Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Putin's Playbook: putting the Empire back into place

For all the talk about Russia's incursion into the Crimean Peninsula, I am not overly shocked by the move.  No one should be.  The cards have been laid out on the table for us to see for some time now, and a temporary lapse in the Ukraine gave Vladimir Putin the perfect pretext for intervening where he has no right.

Looking at the history of Putin himself, one can ascertain a great deal about his political ambitions.  Putin's paternal grandfather actually worked for both Lenin and Stalin as a cook.  Putin's father was a World War II veteran who later worked for the NKVD (the Soviet Secret police who 'disappeared' untold numbers of its citizens).  Putin himself was a member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and after completing his education, worked for the KGB (the Soviet version of the CIA).

Despite his work for an intelligence gathering unit, scholars now know that many members of the former KGB weren't as productive as the Soviet government had people believing.  Writing reports and attempting to recruit individuals to travel to Western nations as spies made up for what many Soviet agents were relegated to, including Putin.  If he was a powerful figure in the KGB, no one seemed to notice.  Either way, Putin seemed to buy into the idea of a powerful Russian based, Soviet empire.

Based on Putin's history, however, it should be noted that he isn't much of a communist, as he is an opportunist and pragmatist.  When the Soviet Union was in the midst of collapsing, elements of the KGB attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and other democratic leaders including Boris Yeltsin.  Putin quickly resigned his position within the KGB, understanding the status quo as the Soviet Union would no longer be palatable with the people.

Subsequently, the breakup of the Soviet Union saw Putin become involved with politics, working into a position with the administration of President Boris Yeltsin.  Putin held worked as head of the Russian intelligence group that succeeded the KGB and eventually was named to the position of Prime Minister by Yeltsin and recommended by the then president to take over that role.  When Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly in 1999, Putin became the successor, per the Constitution.

Putin's policies since taking over as president have been pointed toward consolidating power into his hands and returning to a semblance of the old Soviet order, not in the economic sense of communism, but in terms of a powerful central government.  In the political arena, Putin finished out Yeltsin's term as president and then served two full terms from 2000-2008.  When his two terms were completed, Putin was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev – who immediately named Putin to the post of Prime Minister.  After four years of Medvedev's leadership (which most believe was a proxy for a continued Putin administration), Putin ran for and won election as president again.  This time, thanks to Medvedev's amendment to the Constitution, the presidential terms have been lengthened to six years instead of four.  Incidentally, when Putin previously had been asked if he would run for a third term, he replied, "Never."

Under Putin's leadership, Russia has cracked down in dealing with former Soviet republics and any other area they deem to belong to their sphere of interest.  While Putin currently claims the people in the Crimea region seek to become part of Russia, and that this is an instance of self-determination, he has forgotten about the people in the Russian region of Chechnya, who also demanded independence.  Putin's administration brutally subdued the region and has all but squelched any dissenters of that area.

Additionally, in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, the Russians were one of the few nations in the world not to recognize the fledgling nation.  Presumably, the Russians would be more than happy to see a nation break away from a parent nation that it had little in common with – much like they claim the Crimea has little in common with parent Ukraine.  At the time, Putin claimed any declaration of statehood by Kosovo would be "illegal, ill-conceived and immoral."  As a pragmatic leader, Putin was looking out for the interest of his Slavic friends in Serbia, and of course, hoping to dissuade the people of Chechnya from being emboldened by the actions of Kosovo.  Either way, Putin seems a bit hypocritical.  I don't read any news bulletins about Putin's claim that the Crimea's actions are illegal, a position maintained by the European Union and the United States.

Also in 2008, the Putin administration intervened militarily with former Soviet Republic, Georgia.  The Georgians were attempting to quell an insurrection within their recognized borders (over the region of South Ossetia) when the Russians aided the people of South Ossetia and forced Georgia to give up claims to most of the region.  The Russian government recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent republics, though most other nations of the world have failed to follow suit.

In February of 2014, Putin saw a political opportunity to act to seize a key piece of land from the Ukraine, another former Soviet Republic.  After political turmoil in the Ukraine led to its president fleeing, Putin felt justified in sending a military presence into the Crimea, a region of the Ukraine that is heavily Russian in its population.  By virtue of the strong numbers of Russians living in the region, Putin not only occupied it militarily, but engineered a hastily put together election where 95% of the people voted to join the Russian Federation rather than stay part of the Ukraine.

The Crimea is a valuable prize for the Russians, as it has important access to the Black Sea, and thus, the Mediterranean Sea, opening a key port for Putin's ambitions.  The region has value for its food production and natural gas wells.  Putin had hoped to gain access to these resources and ports in a potential trade agreement with the Ukraine, but when the president fled amidst political pressure, any hope of a trade agreement disappeared.  Putin opted to move into a region where he could justify (to himself, anyway) claiming.

And it appears Putin's bold move has worked, since, as of today, Ukrainian military forces have withdrawn from the Crimean region, ceding the loss to Russia.  Economic sanctions from the United States and other Western nations will most likely be the result, however, Putin has placed another egg in his basket.

Add these foreign policy approaches with his well documented restrictions on freedom domestically, and it seems clear that Putin is trying to restore Russia to a super-power status in the world, and is doing so by whatever means necessary.  He attempts to give off an air of bravado with numerous pictures of him riding around shirtless, or re-emphasizing his background in judo.

Putin's power grabs need to be held in check because this most assuredly will not be his last attempt at strengthening his position and the Russian Empire.  Putin's time is somewhat limited, but his consolidation of power will be concerning for the world, depending on who his successor will be.  The world was not prepared to do battle with Russia over the Crimea, but at some point, someone will have to stand up to Putin's bravado with a measure of force.  Until then, we shouldn't try to pretend this surprises us in any fashion.  Putin isn't that different than many other dictators or world leaders.

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