Putin vs. Obama: The ‘New Cold War’ Roots of the Clash Over Syria
Editor in Chief’s Note: The November 2010 issue of Armchair General magazine contained the Special Feature article “Russia’s New Cold War,” an in-depth examination of whether the behavior of the Putin (in 2010, the Medvedev-Putin) regime suggested that the “Evil Empire” of the Cold War era was back. The article’s analysis of Russian actions – to include Russia’s domestic and foreign policy goals – that explain Kremlin behavior remain vitally relevant to understanding the roots of the “Putin vs. Obama” situation that has emerged in the current crisis over the Syrian civil war. Moreover, as the article predicted, since Putin was elected once again as Russia’s President in 2012 (garnering 64-percent of the vote and repressing subsequent protests) with the likely prospect of serving two, six-year terms, Barack Obama will not be the last U.S. President who must face the Putin regime.
RUSSIA’S NEW COLD WAR
“The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone.”
In a March 8, 1983 speech, President Ronald Reagan famously characterized the totalitarian communist government of the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” He used the un-diplomatically blunt terminology to rally America and the West to take a more aggressive, hard-line stance toward the USSR during the fourth decade of the nearly half-century long military, economic, political and cultural superpower confrontation known as the Cold War (1947-91). When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 – its demise largely due to the inherent flaws in the rigid, inefficient Soviet system but accelerated by Reagan’s revitalization of economic and military competition – the Cold War was declared over and the Evil Empire relegated to the “ash heap of history” (another Reagan phrase but intentionally borrowed from one of the USSR’s creators, Leon Trotsky).
However, recent behavior by the leaders of Russia, the USSR’s principal successor state, raises concerns that Moscow’s actions could represent a “new Cold War.” Certainly, the August 2008 Russian invasion of the tiny nation of Georgia, its neighbor (and a former Soviet colony) in the Caucasus, has evoked comparison to repressive, heavy-handed Soviet era military actions such as the brutal 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Other Cold War-like Russian actions add to the perception: nuclear saber-rattling directed at Warsaw over U. S. missile defense base plans; using natural gas supply blackmail to intimidate former Soviet Union neighboring countries like Ukraine; disseminating and promoting virulent anti-Americanism in Russia and abroad; teaming up with Venezuela’s socialist dictator, Hugo Chavez, to challenge the U. S. in the Western Hemisphere (a recent $5 billion arms deal brings Venezuela’s weapons buy from Russia to $9 billion – a huge amount for a South American country with a deteriorating economy); blocking international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; bullying other nations to accept Russian hegemony over Arctic region resources; spewing super-heated rhetoric whenever Western nations pursue policies Moscow doesn’t like; and using threats of a renewed arms race to intimidate Washington into signing a new strategic arms reduction treaty. The Kremlin’s hard-line aggressiveness gives rise to fears that the Evil Empire is back.
COLD WAR MENTALITY
Fears that the Evil Empire is back are grounded on the assumption that after the USSR’s collapse it was gone. Yet, this assumption is based on a profound misunderstanding of the motivations, long term goals and very nature of the behavior of Russian leadership. Russia’s leaders – whether Czarist, Bolshevik, Soviet or New Russian – traditionally and consistently have promoted aggressive domestic and foreign policies in the relentless, single-minded pursuit of what they perceive as Russia’s parochial national interests. The only thing “new” about the so-called “new Cold War” is Russia’s ability now to translate its long-pursued policy goals into actions.
Those claiming that we are entering a new Cold War era with Russia typically wax nostalgically about the “honeymoon period” of Russian-Western relations in the years immediately following the USSR’s 1991 collapse. Finally released from seven-plus decades of stifling Soviet rule, Russia’s new democrats (many in the West presumed) had seen the light and were busily engaged in the pursuit of free market capitalism, domestic reform and international cooperation. Troubling indications that many in Russia were discontent with democratic reforms were simply blamed on the West, chalked up to Russian disappointment with the amount of Western assistance during the painful transition from communism to capitalism. To these observers, therefore, Russia’s recent behavior represents a troubling departure from what they presumed was transpiring during the “honeymoon period.” Or so the story goes.
Yet, those of us who developed and coordinated U. S.-Russia policy issues in Washington during the early- to mid-1990s observed that the “honeymoon period” was largely an illusion. Americans and Russians were viewing each other through the lenses of their own experiences and world views, making faulty assumptions about what they were seeing and imparting on each other presumed attitudes and motivations that neither actually held. Russian leadership has never lost what we might term its “Cold War mentality,” but which those in the Kremlin see as jealously guarding Russia’s historic – and, to them, rightfully deserved — national interests. And this attitude is not only held by Russia’s leadership – it permeates the ordinary Russian population.
