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Putin Is Everything and More — But Not Stupid

March 9th, 2014 - 10:01 pm

We keep hearing that Vladimir Putin is stupid. Does he not get that this is now the 21st century? No, he doesn’t.

The fool seems mired either in the 19th of the czars, or the 20th of Bolsheviks. He certainly does.

Didn’t Putin have to act to shore up falling domestic opinion? Maybe.

Does he not understand that he is alienating Europe? Who knows?

Does he know that absorbing the Crimea is a quagmire? Hardly at all.

Or that he has missed out on common areas of concern between Russia and the U.S.? Probably not.

Does he grasp that sanctions will hurt his vulnerable petrol kleptocracy? Or that what is left of the Ukraine will only become more pro-Western? Perhaps he will, at some far-off day.

Rightly call the Putins of the world thugs, short-sided, nihilistic, and savage. But all that and more do not necessarily translate into stupidity, at least as they see their Hobbesian world.

Can’t he see that we are well-intentioned?

How odd that we alone can fathom how this thug has squandered what little good accrued from his tropical winter Olympics. We alone know that his own planned summit might be spoiled, and needlessly so given his gratuitous invasion of Ukrainian territory. In short, by all our Western liberal calculations, if we were Putin we certainly would not do something not just renegade, but also so abjectly stupid as to enter the Ukraine.

Left unsaid, of course, is that we know that our own erstwhile “reset” intentions were designed to help Putin, so it is doubly maddening that he bites the outreached Western hand. A disappointed Barack Obama has dismissed Putin’s various photo-ups and melodramatic fits as “macho shtick” and analogous to the bored kid slouching in the back of the room — as if the frustrated teacher could not draw out the gangbanger who once showed so much hidden promise.

The problem with all this condescending advice about and to Putin is not just the conceit that he obviously must see the world — not to mention traditional Russian interests — as we quite understandably do, but that he must also see the U.S. and Europe as we see ourselves. I wish that he would, but I know of no evidence that he does or ever will.

No doubt Putin has shared interests in putting down radical Islamic terror. No doubt that a friendly EU means that his gas and oil exports have reliable markets. No doubt that friendship with the U.S. means one less danger from a nuclear-armed power.

But does Putin agree with such reasoned logic? Probably not.

How Putin sees us

He believes that the U.S. and Europe are wealthy and powerful, but also vulnerable societies who spend what they don’t have and either won’t invest in defense commensurately with their economic wealth or won’t necessarily use the power that they have invested in. Putin suspects that our media-hyped outrages usually subside in a few days, as Westerners move on to the next psychodramatic crisis.

It does not matter that those are gross distortions, unfair, or Neanderthal, it only matters that Putin seems to think them, and that he is not disabused of such conclusions by any evidence that we can adduce to the contrary — despite our rich menu of sermons, sanctions, boycotts, freezes, ostracisms, and shaming.

If there is a downside in alienating world opinion, or even if his new acquisitions cost more than they are worth, such calculations pale in comparison with his perceptions of an upside. Putin assumes the world, for all its pretensions, is amoral. He assumes it  looks up to states that show power and confidence rather than fairness and justice.

It matters little that his repulsive cynicism may well be wrong, only that such realpolitik guides his calculations. He thinks crudely slicing away portions of the former Soviet Union and adding them to the Russian Federation projects strength and concretely adds to the size of his own mostly failed state.

If these gambles may prove to be unwise long-term investments, to Putin — and no doubt to the Russian people who seems to admire his audacity — they are certainly wise short-term gambles. In Putin’s calculus, a vast and miserable but swaggering Russia is a far superior place to a small, humble, humane, prosperous Switzerland or Denmark.

The same old, same old

There is a tired sense of déjà vu both to Putin and us, his critics. Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were good men who were exasperated by Hitler. Through their unwitting agency, by 1939 the Fuhrer had gained everything he wanted, with a huge new Third Reich of German-speakers only dreamed of by past ambitious German statesmen. Surely Hitler going further into Poland on September 1939 was dumb. Dumber still was Hitler invading his de facto partner Russia on June 22, 1941, when the former had either occupied all of the present-day European Union or arranged it on terms favorable to National Socialism, and the latter was still sending him strategic materials on credit and with free transportation.

Dumbest of all was declaring war on the United States on December 11, 1941, when there was no evidence that even after Pearl Harbor America would necessarily involve itself in a second front in Europe any more than when Britain was left alone and bombed mercilessly between 1939-40.

