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What Does Putin Want?

David Brin

Contrary Brin

August 19, 2015

Talk of war? Major war in Europe?  This long and very detailed article in Vox examines the ways that Russia’s contretemps with NATO and the US and the West could spiral out of control, via many of the same psychological  and strategic miscalculations that tumbled the planet – 100 years ago – into the First World War.  

Take some examples of alarming signs. In recent months, NATO reported unusually large movements of Russian fighter jets   looping around Europe, including several airspace violations in the Baltics. This month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia planned to increase bomber flights in the Gulf of Mexico. And Sweden conducted an extensive search for a submarine in its waters that local media said was believed to be Russian. 

Another report: “Russia is provoking Finland, repeatedly guiding military planes into Finnish airspace and deploying submarines and helicopters to chase after Finnish research vessels in international waters. The incidents are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior that has radiated across Europe but that has been especially unnerving for countries such as Finland that live outside the protective bubble of NATO.”

“In May, Finland’s defense ministry sent letters to 900,000 citizens — one-sixth of the population — telling them to prepare for conscription in case of a “crisis situation.” Lithuania has reinstituted military conscription. Poland, in June, appointed a general who would take over as military commander in case of war. Though Western publics remain blissfully unaware, and Western leaders divided, many of the people tasked with securing Europe are treating conflict as more likely. In late April, NATO and other Western officials gathered in Estonia, a former Soviet republic and NATO member on Russia’s border that Western analysts most worry could become ground zero for a major war with Russia.”

And… ‘Repeated Russian warnings that it would go to war to defend its perceived interests in Ukraine, potentially even nuclear war, are dismissed in most Western capitals as bluffing, mere rhetoric. Western leaders view these threats through Western eyes, in which impoverished Ukraine would never be worth risking a major war. In Russian eyes, Ukraine looks much more important: an extension of Russian heritage that is sacrosanct and, as the final remaining component of the empire, a strategic loss that would unacceptably weaken Russian strength and thus Russian security.’

The Putin Fixation

And there you see the crux. While Fox News and the Murdochians engage in their cult of Putin adulation,  calling the Russian President a strong alpha male and brilliant chess player, in fact, our worrisome possibility is the diametric opposite, the kind of miscalculation that comes from steep decline, as every aspect of Russian life, from the economy to birthrates to the ruble to lifespans to the braindrain, spirals ever-downward.

(Though as an aside, at these exchange rates, this might be a good time for that tourism jaunt to the Hermitage.)

One factor that the authors of this fascinating piece left out is China, which has begun to bankroll Moscow in order to gradually counter-balance western influence and power.  The creation of a Great Eurasia is now discussed widely, as Russian military technology combines with Chinese industrial and economic strength. On paper, this may seem a great deal for two powers who share an antipathy toward western notions of democratic pluralism and law, under a unipolar American Pax.  But there are aspects seldom mentioned –

—such as the small matter of the largest territory on Earth, Siberia.  Claimed and owned by Russia, but resource rich and tantalizingly close to more than a billion cramped Han Chinese.  Who are already investing in that region, big time, and slipping tens of thousands of workers and businessmen and innocent professionals across the border, every year – whose presence someday might offer exactly the expatriate population “to be protected” that Putin now uses as an excuse to bully Estonia. 

To which one has to wonder.  Has Vladimir Putin already sold Siberia, either secretly or implicitly, to Beijing?  Or is he truly so focused westward that he has no thoughts of the east? 

But perspective is never seen on cable news… or any news, for that matter. What about Putin’s “master chess player” moves in Crimea, the Donbas and Georgia? Please? These consist entirely of nibbles-back of crusts—where Russian speakers predominate—from the biggest geopolitical setback any Russian leader has overseen since the Mongol invasions ... the complete loss from the Russian sphere of influence of Ukraine.

He might have hoped that (perhaps with some subtle help) the Ukrainian economy would tank and Ukrainians might elect another Yanukovich.  Now? They would fight and shiver and freeze before they’ll ever again kowtow to Moscow.  The breach is permanent… or will last generations. Ukrainians are guaranteed never, ever again to allow a Russian-loving Yanukovich back into power. So much for subtle chess.