THE VIEW FROM THE VOLGA
The disconnect between American and Russian attitudes and perceptions was made painfully obvious during a meeting in Volgograd, Russia (formerly Stalingrad, site of World War II’s historic turning point battle on the Volga) in 1991 as the Soviet Union imploded. The occasion was an informal meeting between an ad hoc group of Red Army Great Patriotic War veterans and a visiting delegation of U. S. military officers from the National Defense University in Washington, D. C. During the meeting, one retired Soviet colonel asked the Americans, “Why doesn’t the world give the USSR due credit for ending the Cold War?” His tone was indignant at best, accusatory at worst, and implied that he suspected an international, anti-USSR conspiracy was hard at work. While many Americans at that time felt a euphoric sense of “victory” at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and the apparent end of the half-century Cold War, Russians viewed that watershed event in world affairs from an entirely different perspective.
The attitude of these Red Army veterans reflected their conviction that the USSR had not “lost” the Cold War. In their minds and those of their countrymen, the superpower confrontation had been brought to a close largely due to Soviet forbearance and restraint – the USSR had “allowed” the captive nations of Eastern Europe to tear down the Iron Curtain by deciding not to take the military action that would have been necessary to prevent it. They were convinced that Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic nations, East Germany and the rest of Soviet-dominated Europe had only succeeded in becoming free and independent nations because the Soviet Union had allowed them to do so.
Russia’s former president (2000-08) and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin (a former Cold War-era KGB secret police officer), retains a powerful, presumably the dominant position in the government. Increasingly, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is seen as merely a placeholder between Putin presidential administrations. One Russian government insider remarked that Putin’s 2000 election as president represented “the culmination of the KGB’s crusade for power. Now, the KGB runs the country.” Although the KGB is now called the FSB (since 1995), little beyond the notorious’ agency’s name has changed.
Muscovites often refer to their city as “Putingrad” (“St. Putinsburg” also pops up). Aided by a lapdog Russian media, Putin deliberately has cultivated a bare-chested, “he-man” image that promotes him as the epitome of “Russian manliness.” Revealingly, one of Putin’s favorite Russian leaders of the past is Czar Peter the Great, the dynamic ruler who transformed Russia from a backward Eurasian fiefdom into an empire and major European power. Putin-worship in Russia seems reminiscent of Stalin’s sinister “cult of personality,” and Putin has done little to dampen his countrymen’s enthusiasm in that regard.
Putin encourages a resurgent Russian nationalism seldom seen since the bad old days of the Cold War that now blindly and with knee-jerk chauvinism routinely rejects any criticism of crimes committed by the USSR, dismissing such charges as anti-Russian propaganda or Western provocation. A public opinion poll in Russia taken in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War reported an 80-percent approval rating of the Russian invasion of Georgia, a result hardly likely to dissuade Kremlin bosses from pursuing a similar course in the future.
Russia’s political leadership of the country’s “managed democracy” operates mostly unfettered by the brakes found in the U.S. and most Western European countries. Russian media spouts the Kremlin party line (while unfriendly reporters often suffer dire consequences, including assassination, for criticizing the regime), the public swoons every time Putin bares his chest, and the rubber stamp Federal Assembly generally follows the executive’s lead. Nationalism may be passé in the West, but it is virtually the state religion of Russia, reinforced by an “us against them” mentality that permeates the country and results in the population’s whole-hearted support of Putin’s drive to regain the nation’s former superpower status (couched in Kremlin terms as achieving a “multi-polar” world order).
Putin’s “Russia über alles” approach to domestic and foreign policy plays well to the Russian public. [See “What Does Russia Really Want?”: Russia’s Domestic and Foreign Policy Goals]. Moreover, the Kremlin regime is aided and abetted by important vested interests. Chief among these vested interests that have climbed aboard the Putin regime bandwagon are Russia’s “oligarchs,” a new class of predatory businessmen amassing fortunes with the aid of government collusion (and who are kept in line by the threat of prison or exile if they cross Putin). The other important vested interest is Russia’s military-industrial complex fueled (quite literally via gas and oil revenues) by the 500-percent increase in military budgets since 2000. Although Western analysts have criticized the Russian military’s performance (organization, leadership, training, tactics, execution, and dated weapons technology – particularly the Russian Air Force) in the August invasion of Georgia, its swift defeat of Georgia’s overmatched, NATO-trained military demonstrates that Russia’s armed forces significantly improved since the humiliating Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 starkly exposed Russia’s military weakness. Much needs to be done if Russia’s dream of bringing its forces up to the superpower status and global reach of the U. S. armed forces is ever to be realized, but the Georgia invasion demonstrated that the Russian military is quite capable of intimidating or, if necessary, overpowering its nearby neighbors. Although Russian forces today, armed with 1980s-era weapons and supported by out of date technology, may only be an updated version of the force that rolled into Berlin in 1945, they seem more than adequate to roll into, say, Tbilisi, Kiev, Riga or Talinn.
THE STRATEGY OF ANTI-AMERICANISM
Opinion polls in Russia not only show whole-hearted support for the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy, they demonstrate a virulent anti-Americanism that approaches levels not seen since the Cold War. It is no accidental phenomenon; anti-Americanism in Russia is a carefully nurtured, well-planned and enthusiastically supported strategy implemented by Russia’s leadership. Kremlin bosses encourage anti-Americanism through such means as state-sponsored youth groups, state-controlled media pundits, domestic “think tanks” with international outreach, Russian-produced documentaries and films, and via the Internet.
The Kremlin’s anti-Americanism strategic tool is useful both domestically and internationally. On the home front, America is a convenient scapegoat upon which to blame Russia’s ills, such as the failure of economic reforms taken in the wake of the USSR’s collapse to bring wider-spread prosperity and the continuing domination of the country’s economy by predatory oligarchs (who, the “party line” claims, have merely mimicked U. S. capitalist exploiters, the stereotypical image of American businessmen promoted for decades by Soviet propagandists). In this regard, Putin and his allies are stealing a tactic from Stalin (whose resurrection as a Russian national hero is, not coincidentally, in full swing). In the 1930s, Stalin used the specter of banished Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, to create an entire class of “enemies of the people,” branded as “Trotskyite wreckers” who were conveniently blamed for the disruption, accidents and widespread privation actually caused by Stalin’s brutal forced industrialization. Although today’s “enemies of the people” have changed, the tactic is the same. It also works – a recent public opinion poll showed that 75-percent of Russians polled believed that the United States “abused its global power;” only 2-percent expressed “a lot of confidence” that American President Barack Obama would “do the right thing in world affairs.”
Internationally, anti-Americanism in Russian foreign policy is being used as a tool to forge closer relations with countries opposed to U. S. policy and influence such as Iran and Venezuela. Using the foreign policy approach of seeking to unite with these countries against the “common enemy” – America – Russia hopes to create a counterbalance to American global influence by creating a “multi-polar” world. This approach also works to some degree with Western European countries that perceive any extension of U. S. international political, economic, cultural and military power and prestige as a blatant attempt to spread American global hegemony.
NATO: THE KREMLIN’S ENDURING BOOGEYMAN
Nowhere is Russia’s enduring Cold War mentality more evident than in its views regarding NATO. The Western Alliance has been portrayed as an anti-Soviet (now anti-Russian) “boogeyman” for so long that it is apparently impossible for Russian leaders – and ordinary Russian citizens – to think of NATO in any other way today. And far from mellowing during the so-called honeymoon period of the early 1990s, Russia’s fear and loathing of NATO actually intensified following the USSR’s collapse. The veritable stampede of former Eastern Bloc nations (Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania) to Brussels to plead their cases for early NATO membership in the wake of the USSR’s fall merely seemed to confirm the suspicions of Kremlin leadership about NATO’s sinister ulterior motives. At the time, U. S. policy-makers attempted to keep the countries recently emerged from under the Soviet yoke at arm’s length (lest America appear too insensitive of Russian feelings) by offering them the largely symbolic Partnership for Peace program. Yet, the former USSR colonies were desperately interested in NATO security guarantees, not diplomatic pats on the head. Leaders in Bucharest, Prague, Budapest and Warsaw – whose first hand experience under Soviet domination gave them a much better understanding of Russian behavior than Americans — saw the situation as a window of opportunity for attaining NATO membership as a hedge against future Russian recalcitrance and possible aggression. Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia likely makes these countries’ attainment of NATO membership seem eminently prudent.
Although NATO has profoundly evolved from its Cold War-era role as the military bulwark against potential Soviet aggression toward Western Europe, it remains the Kremlin’s boogeyman. Russian leadership continues to resent what it perceives as NATO’s “aggressive actions” in former Soviet Union countries on Russia’s borders, and Moscow has been especially irritated by the pro-NATO, pro-U. S. policies of former USSR republics like Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic nations. In this regard, Russia’s recent humiliation of Georgia not only re-affirmed Russian influence in the Caucasus, it sent an unambiguous “be careful of cooperating with NATO” message to Ukraine and the Baltic countries. Indeed, it was no surprise that soon after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko showed up in Tbilisi to show support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime. Yushchenko had earned Moscow’s ire by actively seeking NATO membership for Ukraine; but Russian leadership is elated by the February 2010 election of pro-Russia politician and Moscow favorite, Viktor Yanukovych, who seems to have quashed any further Ukraine bid to join NATO for the foreseeable future (Yanukovych has stated that the issue of Ukrainian membership in NATO might “emerge at some point, but we will not see it in the immediate future.”).
