President Vladimir Putin of Russia held his traditional year-end press conference on Dec. 19. The main news is there was none, save for coy hints he may change the constitution to remain in office beyond 2024.
Putin on other occasions has been threatening, encouraging Americans and others to demonize Russia as an enemy. Russian meddling in U.S. elections has provided evidence and encouragement for this.
One result is exaggeration of the true power of Russia and the effectiveness of the ruthless — though not all-powerful — autocrat Putin. Make no mistake, he is a cunning as well as effective power player.
But is Russia our enemy? Clear-headed analysis of this question is fundamental as basis for effective foreign policy.
Putin not only survived but advanced professionally in the KGB, the brutal, murderous Soviet secret police. He spent significant formative years in communist East Germany, a disciplined totalitarian state that drew directly from Nazi Germany.
Yet Russia today does not possess great international power or earlier totalitarian domestic political control. The 2014 annexation of Crimea, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1954, reflects traditional Russian insecurity about reliable access to the global oceans. A home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is in Crimea, where support for Russia is strong.
The European Union, EU, and the Obama administration forcefully protested the invasion and imposed sanctions, no idle gesture given the structural weakness of Russia’s economy. That however did not escalate to a return to the Cold War.
For the U.S. as well as the EU and NATO, effective policy must be put in broad historical context. George Kennan, probably the most perceptive American analyst of Russia, wrote in 1954 that Soviet leaders “are not like … us.”
War to the death with Nazi Germany has had a profound continuing impact on the nation, including the current generation. That fed traditional anxieties regarding territory and national security.
Contemporary Islamic extremism adds to ethnic tensions. Putin has successfully contained various separatist movements in Russia, notably in Chechnya. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was previously a powerful separatist leader, but for some time has been Moscow’s ally.
The tough-talking officials of the George W. Bush administration pressed eastern expansion of NATO, including membership by both Georgia and Ukraine.
Georgia launched a military attack on breakaway South Ossetia. In reaction, the Russian Army in 2008 invaded. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France brokered the cease fire; the Bush administration did nothing.
Ethnic instability is endemic here and throughout the former Soviet Union. During World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin without warning deported Meskhetian Turks from Georgia as part of a vast relocation of an estimated 1.5 million people to Central Asia and Siberia.
Ukraine is entangled with Russia historically, in complex ways. The Russian revolution in 1917 sparked an independence movement. After years of struggle, Ukraine eventually was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Given this history, essential caution should define U.S. policy. Kennan insightfully advocated “containment” as the most effective response to Soviet communism, and that outlook remains the best overall approach. Russia remains weak economically. That provides opportunity for U.S. leverage.
Meanwhile, Putin steadily expands Russia’s influence in the Middle East. President George H.W. Bush led an international coalition to victory in the First Gulf War, and followed up with effective diplomatic leadership.
Today, Putin has now essentially replaced U.S. leadership in that volatile and vital region. Our greatest danger is our own lack of serious leadership.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” Contact email@example.com