President Vladimir Putin of Russia held his traditional year-end press conference on Dec. 17. The annual show is certainly preferable to the grotesque show trials of Stalin’s Soviet Union and provides real information and something of a test of the durable Russian leader.
As always, this was an interesting performance in terms of pure theater. Putin held forth for over four hours, and throughout showed impressive self-confidence as well as command of information. In deference to the continuing pandemic, he met with the media remotely from his home outside Moscow.
Russia’s autocrat certainly demonstrated chutzpah, on various fronts, including the economic. He cited statistics that pandemic reversals have been lower than in other industrial nations.
However, Russia began from a much lower, weaker baseline. Despite the end of old-fashioned Communist control, extensive state involvement in industry remains. This facilitates producing relatively positive statistics, at least for a while.
Above all, stay mindful that Putin not only survived but also advanced professionally in the KGB, the ruthless, murderous Soviet secret police. He spent significant formative years in Communist East Germany, a disciplined totalitarian state that grew directly from Nazi Germany. He is one tough, shrewd, capable adversary.
Russian mischief in other countries is ongoing, with the United States a prime target, and the regime is ruthless toward critics. Last summer, Alexei Navalny, a prominent influential Russia opposition leader, was poisoned and survived only because of emergency evacuation to Germany in a secure aircraft.
For the U.S. as well as our allies, effective policy must reflect historical context. George Kennan, probably the most perceptive American analyst of Russia, wrote in 1954 that Soviet leaders “are not like … us.”
Russia lacks great power but uses advantage and influence skillfully. 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 Obama administration and the European Union 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.
Ethnic instability is endemic throughout the former Soviet Union. One example is Ukraine’s complex history of relations with Russia. The Russian revolution in 1917 sparked an independence movement. After years of struggle, Ukraine eventually was absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Above all, stay mindful that Putin not only survived but also advanced professionally in the KGB, the ruthless, murderous Soviet secret police.
Given this history, caution with alertness should define U.S. policy. Kennan insightfully advocated “containment” of Soviet communism, and that remains the best approach. Russia remains weak economically. That provides opportunity for the U.S., especially with the many ethnic populations within and surrounding Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin steadily expands Russia’s influence in the Middle East. President George H.W. Bush orchestrated victory in the First Gulf War and followed up with brilliant diplomatic leadership. Today, Russia has successfully reduced U.S. influence.
Putin’s press conference comments on Navalny showed a flash of the brutal KGB killer: “Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted, we would have finished the job.”
Political and media criticism of Donald Trump for being too friendly and accommodating to Putin has been constant. However, the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama were also guilty of naïveté about Russia.
Let us hope the Biden administration will be more realistic.
Learn more: John Lewis Gaddis, “George F. Kennan — An American Life” (Penguin Books).
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org