Moscow sees NATO as a dagger pointed at Russia; Washington views NATO as a security blanket whose evolved mission should no longer be perceived as directly targeting Moscow. U. S. leadership considers NATO today as an effective means of applying the principle of collective security to counter threats in today’s increasingly dangerous world, and as a valuable forum for keeping European countries “engaged” in vital international issues. Yet, absent a sudden disbanding of NATO, it seems certain that it will remain the Kremlin’s convenient boogeyman through which to garner and maintain domestic support, and to provide an excuse for Russia’s reassertion of its national interests throughout its former empire. Fear and loathing of NATO among ordinary Russians is much too valuable a domestic political tool for Moscow to abandon.
OUTLOOK: WORLD STATESMEN OR REGIONAL BULLIES?
The question of whether Russia’s recent actions represent a new Cold War is rather naively grounded on a faulty assumption, thereby missing the point. It assumes that Soviet behavior during the Cold War was both a dramatic departure from pre-Soviet era Russian behavior as well as being substantially different from Russia’s post-Cold War actions and policies. The point that many of today’s observers and political pundits miss is that recent Russian behavior — Russia’s current aggressive, single-minded pursuit of what Moscow sees as its own parochial national interests — long predates the Cold War and the Soviet era, dating back to Imperial Russia and even to the empire’s genesis in medieval Muscovy. Those who take the long view of history will see more historical consistency in Russia’s recent actions in the Caucasus than they will evidence of a “new Cold War.” Indeed, leaders in Ankara and Tokyo could enlighten Washington policy makers with insight on pre-Soviet, Imperial Russian behavior based on Turkey’s and Japan’s experiences in that regard in the 19th (five Russo-Turkish Wars) and early 20th centuries (Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05). Kremlin leadership may no longer be Soviet, but apparently it is consistently “Russian.”
Whether we call the Kremlin’s current approach to domestic and international affairs a new Cold War or – more accurately — simply “Russians acting like Russians,” it seems highly unlikely that Moscow will abandon its pursuit of what it perceives as acting aggressively in its own national interests as long as the main elements of the country’s national power remain robust. Political scientists identify the traditional elements of national power as comprised of economic, political and military components. Economically – barring a complete global financial meltdown or a total collapse of the oil and gas market – Russia’s petroleum and natural gas-fueled economy should remain strong enough for the Kremlin to continue its “carrot and stick” oil and gas blackmail against Western Europe and former Soviet Union nations bordering Russia.
Politically, the Putin-Medvedev regime enjoys broad-based domestic support, while the weak-kneed Western European response to Russia’s August 2008 aggression against Georgia is an indicator of the increasing strength of Russia’s international political stature. The apparently inevitable prospect of Putin returning as Russian President at the 2012 election – eligible to serve two consecutive 6-year terms – hardly augurs an imminent sea-change in the attitudes and actions of Russian political leadership.
Militarily, continued Russian investment in improving its armed forces will enhance a military machine that already has proven quite capable of carrying out Moscow’s regional threats to Russia’s former Soviet Union neighboring nations. Significantly, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, has publicly lobbied for increased investment in exactly what the Russian Armed Forces need to make dramatic improvements to achieve the necessary components of a true superpower military force: the development of precision weapons; intelligence-gathering satellites; air defenses; and the air force. Strategically, Russia’s nuclear arsenal means that the country is and will remain a nuclear superpower — a positioned strengthened by the Obama administration’s decision to cancel a Europe-based missile defense system (which potentially could have neutralized much of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and thereby negate its nuclear superpower status), and by the April 8, 2010, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) whose effect is to virtually guarantee Russia nuclear parity with the U. S.
During the Communist era, Kremlin leaders based decisions and policies on a Marxist concept called the “correlation of forces,” comparing one’s own and the enemy’s strength, evaluating the potential possibilities offered by a favorable “correlation” and planning strategy accordingly. Although that Marxist term may no longer be fashionable, the attitude and behavior of the current Kremlin occupants clearly demonstrate that they have not forgotten what it means. Whether or not Russia’s superpower aspirations will influence Kremlin leaders to start acting like world statesmen instead of regional bullies remains to be seen
About the Author
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, ARMCHAIR GENERAL Editor in Chief, is the former Chief of Russia Branch on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon where he helped coordinate U. S. policy regarding Russia and the fifteen nations formerly part of the Soviet Union. Dr. Morelock’s wife, the Russian artist Inessa Kazaryan Morelock, is a native of Kharkov, Ukraine.