Putin might have a strategy, but no historic perspective

Russian President Vladimir Putin is an opportunist. His plans for Ukraine had been on the drawing board for a while; he just needed the right moment to step in. He made some assumptions, most of which were correct. He was at the height of his popularity at home, and managed to crush organized resistance. The oligarchic system and control of society was complete. The Sochi Olympics put Western leaders to sleep, blinded by the light. His calculation was based on the assumption that the West will be deeply divided if and when he makes a move to annex Crimea. In the runup, he actively stoked anti-American sentiments. Edward Snowden the implant (strange how he is no “hero” any longer) — which some of us never doubted was made in Russia — was a trial balloon for West-West divide. So was his clampdown on the most vulnerable, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He watched the intense debate about the pivot to Asia, assuming that the United States is turning away from Europe and will hardly pay much attention to a crisis which is fundamentally European. He saw the U.S. hesitation in Syria as an encouragement. He had managed to make Europe dependent on his energy supplies. He has also been encouraged by the efforts of some countries in Central Europe to adopt his model of illiberal governance. He must have been rejoicing about the fact that one of them is Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union, once the fiercest opponent of Russian occupation and communism.

{mosads}The stars were aligned. They aren’t any longer. We are getting our act together. The divide across the Atlantic is not nearly as bad as Putin thought. The stance of the United States has made a difference and NATO is standing firm on its Article 5 commitments.

A historian, who has been writing extensively about totalitarian leaders, noted that Putin is a Joseph Stalin wannabe, but has neither the talent nor the historic vision — good or bad — of the latter. He might be looking at Stalin for clues, but he comes nowhere near the abilities or the depth of the Soviet dictator, for he never underestimated the West. There are other very important differences. For Stalin, it was never about money; it was about power. The present leader of Russia is obsessed with power, but he is equally obsessed with money. But even this is not the main difference, my historian friend told me. In the aftermath of World War II, Stalin had taken most of Central Europe. He understood realities and he had respect for the West. He was at the top of his game, but he knew where to stop. That is why he was a such a formidable foe.

Putin is sliding into a “Brezhnev-like” era of deception. His eventual downfall will be caused by his inability to compromise, his little understanding of history and his disrespect for our societies, which he has never understood. We see diversity, debate and tolerance as strengths; he sees them as weaknesses. Where we advocate the power of transparency, checks and balances, and the rule of law, Putin sees decadence. When Europe and America have debates, which forces us to reinvent and innovate our relationship, he sees the transatlantic relationship falling apart. Like some in our midst, he underestimates the attraction of freedom and democracy.

He will not give up on efforts for the full control of Ukraine. He will move on to stir continuous trouble in the Baltic countries. He will keep irritating Sweden and Finland. He will support illiberal efforts in Central Europe. His use of hybrid warfare, the “little green men,” nationalist fifth columns and the aggressive use of media will continue. But he is dead wrong about the ability of the West to strike back. He is underestimating the true power of the United States and its allies. He and his apologists in the West will be proven wrong.

Mr. Putin should have known when to stop.

Ambassador Simonyi is the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR) at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He is an economist by training and has a long career in the diplomatic service, where he has gained experience in both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. He has built an extensive network in the transatlantic community, his ambassadorial assignments having included NATO and Washington. He has also spent time in the private sector, and plays guitar in his band The Coalition of the Willing.

Tags Joseph Stalin Leonid Brezhnev NATO Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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