, and it possesses the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal.

Tucker Carlson interviewing Putin

Putin noted the many Russian grievances against the U.S., above all, ever advancing NATO. The U.S. had pledged not to move the alliance one inch east toward Russia in return for Gorbachev’s allowing the reunification of Germany and thereby ending the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” said Reagan). Yet year by year, President by President, NATO absorbed the East European nations formerly ruled by the Soviet Union until it reached the Russian border and then decided to include neighboring Ukraine. A red line had been crossed, and Russia invaded, as it said, to protect itself.

Did this make you bitter? asked Carlson. No, said Putin. It’s just the fact. Nor did he display any bitterness in the course of the interview toward any U.S, policy maker. He noted he had friendly relations with President George Bush, even though he expanded NATO. Intent on post-communist Russia joining the company of civilized nations, he asked President Clinton if it could become a member of NATO. The President thought that was a good idea but after consulting his staff changed his mind.

That’s the problem of dealing with the U.S., said Putin. There are so many levels of government – perhaps in contrast to his own autocratic rule – that it’s hard to know whom to talk to. Indeed, as a former intelligence officer, he should know to be aware of an American deep state where a small group of zealots known as neocons has been plotting his eventual overthrow.

The mindset of the elite, rather than particular personalities, is the key to behavior, said Putin. When Carlson asked him why he didn’t make a fuss in the press when it was disclosed that the U.S. had sabotaged the Nord Stream pipeline bringing natural gas from Russia to Germany, he replied there was no point. The press is in the hands of the western elite which would have ignored or downplayed the story.

Much of the western media, ever mindful of Hitler and Munich – one piece of history they have learned – say Putin’s next target is Poland with which he has had some difficulties. They cite his leadership in a growing bloc of nations called BRCCS that are forming an economic and political alliance in opposition to what they see as U.S. global hegemony. But Putin insisted with some emotion that Russia belongs to the West. It’s now the strongest economy in Europe with no desire of conquering it as in Stalinist times. Russia is big enough – the world’s largest nation. Who needs anything more?

Putin has not mollified his critics by his treatment of his main adversary in Russia, Alexai Navalny, who recently died in prison in the Arctic. He is now waging a determined, destructive war in Ukraine. But some perspective is in order. In the early 1930’s Stalin, driven by communism, starved millions in Ukraine to death as part of his rural collectivist program. The media that now condemns Putin went along with Soviet propaganda and denied there was a famine. Had Stalin been in charge the Ukraine war would have been over in a few weeks and the devastated country would resemble a larger version of today’s Gaza.

Unlike Stalin, Putin is impelled by no murderous ideology. He’s strictly a nationalist, Russia first, last and always. While autocratic he’s not dogmatic and therefore open to negotiation, minus the thought of conquering him or Russia.

Putin in Cuba

In the midst of the controversy over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to put troops in Cuba. Put them where? Close to the U.S. coastline? What is he thinking, or does he recall such an effort in the not too distant past – the Cuba missile crisis of 1962 in the middle of the Cold War, an event that brought the two powers – the U.S. and the Soviet Union – the closest they ever came to a direct clash, even possibly a nuclear exchange.

What a fearful memory, surely best forgotten. That Putin would raise it suggests the seriousness of the occasion, at least for the Russian ruler. He considers Ukraine the equivalent of Cuba, a neighbor that cannot be conceded to the enemy. That was also the opinion of President John Kennedy, who was alarmed and frustrated by the takeover of Cuba by the communist Fidel Castro, clearly and dangerously allied to Moscow.

Kennedy’s first response was a dismal failure. He backed an invasion of anti-Castro rebels that foundered at the Bay of Pigs, largely because a doubtful President failed to provide air cover. That emboldened Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a reckless and ardent communist who had participated in Josef Stalin’s mass murders and then turned on the dictator after his death. Sensing an opportunity, Khrushchev began to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to prevent another U. S. attempt on his communist ally. Khrushchev still dreamed of world revolution.

Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy. Photo by: AFP.com

The U.S. was aghast at his move. By this time, Kennedy had learned from experience. He consulted all the members of the foreign policy establishment, a group of experienced and scholarly advisers that doesn’t exist today. Opinion varied in terms of what action to take, but there was no flighty talk of using nukes or demonizing Khrushchev. In fact, subsequent records reveal that both sides had a clear picture of the other, which helped in the ultimate resolution.

Kennedy and Khrushchev stayed in contact and arranged a compromise. Khrushchev would remove the Cuban missiles in return for the U.S. taking similar missiles out of Turkey. The crisis was over and in fact nothing like it occurred again up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At first Kennedy tried to portray the agreement as a Cold War victory for the U.S. and kept the Turkish part secret. But when that was revealed, the importance of the compromise was understood. It has gone down in history as an example of successful statecraft.

Though Putin has a substantial nuclear arsenal, he will not put missiles in Cuba. He is not an expansionist minded communist but an autocratic national leader looking out for his country’s interests. While Khrushchev approached Cuba offensively, Putin’s tactic is defensive. He wants the U. S. to stop expanding NATO to Ukraine on the Russian border. That’s the message of his threat. 

The U.S. Is not today what it was in Kennedy’s day. Opinions and pressures are all over the place from a number of groups not always linked to the national interest. That’s the accusation against the so-called neocons who seem to have their own view of world revolution. There is similar distrust of the military-industrial complex that profits mightily from wars however misconceived. Whatever the flaws of the people advising Kennedy, their integrity was not challenged.