But did Hitler at the time see his abject folly as being dumb? Did a shocked world rally to stop him? Did neutrals like Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, and Turkey show their repugnance for Hitler’s dumb and counter-productive strong-arm tactics by joining up with isolated democratic Britain? Not at all.

Neither Britain nor France had shown any willingness to use force to stop Hitler in the Rhineland during the Anschluss, or in Czechoslovakia, even though in terms of manpower and munitions the allies still had material advantages over Germany. Instead, quite cynically Hitler assumed that France and Britain either would not go to war over Poland, or if they did, they would fight only half-heartedly in 1939.

To Hitler, Russia seemed weak after Stalin’s purges of his office corps and his dismal performances against Poland and Finland. Blitzkrieg had not yet failed, after sweeping through Poland, Denmark, France and the Low Countries. France had fallen in eight weeks, and if the German relative experience on the same two fronts in World War I were any guide, Russia, the probable weaker foe, would now fall in four weeks.

Given Hitler’s aims, values, and methodologies, very dumb decisions at the time seemed to him not so dumb. Going to war with the United States was imbecilic, but Hitler assumed that his U-boats could now attack convoys at their source on the Eastern U.S. coast.He assumed that America, not he, now had the real two-front war, and that our rush to arms would be unimpressive and reflect our mentality of 1939 rather than that of 1917.

All these were dumb conclusions, but again for Hitler, not so dumb at the time. His aims were not just creating a prosperous German-speaking empire with health care for all, new green laws, and autobahns crisscrossing his fresh annexations, but also brutally rekindling a sense of the Volk, and through barbarous slaughter enshrining his ideas of racial superiority from the Atlantic to the Urals. That was a dumb idea, among other things, but also one that Hitler though achievable and in his long-term interest.

The point is that dictators do dumb things all the time that make no long-term sense — like oil- and gas-rich Iran pursuing a costly and dangerous nuclear bomb program, or Argentina starting a war with Great Britain over the windswept Falklands. But history’s ultimate verdict does not mean that such gambles did not seem a good idea at the time, given the perceived lack of deterrence and the apparent short-term advantages to be had.

Fantasy realities

Putin’s dream of a huge new Russian Federation that nations might fear and defer to is absurd. In truth, it would lead only to a cash-strapped Russia spreading its misery to those border states currently lucky enough to have distanced themselves from the same old corruption, thuggery, and inefficiency.

Putin knows that he would be crushed in a conventional fight with the U.S. even without NATO. He knows that his strategic arsenal is not as sophisticated as America’s. But he also knows that the U.S. has a propensity to rationalize aggression rather than to sacrifice to stop it, especially after the turmoil over Iraq and Afghanistan.

We think Putin is stupid for annexing the Crimea. He thinks we — with the most vast military power in history and the world’s largest economy — are stupid to issue meaningless red lines to Syria, serial empty deadlines to Iran, and step-over lines to himself. We think he is ridiculous with his bare-chested photo-ops; he thinks Obama’s biking pictures and golf get-up are as effeminate as he is macho.

The point is not mere relativism (by any abstract measure, Putin appears far more ridiculous than does Obama), but that his posturing to the unsophisticated bystander is more stereotypical of aggression, and Obama’s of deference.

Putin thinks that if the EU and the U.S. were in agreement to punish aggression, if Iraq were stable and garrisoned, if Afghanistan were the same, if Libya were calm, if the Benghazi murderers were in chains, if Egypt were working, if Iran were giving up its nuclear weapons, and if Syria were free of Assad, then it might be a questionable risk to steal the Crimea. But given they are not, what we think is dumb for him is not so much.

Instead, smart for Putin is adding territory for Russia and whipping up public opinion. Smart is warning the Baltic states or western Ukraine or Georgia to behave or they might be next, given his own unpredictability and feigned nihilism. Smart is reminding China, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela that if they wanted to do something similar in their own backyards, there might follow a force-multiplying effect that would benefit all those suffering America’s conceit. Smart for Putin is reminding the Russian people that the world damns, but privately admires, their strongman who with very little resources has achieved global influence and clout at stronger powers’ expense.

That we think a dictator is acting stupidly, or that history will agree some day that a dictator was acting stupidly, means neither that he believes he is or that he cares, or that in the here and now such perceptions matters much. The Poles of Warsaw or the Jews of Kraków did not care much in 1939 that Hitler’s invasion was really stupid for Germany’s long-term interest and would soon eventually be proven so.