Then why does Fox News adore Putin?

Look, I will give Vladimir Putin his due.  He reduced the chaos of the Yeltsin years (though not street or organized crime.) I was impressed by his maneuver, a few years back, to have his protege, Medvedev, serve one term as president, in order that Putin could obey the constitutional ban on three consecutive terms… an obstacle that most strongmen would solve by simply command-amending the Constitution.  Indeed, that piece of political theater may have done the notion of Russian civil society some long-term symbolic (if potemkin) good.  Though the destruction of non-governmental media and conversion of provincial governorships from elected to appointed status showed Putin’s true intentions.

None of this matters to the Fox-Limbaugh-Beck spin machine over here, though. “Sure he’s a tyrant,” they all admit. “But if only our own leaders were as savvy, dynamic and strong!” The Russian president is portrayed as a latter-day Peter the Great, out-maneuvering our politicians with a brilliant combination of forceful determination, agility and macho ruthlessness. As with all-things-Fox, I have to scratch my head and ask — “are there viewers who actually nod their heads and swallow this stuff?”

That kind of admiration would be disturbing enough, on so many levels.  For one thing, it reflects the Confederacy’s 200 year love affair with authoritarian oligarchy, stretching back to when the British Crown got most of its tory support in the 1770s South. The same theme continued through the Gone-With-The-Wind era of slave lords like “Marse Robert” E. Lee, all the way to Citizens United and the way today’s right-wing spin machine pours adulation on the “job creator” caste — who create no jobs.

And the caudillo-yearning propaganda for Caesar figures, spun out in every single tale by Orson Scott Card. Adulation of feudalism just seems to be part of confederate DNA, helping to explain the endless recurrence of America’s ongoing Civil War. 

In fact, we do not need strongmen or lords.  We need the thing that’s ridiculed and downplayed every night by Fox (and also by some radicals on the very extreme left.)  We need calm-negotiation. We need politics. And respect for facts and science. We need citizenship.

And yet, I suspect Putin may have depths… even a plan… after all

Oh, it’s not the “plan” that Fox-fools credit to him. The truth is exposed starkly via this article in MONEY.  “Things in Russia are going from bad to worse.”

Across the last two decades, almost no effort has been made to reform the underlying Russian economy so that it might leverage high technology startups out of its highly educated populace. Putting aside the lucrative business of skuyllduggerous internet activity, that economy relies almost solely on an obsolescing fossil fuel industry. Capital flight has reached the level of an arterial gusher. Any trace of entrepreneurialism is pounced upon and gobbled up by oligarchs, backed by organized crime.

What the article in Money leaves out is far more disturbing. Russian men are drinking themselves to death  and Russian women have stopped having babies with them. (Russia’s population has declined by almost 7 million in the last 19 years, to 142 million. UN estimates are that it may shrink by about a third in the next 40 years.) The brain drain is almost a tsunami as smart people are fleeing the country as fast as they can.  Russia had to buy its aircraft carriers from France. (A deal canceled after Crimea.) It has lost every spaceprobe it sent to Mars and has not innovated in space in decades.

And yet…

And yet I look at him. It’s blatant to everyone how fiercely intelligent the man is.

 Now add in the fact that he has stated openly that the collapse of the old Soviet Union – that gave him his big break and chance for power - was the “greatest tragedy” for Russians, for Slavs… and possibly for humanity. The greatest tragedy ever.

Consider that he saw how George H.W. Bush (senior) – easily the worst U.S. president of the 20th Century, connived with Boris Yeltsin to hand the entire Russian economy over to crooks and oligarchs, cheating the people of everything.  Ponder how this consolidated all economic power and all state enterprises into the hands of just a few.

Now (and here’s a test of your education) put all that into the context of Marxist theory … if any of you have ever read any, which I doubt. But it was what Putin suckled as a youth.

Now add one science fiction level theory.  No… hypothesis.  No, not even that. A what-if.

What if – I wonder – what-if Vladimir Putin is what he has always been? 
The same thing that he started out as? 
What if he is utterly… sincere?

I have laid the pieces to the puzzle before you.  They are there. All of them. Enough of them. Any of you could figure it out. You are smart enough.

Just very badly educated and ill-read.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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