Since 9/11 something is lacking in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps it’s a matter of character as well as wisdom. Communism may be gone in America, but other kinds of of ideology prevail distorting policy. A clear view of the world is essential, as George Kennan demonstrated when he charted the U.S. course in the Cold War. But is another Kennan possible today?

Is Revolution Ahead?

After career criminal Darrell Brooks, a black American, drove his car into a group of white people in Waukesha, Wisconsin, injuring dozens, killing six that we know of, a supporter said it sounds like the revolution has started. What kind of revolution does he have in mind? He doesn’t say, but there was one notoriously based on crime; namely, the Russian Revolution of 1917. Does that serve as a model for Darrell Brooks?

A top leader of the revolutionary Bolsheviks was Josef Stalin, who in his native  Georgia had pursued a career of crime almost without compare m the region. You name it – robbery, arsen, extortion, murder – he did it. Then he transferred those skills to the budding Russian Revolution in the middle of the turmoil of the First World War.

Whatever its ideological motivation, the Revolution would not have succeeded without Stalin’s criminal genius. That in turn took him to the top of Russia’s new communist government from where he compounded his crimes by massacring much of his own population, including fellow revolutionaries. Such is his example.

It may seem ridiculous to connect a minor American career criminal with the mighty ruler of the Soviet Union, but as Stalin well knew, revolutions have to start somewhere. The communists liked to portray the Tsarist regime they overthrew as uncompromisingly tyrannical, but compared to the state they constructed, it was carelessly permissive. Again and again, Stalin escaped serious punishment for major crimes, and his exile in Siberia was almost a holiday, a lapse he corrected with his own horrendous labor camps, the gulag.

Back to our local criminal. Brooks, too, was never seriously punished for his crimes, as he moved from one to the next, perhaps encouraging others to do the same. And he was one of many leniently treated by prosecutors financed by billionaire George Soros, a parallel to the wealthy backers of Bolshevism in Stalin’s time. America today is particularly viulnerable because many feel it must make up for past racial injustice by going easy on black crime today; hence, the lax treatment of  Brooks. But is that any favor to blacks or whites other than laying the groundwork for the hoped for revolution?

There’s no denying the deliberate attack on a group of innocent white people, largely women and children, aggravates already high racial tensions. That is what our would-be revolutionies want. This overlooks the fact that people of all races continue to work peacefully together on a daily basis in contemporary America. A small minority objects to this and always will. Just think if somewhere along the way, Stalin had actually been stopped. No revolution, no communist takeover, and the world might be a better place today.

Who Can Master Central Asia?

Tasked by Voice of America with looking into newly independent Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I wanted to get an idea of the civil war roiling the small but spectacularly beautiful nation of Kyrgyzstan, called by its admirers the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”

My driver for the occasion said he had a master’s degree in political science, but that did not improve his driving skills. Unaware, he sped from the government side across the battlefield into the Islamist opposition camp whose defenders, rifles at the ready, didn’t seem happy to see us. “This is interesting,” said my unflappable ex-KGB guide with no escape in mind. Then, providentially, a tank appeared – Russia to the rescue. The Islamists switched their attention to the appraching enemy, and we were spared from whatever they had in store for us.

Central Asia

This is the irony: a decade earlier, we – the U.S. – had been championing the Islamists in neighboring Afghanistan against the Russian occupiers. Now it was the reverse. We counted on Russia to help contain the Islamist threat. Such a turnabout, to be sure, is familiar to Central Asia, where contending forces, internal and external, are always disturbing the peace and seeking control. But who can master an area that accepts no master?

The five off-beat nations are sometimes hard to keep straight: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan along with Kyrgyzstan, a series of “stans” with makeshift borders designed by Stalin to sow confusion. They are are often considered a global backwater but nonetheless prized for their prime location, major resources and vigorous people.

The “Stans”

After gaining independence from Communist Russia, they were expected to take a democratic turn. They didn’t and continued autocratic rule, though Kygyzstan has some democratic trimmings – elections, a robust parliament, a press that is less fettered than that of the other stans. Still politics is rough and tumble – three revolutions and assorted uprisings. A year and a half ago, a president was forced into hiding by rock-throwing protestors over a questionable election. A convicted kidnapper was let out of jail to take his place. This was not unusual since each successive government is in the habit of jailing members of the previous one.

Russian President Putin would like the stans to be calm as he goes about trying to reconstitute a Soviet Union whose collapse he considers a “catastrophe.” He doesn’t employ lethal Stalinist measures but more subtle pressures as in the case of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. First, he constructed a competing Russian base, then made his desires clear to the Krygyz who depend in many ways on Moscow’s generosity and forbearance. The U.S base is gone.

Not quite as entrenched in Central Asia, China is investing heavily in the region, including high tech apparatus to monitor the activities of the suppressed Uighur population on the border with the stans. More dramatically and long term, it is engaged with Russia on an ambitious modernized land route that will cross the stans and unite east and west in a Greater Eurasia with geopolitical as well as economic implications. It is current U.S. policy to denounce and sanction both of the powers in contrast to the successful Cold War policy of dividing them. Time to think again.

The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

The Mystery of Russia

For a century the U.S. has been transfixed by Russia, myth clashing with reality, admiration alternating with hostility, submissiveness with pugnacity. Take your pick. The U.S. can’t seem to get Russia straight or is it Russia that can’t seem to get straight?

For a century the U.S. has been transfixed by Russia, myth clashing with reality, admiration alternating with hostility, submissiveness with pugnacity. Take your pick. The U.S. can’t seem to get Russia straight or is it Russia that can’t seem to get straight?

Continue reading “The Mystery of Russia”