While George Bush and his neocons chased nation building phantoms in Iraq for the past five years, Vladimir Putin was quietly, sensibly and systematically rebuilding the might of Russia. And now he’s done it: The bear is back.
Putin stepped down after eight years as president on Wednesday, but by Thursday he was back as prime minister.
Putin installed 42-year-old Dmitri Medvedev as his "successor" but Medvedev is no Dick Cheney — or John McCain for that matter. Only Western intellectuals and liberals take him seriously. In Russia he was rightly and accurately regarded as a joke from the very beginning. When the New York Times asked a particularly courageous and defiant member of the State Duma, the main chamber of the Russian parliament, after Putin selected his successor what Medvedev’s qualities were to lead his nation of around 140 million people, she replied that he could pour a cup of coffee without spilling it when he had to.
America’s obsession with Iraq through the past six and seven years proved to be an enormous blessing to Putin (and Ahmadinejad and others). It completely distracted the attention of Bush administration policymakers and Republican-controlled congresses in Washington while Putin slowly, systematically and with remarkable competence and success restored the old centralized, military-based power system that has defined the Russian state for more than half a millennium. As prime minister, there should be no doubt that he will go on doing precisely that.
Medvedev has no independent power base of his own and no independent credibility with the Russian people. Putin personally is retaining a firm grip on the new political structure he has created that controls the Duma, and the national government, he retains his ultimate power base with the siloviki, the barons of the Russian security services, and with the generals he raised up to run the Russian armed forces.
One of Putin’s first statements as prime minister on Thursday was briefly reported throughout the mainstream American media. But its true significance was understood by none of them. Putin pledged to continue rebuilding the might of the Russian armed forces and he also pledged to greatly improve the wages and living conditions of Russian servicemen and their families. That alone, will serve to further guarantee his own iron grip on the primary loyalty of the armed forces.
Medvedev has of course, said all the right things about liberalizing and modernizing Russia, just as Putin wants him to do. One can see President Medvedev and a future U.S. President Barack Obama getting along like a house on fire, just as the equally credulous Democratic Vice President Al Gore went weak at the knees with his old buddy Viktor Chernomyrdin, prime minister of Russia under Yeltsin for five years in the 1990s. (Of course, Bush saw into Putin’s soul, famously too.)
Chernomyrdin was in fact a tough old apparatchik who was the chief political enabler for Gazprom, then the largest and most powerful energy company in the world. All Gore could see, however, was a fellow liberal, democrat and green. And no doubt Obama will see similar “enlightened” virtues in Medvedev. As Simon and Garfunkel famously sang in “The Boxer,” “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
Putin, in fact, is perfectly sincere about modernizing Russia. But he has never pretended to imagine that this means adopting the Constitution of the United States or turning Russia into a disarmed, tree-hugging federation of democracies with open borders like the European Union.
Putin, a proud son of St. Petersburg (which was still Leningrad when he was growing up) has always openly modeled himself on St. Petersburg’s founder, Czar Peter the Great. Peter was the greatest Westernizer and modernizer that Russia had ever known. But he did so in the name of increasing the military and autocratic power of the state, not reducing it. Under him, Russia stripped Sweden of enormous chunks of territory including the Baltic states, created its first navy and laid the foundation for its military domination of all Eurasia for the next 250 years.
It was, therefore, no coincidence, that Putin‘s formal handing over of the presidency to Medvedev on Wednesday and his instantaneous reappearance as the nation‘s prime minister on Thursday were both immediately followed on Friday by the biggest, boldest and most militaristic, rocket-waving military parade Moscow has seen in a generation to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Russia’s military defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, which Russians call “The Great Patriotic War.”
Josef Stalin, the most terrible and bloodstained tyrant Russia has ever known, presided over that victory, although only after his personal gross incompetence in directing the struggle had cost the Russian people between 32 million to 40 million precious lives. Yet under Putin, Stalin has been rehabilitated as the great constructive Soviet/Russian leader of the past century.
Stalin, it should be remembered, incredibly started out as a moderate too. He closed down the Comintern, recognizing the futility and danger to his personal power of continuing Leon Trotsky‘s witless, crazed attempts to create instant revolutions simultaneously all around the world.
Stalin also shaped and supported the New Economic Policy from 1921 on which ended the horrendous famines that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s communist economics had created in the richest and largest farmlands on earth. For both these measures, Stalin was hailed as a “moderate” throughout the 1920s and even Winston Churchill publicly celebrated him in these terms.
Indeed, it was only after eight years in power, in 1929, that Stalin unleashed the Cult of Personality to celebrate his own 50th birthday and then he came up with the bright idea of collectivizing the farm lands of Russia and the Ukraine.
Some 10 million Ukrainians were deliberately slaughtered or starved to death between 1929 and 1932 as a result in what historian Robert Conquest called “The Harvest of Sorrow”: and what Ukrainians to this day call the holodymyr” — the famine-genocide.
Putin too has now completed eight years in office so in terms of his time in power, he is today at the position where Stalin was in 1929.
Putin so far has certainly been no Stalin. But like Stalin he has quietly, steadily and consistently increased the power of the state. Like Stalin, he has spoken with deceptive mildness on the world stage, but like Stalin he has also shown his toughness and even ferocity when he felt he had to. The ruthless but highly effective crushing of the Chechen secessionist movement, with all its outrageous terrorism and violence — including the massacre of hundreds of innocent schoolchildren at Beslan — is a case in point. Putin proved a lot more effective against the Chechens than Bush has against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Unlike George W. Bush, Putin has shown he can be relentless and utterly effective in hunting down and killing the terrorist leaders who have assailed his people.
But it should also be remembered that Putin has certain assets that Stalin never did. He has the world’s most formidable arsenal of thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now he is modernizing them on a scale not seen in 30 years, at the same time as President Bush, currying favor with the Greens (Heaven knows why), is boasting of cutting down the numbers of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Putin also has a bulging treasury from ruling the world’s largest combined oil and energy exporter at a time when global oil prices have spiked at $126 a barrel and could go even higher.
Putin has come farther in the past eight years than almost any Western political leader and pundit imagined when he quietly took over from the ailing Yeltsin on New Year’s Day 2000. American conservatives have tended to ignore him or shrug him off through all that time. Bad mistake.