Putin's speech at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in February 2012, almost exactly two years before he commanded the Russian military to start the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. (Image: Ilya Varlamov)
In 1979, many in the West felt that Moscow was winning and Western countries were divided and in retreat. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a revolution in Iran led to the seizure of American diplomats, Europe was divided and divided from the US, and the US president spoke of “a crisis of confidence” among the American people.
Nine years later the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, ten years later the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, and 12 years later the USSR disintegrated, the result of the failure of communism and the appearance of leaders in the West who recognized that the USSR was “an evil empire” and called on those under communist rule “not to be afraid” to challenge it.
That history should not be forgotten now when once again there are people in the West who view one aspect of Russia, its militarist expansionism under Vladimir Putin, and ignore all the other realities that mean his country is far weaker and less likely to pose a long-term challenge to the West than did the USSR.
This week has seen a German paper proclaim that Putin is going from victory to victory and will soon extend it by replacing the government in Berlin, a poll showing that many US Republicans view Putin in a positive light, and an American expert argue that the world needs to come to terms with the return of an empire like the Soviet one.
That Putin has achieved certain victories or at least has seen history going his way over the past year is true. The West has been swept by the kind of populist isolationist nationalism that dictators like the one in the Kremlin can easily exploit, especially given that with rare exceptions, the current leaders of the West has not displayed the courage one might hope for.
But “behind the headlines,” as the Russians like to say, the image is very different. Russia’s economy is declining and is in much greater difficulty than it was only a year or two ago. Moscow faces a variety of domestic problems ranging from demographic collapse to ethnic divides that it will find increasingly difficult to cope.
And its successes in foreign affairs may not be as long-lasting or unambiguous as the pessimists in the West are now saying. Unlike in Russia, Western countries have institutions to change their leaders on a regular basis; and unlike in Russia, these leaders preside over countries which are far richer and more attractive to others than Russia is likely to ever be.
More to the point, many of Putin’s supposed victories are Pyrrhic. That is, they contain within themselves problems that are only going to mount in the coming months. His campaign in Syria is threatening to become a quagmire for Russian forces however much his propaganda says otherwise.
His much-ballyhooed alliance with China is turning out to be much less favorable to Russia than he and many alarmists in the West imagine: China has cut imports from Russia over the last three years only a few percentage points less than have Western countries that have imposed sanctions.
And Putin’s “greatest triumph” in the minds of some, the election of Donald Trump who has been openly pro-Russian in his campaign and in his selection of cabinet nominees, isn’t likely to work out as he wants and as some fear.
On the one hand, Putin’s open involvement in American electoral politics is already producing a backlash among some like Senator John McCain who are certain to conduct the kind of investigations that will undermine the swoon of many in Washington for the Kremlin leader and his policies.
And on the other, Trump’s new nationalism will not work to Putin’s advantage across the board. It may tragically lead to less American concern with human rights and democracy and less support for those like Ukraine and the Baltic countries that are directly threatened by Putin’s aggressiveness.
But Trump’s call for dramatically boosting US energy production will have the effect of driving down oil prices, thus undercutting the primary source of income on which Putin’s war machine rests; and his disruption of international trade arrangements, something Putin welcomes, will also work against Putin and Russia.
As trade is disrupted, ever more countries will first focus on their own problems rather than on others, making it more difficult for Russia to attract investment, and then they will almost certainly try to make new arrangements for cooperation, in which Putin’s Russia is unlikely to find a place.
As we approach the darkest day of the year, it is perhaps natural that people have bleak assessments. But if one looks back to 1979 and its aftermath, one can take courage.
Just two months into 1980, the US hockey team defeated the Soviet one at the Lake Placid Olympics, an event that changed how Americans thought about the US-Soviet competition.
Many became convinced as the coach of that team put it that the day of the Soviets was “done” and that if a group of American college kids could defeat what was in fact a professional Soviet team, that could only mean that Americans and the American system could defeat the Soviets and theirs.
Within a decade, that occurred, an outcome that the defeatists of today should not only remember but take seriously.
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