What to make of American commentators who seem to love Vladimir Putin? From almost any angle, the Russian dictator seems to satisfy all the instincts that make a certain brand of wonk salivate with almost sexual envy: brashness, unapologetic and near-homoerotic displays of masculinity, a refusal to negotiate or consider alternatives, a literal destruction of dissent and political opposition. To too many, Putin is the president they wish would run America – of course, only in line with their own policy preferences (which are as contradictory and reflexively anti-Obama as you’d expect in our era of political derangement).
While examples abound, from right wingers like Max Boot to left wingers like Stephen Cohen, they all share similar themes: Putin is the master, whether it’s strategist or decider or bomber or annexer, it is his decision making that makes them quiver with desire and recoil in disgust at the boring old democratic governance we have to deal with.
But I am always most fascinated with Stephen Walt’s especially insipid mixture of contradictions and odes to tyranny. He should know better, and he should be smarter than a third rate Huffington Post blogger, but on paper, away from peer review and his own department looking at his work, he really is not.
And behold his latest. Away from Walt’s quasi racist reduction of a successful lawyer and Senator who won two extremely contentious national elections – something he could only dream of doing if he could get over his smarmy condescension for a few minutes – to a community organizer (heaven forbid Walt be reduced to a waiter or whatever he did to earn drinking money in grad school) is a remarkable bit of nonsense.
For starters, there was never an “EU-Ascension agreement” with Ukraine. It was a trade deal. Walt is repeating Russian propaganda in calling it that (along with the names he reserves for people with more experience actually doing foreign policy than he’s ever devoted to whinging about it on his blog).
What he presents, instead of an argument, is pro-dictator worship seemingly pulled directly from RT chief Margarita Simonyan’s daily planning meetings at the Kremlin which reduces Putin simultaneously to a meek reactionary only beholden to the first actions of evil America (a guise that wears thin on him at this point) but also somehow a master strategist. Walt doesn’t support this contradiction, he just hand waves and assumes you totally know what he means. So maybe it’s worth pondering what the master strategist Putin has gained:
- An economic basket case in Crimea that is only going to drain Russian resources from the actual, non-Annexed regions of Russia;
- Crippling sanctions led by the US that are depriving the Russian people of basic foodstuffs like cheese and fresh vegetables while cratering the ruble and severely restricting access to capital;
- A growing showdown with an actual NATO state with stronger interests in Syria and a more experienced military in the form of Turkey;
- An unsustainable tempo of military operations that are sinking Moscow into a quagmire proxy war with Saudi Arabia’s insane crazy jihadists;
And you get the point. Putin is actually a terrible strategist and I don’t think he ever thought through the consequences of any of his decisions because they’re leaving Russia impoverished, isolated, and exhausted.
Rather, it is Obama who, contrary to the weird argument that he’s both too aggressive and too meek to “counter” Russia, has actually boxed them into a steadily shrinking space that is slowly breaking them without firing a single shot.
No one likes to admit that, contrary their fantasies of George W Bush-like strategery and decisionairiness, it is Obama’s patient, non-direct approach that has hurt Russia far more than sending a few tanks to Ukraine or a few MANPADS to Syria ever could.
And if Walt (like so many of his contemporary power-worshippers) weren’t so reflexively anti-American he’s become blind to reality, he’d be able to use his considerable brain to see that. Alas.