Vladimir Putin thinks he has a winning formula to restore the global clout of the old Soviet Union. Contemporary Russia is a chaotic, shrinking, and petrodollar-fed kleptocracy. It certainly lacks the population, the vast resources, and territory of its former communist incarnation. For Putin, restoring a lot of the latter without necessarily the former failed communist state makes sense — especially if he can do it on the cheap with passive-aggressive diplomacy and not getting into a shooting war with the far more powerful U.S. If there is a downside for Putin annexing the Crimea in the short term, no one has yet to explain it.
To pull his aggression off, he has adopted most of the repertoire of the proverbial dictator. Threats of a preventative war are leveled, mostly to “protect” Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics. Plebiscites follow, with the usual 90%-plus results. Thugs and goons are sent in to remind the population that the Russian army may follow.
Then Munich-like, compromise is offered to appease the “international community” — before the finale of carving out and annexing territory outright, with the trailer promise of having no more territorial demands in Europe. Putin has given speeches almost identical to Hitler’s 1938 Berlin address promising no more thefts in Europe and a new Germany without the shame of 1918.
Note the bullying nature of Putin. He prefers scanning westward to slice off parts of Georgia, Ukraine, and perhaps next the Baltic states rather than eastward to pick a border fight with, say, his neighbor China. He bets big-time that affluent and leisured Americans in the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan Age fear tough diplomacy as much as they do war, and thus skip the former in fear it might lead to the latter.
Putin provides the necessary premodern optics to match his muscle flexing. He is our modern Mussolini, with the bare chest, the hunting and fishing poses, the judo posturing, and all sorts of various helmets perched in planes and tanks. Putin believes his people would rather feel proud about increased international swagger than have access to universal health care or Head Start — in the manner that a cow-horned, long-ship raider kept power by reminding his otherwise impoverished Vikings that, beside greater stashes of loot, more people feared and honored them than ever before.
Putin, as the entire administration keeps reminding us, is premodern. He should be, but is not, shamed when John Kerry, Joe Biden, Susan Rice, and Barack Obama variously proclaim that he is a 19th century dinosaur, or has lost the good will of the enlightened West. Again, we are told Putin worries about this; but I think he is about as concerned as were Norsemen like Eric Bloodaxe, who lost all the respect of the monks along the English coast that he so freely raided.
While Putin was making a premodern fool out of himself, blustering and bullying, and lying on the global stage, Barack Obama confirmed most of the Russian stereotypes that he was a postmodern metrosexual. Putin gets up every morning to annoy Barack Obama, piqued not just that he is weak, but that he is sanctimonious and weak. Obama tries to ignore Putin, who grates on him like some Russian version of the folks who tailgate with their Winnebagos at a NASCAR race.
Putin lives to break Western rules. But Obama’s Western rules — deadlines, red lines, step-over lines, leading but from behind — are hard to either break or follow because they are not really rules as much as rhetorical constructs that come and go.
To reflect Obama’s cool, the president did not do photo-ops with European leaders. He did not fly to meetings with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Australia to shore them all up in these uncertain times. Obama certainly did not call in the Persian Gulf monarchs to have no fear, given that Iran better not try the Putin method of appealing to Shiite oppressed minorities in the Gulf petro-kingdoms.
Instead, as if out of central casting, Obama did his now ritually televised basketball-pick shtick, where he sets up a board and draws out winners and losers in the upcoming NCAA basketball tournament. No worry here that his Marks-A-Lot might go rogue on his plastic chalkboard and instead give the nation a primer on international boundaries. No worry here that the president has invested hundreds of hours in watching and following basketball teams rather than in boring stuff like finding the killers of Benghazi, the status of Syrian WMD, Iranian compliance with his promises, or calling some obscure Baltic foreign minister.
To quell international tensions, no-drama Obama did a canned hip interview with the smart-ass and cynical comic Zach Galifianakis to peddle Obamacare to now wiser young people who see its deadlines the way the Iranians saw America’s. For insurance, he also chatted with an obsequious Ellen DeGeneres and reminded Ryan Seacrest that Sarah Palin was wrong: he does not wear mommy jeans but, in fact, looks great in his various designer pants.
Rarely on the world stage have we suffered through two such extremes as an erstwhile community organizer theorizing against a former KGB agent. If only Putin were a run-of-the-mill college president, then Obama might order a takeover of the faculty lounge. Or if Putin were a local bank president, Obama, the SEIU, and Acorn might yell on his lawn about lending more money to the inner city. Alas, even Chicago is not Russia.
Of course, we prefer our postmodern president to Putin’s Neanderthal world, given that Obama’s platitudes and serial fibbing — from keeping our doctors, period, to hounding a video maker for the terrorist attack on Benghazi — do not lead to knocking off his opponents, Russian style. The Obama administration is correct to remind us that the premodern world just can’t work in the present age according to Putin’s rules — in the way unchecked naked aggression always destroys the world around it.
So what does our Eloi in Chief want from Putin the Morlock? He seeks to school Putin to be as sophisticated as we are, in the sense of analyzing the art of annexation and thus concluding that going Viking leads the world nowhere.
Putin stubbornly begs to differ. True, he implicitly understands that every head of state cannot act like Putin. But then again Putin assumes that everyone is not going to act like Putin.
The Western world’s notion of transparent trading of stocks and bonds, of common banking protocols in selling and buying oil, of shipping lanes free of pirates, and of flying according to standardized rules is all predicated on a system. But every system has built into it a margin of error.
Putin is that error. He says to Obama that the world should keep playing by Western rules so that on occasion it can afford him not doing so. Putin is our graffiti vandal, whose antisocial behavior depends on others to ensure most of the walls are not cleaned and repainted.
Putin, in other words, wants a world with one Putin, but not too many more.
Why should Putin stop when he is already the most popular Russian strongman since Stalin, with a good decade to cement his reputation among his flock as the restorer of Greater Russia, with the clout of the Soviet Union, but now energized by oil-fed capitalism? And why should Obama do anything about those dreams when the Final Four is far more important than are either far away Crimeans or Georgians. Ellen is cooler than worrying about Kiev, and joshing with Ryan Seacrest about tight jeans beats talking to some heavily accented Ukrainian. Surely Putin’s next melodramatic theft can at least wait until the Sweet Sixteen.
The final irony? A united Western world very easily could embargo, squeeze, and make things very difficult for Putin with only a modicum of sacrifice. But then, we might not be so postmodern, so hip, so cool. In other words, for Obama, stopping the bully Putin would be a sort of a drag, boring, or a downer in a way Ellen, Ryan, and LeBron are not.