Stupid is thinking otherwise.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
1) Putin actually has a pretty good handle on the weakness of the west.
2) Actually, both NATO and the US are incapable of stopping a Russian conventional attack. We have dismantled the NATO infrastructure. There is less than a division of US troops left in Europe [3 scattered Brigades]. The NATO "allies" have dismantled their forces as part of the peace dividend and are incapable of deploying any major forces outside their borders because they do not have the logistics capability. And the US capability to do it for them is not there. POMCUS sets have been brought home. And we could not do a REFORGER. Russia knows this.
3) Our NATO "allies" will not fight until their own individual borders are breached, and probably not then.
4) Nuclear deterrence depends on credibility. Look at the collection of fools, miscreants, maladroits, and unindicted co-conspirators leading the West and tell me that you believe that they would launch, even if attacked.
5) Things are in motion. The Russian ambassador to Latvia today has announced that the Russian ethnic minority in Latvia will be issued Russian passports and citizenship. The Latvian government has no say in this, and Russia now has the same "grounds" to invade Latvia as they claimed for the Crimea.
6) Latvia is a NATO country. Russia, apparently, is not worried about that detail. Which is a rational reading of the West, NATO, and the US Executive Branch.

Subotai Bahadur
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Putin believes that a half century of propaganda, a news media worthy of overtaking Pravda, a Hollywood bathed in treason, an academia openly seditious...has produced a Europe already snuggling at the Communists feet and an America governed by openly totalitarian traitors.

Putin sees small c communists as pets. No longer feral, they are housebroken and trained.

Sure, they may need a swat now and then across the drooling muzzle, but they are toothless, obedient to the "cause".

Putin sees Obama and the soft underbelly of a sissified Europe and America as Pajama Boys with government titles.

China, Russia and Iran fear absolutely nothing about Pajama Boy nations.

Nor should they.

They must hope, however, that Pajama Boys stay in power. The media, Hollywood and academia will do their traitorous best to rig that outcome. That is what Putin is counting on. He isn't stupid. He has just gone to the Roulette table and put all his chips on RED.

And you can't get more red than American media, Hollywood and academia. Or their soft, sissified European counterparts.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
If Putin and Obama faced off mano a mano, whom do you suppose would emerge victorious? That is how Putin thinks. He has taken the measure of our leader and determined he has nothing to fear. My fear is that he (Putin) is entirely correct.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (59)
All Comments   (59)
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A few changes:
=== ===
If there is a downside in alienating public opinion, or even if Obama's new laws cost more than they are worth, Obama sees an upside. Obama sees the US, for all its pretensions, as amoral. He assumes it looks up to presidents who show power and confidence implementing their ideas of fairness and justice.

It matters little that his repulsive cynicism may well be wrong, only that such realpolitik guides his calculations. He thinks that crudely slicing away portions of the former Constitution adds to the power of his state.

If these gambles may prove to be unwise long-term investments, to Obama — and no doubt to the American people who seem to admire his audacity — they are certainly wise short-term gambles. In Obama's calculus, a vast and less wealthy but compliant US is a far superior place to a small, humble government in a more prosperous America.
=== ===
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The moral and legal issues in the Ukrainian crisis are irrelevant. Russian can't back down. It regards the potential integration of Ukraine into the EU and NATO as an existential threat, and Russia will go to war with NATO to prevent it. The US/EU has started up an escalation ladder that leads to nuclear war. It has to get off now.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Putin is best buds with Iran China Egypt Venezuela and others where he will be putting bases, including what is the downside in his eyes??...Russian economy stinks but will appeal to nationalism...anti semitism increasing,..there's nothing new under in new 1930s hitler history with our own version of Muslim Brotherhood Chamberlain
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment

a Messiah to comparing him to Eisenhower due to the Crimean Crisis with Russia. At least we're heading in the right direction in comparing him to his predecessors. But we mustn't stop until we reach Jimmy Carter. Or could it be that Obama is so uniquely God awful he can only be compared to himself?


What would history be like if Barack Obama were president instead of FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan or the two Bushes? Click for the answer.

40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
So the West is on a higher plane in its use of the fascist Right Sector and Svoboda to pull of a coup after the opposition, EU, and elected president came to an agreement?

What a crock you are, Victor. Didn't we expend immense treasure and blood to defeat the fascists in WW2, and now the US is using them (and jihadis in Syria) to cause immense suffering, to bring whole countries into our orbit so we can plow them for their resources and cheap labor.

