Putin is playing dangerous new game to expand Russian power

Putin is playing dangerous new game to expand Russian power
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To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s jab at Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice presidential debate, “President Putin, we knew Joseph Stalin. Joseph Stalin was an enemy of ours, and you’re not Joseph Stalin.” No doubt, and not surprisingly since Vladimir Putin’s professional career began as a KGB agent during the late stages of the Cold War, the Kremlin’s foreign policies ape those of the Cold War. As with the Soviet Union, today’s Russia will use its veto power on the United Nations Security Council to frustrate that body from taking action against rogue international behavior.

Like former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev telling the West that the Soviet Union would bury it, Putin broadcasts to the world videos of supersonic strategic missiles aimed at the United States. Like the old Soviet Union, today’s Russia uses covert action to destabilize regimes, launches disinformation campaigns to confuse public opinion in democracies and, as we’ve recently seen in the United Kingdom, employs assassinations known as “wet operations” against individuals the Kremlin believes to be traitors. Of course, today’s Russia, as with the old Soviet Union, is more than willing to threaten other countries, near and abroad, with its military.

That said, there are important differences to keep in mind when considering what we face with the current Putin regime and what we faced in the old Soviet Union. The most obvious is the scale of the threat posed by the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the West faced an opponent that, in combination with its Warsaw Pact allies, could field millions of men on the front line, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, tens of thousands of tanks, thousands of fighter jets, and so on. As noted, it had allies, even if not always deeply reliable ones.

The Russian military threat today, while certainly credible, and growing over the past decade, is nowhere near the size of the threat the United States and its allies once faced. Moreover, while the collapse of the Soviet Union revealed a far greater empty shell domestically than we had previously thought, for much of the Cold War the Soviet state, though clumsy and inefficient, was still an industrial giant. Russia today has an economy that is smaller than that of Canada and, because it is dependent on sales of gas and oil exports to fund itself, is unlikely to grow given the flood of new gas and oil sources coming onto the world market. With a declining population and life expectancy, Russia is as much a sick bear as a vibrant one.

But a sick bear can be a dangerous bear. Although Soviet communist ideology had universal pretensions, Putin’s legitimacy rests on a narrower but, for his neighbors, no less problematic motive: the revival of the Russian empire. Indeed, this revisionist goal has already led Russia to attack Estonia with cyber weapons, invade Georgia, invade Ukraine, annex Crimea, and side with the genocidal Syrian regime in an effort to regain a strategic foothold in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. While the Soviet Union was more than willing to use proxies around the world to do its business, it actually refrained from the overt use of military force, other than the invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, once the Cold War boundaries had been set in the late 1940s.

Unable to increase appreciably the domestic welfare of his own people, it is far more likely that Putin will double down on his foreign agenda in an effort to maintain his position as head of state. This is further reinforced by the fact that, unlike Soviet-era premiers, Putin can’t call on a totalitarian state’s iron-fisted control over the population or the thorough domination of society by the communist party. In that regard, Putin’s rule is more akin to that of mafia don, dependent on a close coterie of “soldiers” who are willing to do his bidding as long as he protects them and they share in state-generated lucre. Keeping that scheme going requires acquiring more “turf” instead of less.

In short, the democratic West should not take any comfort in the fact that we are not in a new Cold War. Putin relies on tactics that all ex-KGB agents would be familiar with, but he has an agenda that could be even more provocative than what we faced in the later stages of the Cold War.

Gary Schmitt is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and contributing editor of the forthcoming volume “Rise of the Revisionists: Russia, China and Iran.”