It looks very likely that we will be in a tense Cold War II with Russia, at least until the end of the Putin regime, whenever that may be.
In a fascinating article in the Aug. 11 New Yorker, Editor David Remnick writes about the key Kremlin advisers, intellectuals and commentators he knew in the days when Russia had a chance to swing toward democracy — all of whom are now Vladimir Putin loyalists.
Remnick’s conversations with those who followed Putin in the slide back to authoritarian rule parted the curtain on what Putin and the current Kremlin power structure is thinking.
But first, how did Russians get from there to here?
Mikhail Gorbachev’s years featured the chaos of “perestroika,” industrial restructuring that even Gorbachev didn’t understand, spawning coups and counter-coups as his popularity plummeted along with the economy.
Out of the rubble of the former Soviet Union and Communist Party came the large, volatile and often-drunk Boris Yeltsin, who also suffered heart disease. He brought in Western advisers, including the U.S. Treasury, which proposed Yeltsin shock the economy to health.
The shock plunged millions into abject poverty but stopped the free-fall and began a growth that in time would benefit Putin, who would be suddenly catapulted into the presidency by the resignation of a dying Yeltsin.
Before he resigned, Yeltsin’s volatile temperament had been tested by the Clinton administration’s encouragement of NATO to expand — right up to the borders of Russia.
Yeltsin warned Europe that any further expansion would trigger a shooting war with Europe and perhaps a World War III.
Ironically, Putin’s first task on assuming the presidency was to calm down the bellicose rhetoric and restore normal relations with Europe and the United States.
With the upward trajectory of the economy, Putin was able to create what neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin could, a growing urban middle class.
Remnick writes, “The relative atmosphere of stability in which tens of millions of Russians enjoyed an economic sense of well being and private liberty provided Putin with a kind of authoritarian legitimacy… For the first time, millions of Russians took vacations abroad, got mortgages, bought foreign cars, remodeled their kitchens, acquired iPhones.”
Having pulled all political power into the Kremlin by making regional governors appointive posts, Putin felt free to lecture a guest, President Obama, privately, and the West, publicly, on American “deceptions.”
He reads more deeply about the czars of the past who, like Peter the Great, made Russia an empire. He personally feels the pain broadly felt by Russians, the phantom “lost limb” syndrome, the lost limb being the former Soviet vassal states, now members of NATO.
He saw the Orange Revolution as “disgusting” and the West’s subsequent interest in a free Ukraine as a plot to undermine him and build a NATO base in the Crimea.
The growing harshness of his anti-American and anti-European speeches are the politics of resentment, which, like George Wallace in the American South, focus feelings of revenge for past slights, scorn, thwarted dreams, poverty and isolation.
Putin knows well the hard narrative of Russian history, of invasions, wars and civil wars, the incredible suffering in World War II, being looked down upon by the crowned heads of Europe and “humiliated “ in its weakness by the West.
He plays on the latent defensiveness of his people with his pose of not only standing up for Russia as Wallace “stood up for Alabama (and the South),” but also by insulting what he considers the “menace” of America.
The crisis of Ukraine will continue until Putin, for instance, sees some advantage to acting statesmanlike and agrees to the Ukraine becoming, like Switzerland, a neutral buffer between the two antagonistic sides.
So far, everything seems to have worked out well for Putin, and so the new Cold War will continue as long as he is in power.