Leaders across the Western world can best be described as sociopaths, and the people (serfs) they rule over have been fooled into internalizing their madness.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Probably would be if any of that was remotely true.

Don't know which fever-swamp you get your conspiracy theories from Arius but US aid to Syrian rebels, however misguided it might be, is piddling compared to what Iran and Russia pour into the Assad regime and their proxies.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Community organizer v. ex-KGB agent... I know where I would place my money.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
So, Putin is declaring that Russia 'has a right' to sovereign control over populations defined as 'Russian-by-ethnicity'. That was his excuse for going into the Crimea. And he has decreed that the Russian ethnic minority in Latvia will be issued Russian passports and citizenship! Putin isn't insane; he may be egoistic and authoritarian, but remember, Obama is a clinical narcissist and equally authoritarian. Putin, however, lives in the real world and Obama lives only within his rhetoric. Reality always trumps fiction.

Putin is setting up a cross-border 'nationalism-by-ethnicity'. This is a denial of the modern definition of citizenship, which is membership not in a tribe or ethnic group but within a civic nation. A civic nation ignores ethnicity and defines itself and its citizenship only by geographic sovereignty. Putin is rejecting this and instead using the 18th century definition of citizenship as 'membership in an ethnic community'. So whether you live in Russia or the Ukraine or Poland or Latvia - if your background is Russian, then, heck, Putin claims sovereignty.

However, what is interesting is that it is a variation of Islamism - which also ignores and denies the civic nation definition of citizenship and instead, defines citizenship by religion and also seeks an imperialist expansion of power.

Obama is useless; he exists only within his rhetoric and can't connect to the real world. If his 'sweet talk' doesn't bring his audience to its adoring kneew (whether it be an Islamic terrorist or Putin or the GOP or resisters of Obamacare or...) then Obama loses all interest in them. He can only relate to people who accept His Words. Otherwise they are ignorant rednecks. Or simply don't exist. Obama will play golf and have his Official Photographer release pictures of him, ah, talking, talking, talking on the phone 'to other leaders' (do we know this?)...and so what? Talk is cheap; and the oceans are still around and for sure, peace doesn't exist despite Obama's assurances to us that if we elect him, he'll control both the oceans and peace. Obama's actions have decimated the military strength of the US and are destroying its economic strength.

We know the world doesn't operate by the Word. It doesn't operate, either, by emotional ethnic ties. It operates within economic networks and these networks are now global. Can power, or control over people and their wealth, be achieved by networking by ethnicity? Or by networking by religion? Or are the economic connections more basic than either of these two connections?

The EU and the US ought to focus on these economic connections. The US ought to increase its gas production to the EU; Obama ought to reduce capital taxes, reduce regulations, reduce taxes and thus increase US economic production. But he's destroying the US economy - and thus - allowing other networks, very dangerous and irrational networks, to emerge as blocs of power. And we ought to insist on civic rather than ethnic or religious citizenship - but with Obama's multiculturalism, amnesty and political correctness - civic citizenship is weakening.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
There is a difference: Islam expands by force to convert the other. Russia will just expand to protect Russians; it is not creating Russians out of the other.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, sure. I mean, look at the piles of bodies in the street in Crimeal... Those ethnic Russians were being massacred!

Oh, the horror! Something must be done! They need protection!


Detracts from the strength of your arguments.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think many of those who voted for Obama twice are not playing with a full deck. Putin is just taking advantage of the mistakes made by others.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The consensus among russian pundits is that Putin is insane. Сlinically insane - a KGB agent whose professional paranoia has gone to far. He can't comprehend the West as much as the West can't comprehend him. For Putin, The Cold War never ended. He just can't grasp that overthrow of pro-russian regime could be caused by spontaneous protests of common ukranian people. The only explanation that makes sense for him - it's a devious scheme of western secret services. In his mind, he simply makes appropriate counter-manoeuvres.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
You can think Putin is insane if you ignore all the evidence that the US engineered a coup. The question is why did the US do it? For two reasons, to prevent Germany from turning East, and to have Slav fighting Slav. The ultimate goal is to bring about the breakup of the Russian Federation. The US will not allow Russia to become a full member of Europe, a policy that is terribly dangerous. This is not Libya, this is Russia that has thousands of nuclear weapons. We are returning to a second cold war. I, for one, do not want the world to return to that nightmare. You lunatics in the West are pushing Russia and China into closer alliance against the West. The West is certifiably insane, its own worst enemy.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nature abhors a vacuum. Meet the new world's policeman.

Personally I would have voted for the Chinese.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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