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How powerful and how threatening is Putin’s Russia?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Sberbank Chairman German Gref via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via Associated Press

With characteristic fanfare, and maximum media visibility, President Vladimir Putin of Russia appears to be escalating threats to the United States and wider NATO alliance, which binds Europe and North America. On June 2, Putin announced Russia might respond to a conventional military attack with nuclear weapons. This made news but is nothing new.

In 1982, Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, renounced first use of nuclear weapons in war and challenged other nations to do the same. This was widely, rightly dismissed as Cold War propaganda rather than true military doctrine.

In 1993, the successor government of Russia formally abandoned the pledge of no first use. This related to growing tensions with Ukraine, which retained nuclear weapons from the Soviet era. The following year, Ukraine destroyed those nuclear weapons and formally joined the 1968 treaty for nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

In a formal state speech on March 1, 2018, Putin announced the Avangard, a hypersonic cruise missile that can fly 27 times the speed of sound. This is one of a range of new weapons announced by the Russia regime, emphasizing advanced technological capabilities.

Russian leaders historically fear encirclement, and rightly respect the technological prowess of the United States. Putin’s actions reflect these anxieties.

Yet Russia today does not possess great international power or earlier totalitarian domestic political control. Annexation in 2014 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.

For the U.S. as well as the wider NATO alliance, effective policy must include understanding of 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 such concerns. 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 NATO expansion eastward. This included membership by both Georgia and Ukraine.

In 2008, conflict grew in Georgia involving the South Ossetia territory. In reaction, the Russian Army invaded. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France brokered the cease-fire. The inept Bush administration did nothing.

After annexing Crimea, Russia began armed support of Ukraine separatists. Ukraine and Russia historically entangle in complex ways. The Russian revolution in 1917 sparked an independence movement. After years of struggle, Ukraine eventually was absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Caution and discipline must define effective 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, followed by effective diplomacy.

Today, Putin has essentially replaced U.S. leadership there. Russia has supplied S-400 Triumf antiaircraft missiles to Turkey, a NATO ally at odds with the U.S. government. Weapons are instruments of policy as well as tools of war.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu