Monday, March 31, 2014

800 Words: Vladimir Putin - The World's Most Incompetent Leader

For nearly seventy years after World War II, America intervened in all parts of the world with a heavy hand. We are a world-dominating empire in all but name, with the number of worldwide military bases extending to 662 overseas military bases in 38 foreign countries. Burgeoning powers like Japan, China, India and the EU can pretend they have risen on anything but the back of American power, but none would be scarcely more than bombed-out remains without American finance, American models, American education, and American security. And because of their dependence, they by and large view us with nothing but contempt - and not without reason. The average American perceives threats from China and Russia, and perhaps correctly, but none of these factors is a percentage point as demonstrably large a threat to their way of life as America is to the average person in China or Russia.

‘I suspect most citizens of the world would rather live in an American empire than in just about any other, but an Empire we are nevertheless. Under President Obama and his new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hegel, the United States government is beginning perhaps its first serious attempt to draw down its military obligations. May they have much success - rulers exist to be loathed, and the more America controls, the more loathed it becomes, and the more retribution is demanded. But nature abhors a vacuum. The more America draws down, the more ambitious world powers like Russia and China ascend. America is loathed, but Russia and China will be feared.

Unless Russia rigs the polling in their country, Vladimir Putin is the most popular of all eminent world leaders - earning his country’s jack-booted approval in a manner no American president ever could within our country's messy and dysfunctional democratic process. Imagine any American president who could earn an 82% approval rating after being president for twelve years. And imagine any American president who could earn that approval rating in spite of an economy which makes the rest of the world look amazing in comparison. Food prices have gone up 25% since the beginning of the year, and $70 billion of Russia's already paltry foreign investment has left in the first quarter of the year. The S&P may lower Russia’s bond status at any moment, foreign investment is nearly nothing, economic growth is at a tortoise pace, and perhaps 15% of Russia’s GDP is lost to corruption. The country’s sole wealth comes from its gas and oil, and without it, Russia’s debt to GDP ratio would be higher than any first-world country. Russia’s sole reliable export is oil, and the control of it has largely been re nationalized, so whoever is profiting from Russia’s oil industry can’t even declare the income - and because of their guaranteed income, they feel no need to keep up with private competitors through fracking, a potential that’s almost completely unrealized in Russia. Furthermore, Putin's "anti-decadence" policies are causing Russia to have a brain-drain; with his anti-homosexuality stance, his persecution of NGO’s and dismissal of high tech jobs, Putin is causing his country’s educated elite to move westward and eliminating the possibility of attaining significant foreign investment for the foreseeable future. If European countries shop for oil elsewhere, the national disaster would be on par with any point in Russia’s history.

It’s foolish to believe that Putin will be satisfied with Crimea. The invasion was a spectacular strategic blunder made because Putin felt the need to smash something after his Olympic Triumph was shattered by Ukrainian rebellion; and Putin can only cover up his incompetence with still more blunders. Kiev, not Moscow, is the cradle of Russian civilization, because it’s where the Russian Orthodox Church was born. There are ‘only’ 1.45 million Russians in Crimea, there are roughly 7 million more in the rest of Ukraine. And without the Russian majority of Crimea, there are enough Russians to be an oppressed minority, but it just became that much harder for Russians (only 15% of Ukraine now) to influence a Ukrainian election. If Ukraine elects a replacement of Yanukovich that is pro-EU , Putin would be sorely tempted to intervene.

Putin’s incursion into the Ukraine accelerated Georgia's application to the EU, a country Putin already invaded to keep within his sphere of influence, and seeing Georgia’s progress, every country with a significant Russian minority will now be desperate for EU membership. Furthermore, Putin’s backward policies have raised a generation of uneducated right-wingers who hate Russia's Muslim minority which Orthodox Russians perceive as taking their jobs. To formerly USSR countries with Muslim majorities like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, this xenophobia is the worst possible sentiment to keep them in line with Russia’s interests. To keep these predominantly Muslim countries within Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin will now have to raid his country’s coffers to make still more bribes of stolen Russian money and cheap oil. And if money doesn’t work, what’s his next step?...

In a sense, Putin has some extremely legitimate points about Western behavior. If America can intervene to maintain the power of corrupt dictators within their sphere of influence, then why can’t Russia intervene when a corrupt but democratically elected leader sympathetic to their interests is deposed? For hundreds of years, Russia’s ability to trade with Mediterranean countries has depended on Crimea’s warm water ports. So long as Ukraine remained in Russia’s sphere of influence, its business interests are unthreatened. But if Ukraine joined the EU, Russia’s only connection to the Mediterranean Sea and its sole warm water naval base in Sevastpol is gone. Without it, Russia cannot maintain its arm shipments to Syria (and probably Iran too). From Putin’s point of view, this is precisely what “successful Western” leaders like Nixon and Reagan would have done to protect their interests, and he’s exactly right.

It’s commented endlessly that Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as the biggest disaster in modern Russian history. Less commented upon is that most Russians feel the same way. To a certain extent, it’s not hard to see why. The transition to wholesale capitalism was immediate, and resulted in a few men well-connected within Russian intelligence to seize control of Russia’s natural resources and re-create themselves as Robber Barons. Putin, and all those who think like him, see the Western model as intolerably decadent and inevitably leading to disaster like that which befell Russia when they first embraced capitalism. They’re not right, but one can see why they believe what they do.

For Nixon to W, American policy was governed by Republican stupidity and delusions of grandeur - an expansion of the American Imperium that left economic and statecraft considerations at the doorway. The price for these delusions is The Great Recession, which is now in year six and shows only modest signs of recovery. How much worse will be the price for the legacy of Putin and his successors? He’s practically delivered potential Russian allies into Western hands, and if he wants to accomplish his goals, he now can only achieve them through military means - military means which will only embolden potential emperors in other world powers to do the same. It would only be a matter of time before the empires rub up against each other. Putin may well leave Russia with vastly expanded territory, a vastly expanded Russian population, ethnic minorities that bristle ever more under Russian rule, and no means of supporting any of them. He will go down in history as one of three types of leaders - a monster of history like Stalin and Ivan the Terrible before him, a man who lead Russia to economic ruin as great as that under Yeltsin, or a man who paved the way for a renewed Empire for his country, with all the terrible headaches that will entail. And still worse for his legacy, he could yet be all three.

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