Vladimir Putin has the world’s attention this week. The circumstances will remind everyone that reset with Russia is dead. Its working hypothesis — that it was the George W. Bush administration, not the Putin regime, that had either inadvertently or provocatively offended the other’s sensibilities — was invented before the 2008 election on Obama’s partisan and political considerations, not empirical observation.
Under reset, the incoming Obama administration, more nuanced than the outgoing Bush administration and drawing on more enlightened thinking, would appeal to the better angels of Putin’s Russia. The more complex Obamaites would help enlighten the Putin autocracy to the fact that the U.S. and Russia had common interests in improving free trade. We really both wanted to calm world tensions while discouraging proliferation, combating terrorism, working with the United Nations, quelling international crises, and promoting human rights. Once Russians had been tutored about America’s good intentions, we could undo (“reset”) the damage done by the swaggering braggadocio of the interventionist prior administration. Misunderstanding and ill feelings, not ill intentions and malfeasance, were Russia’s sins.
And what is the result of reset? It is open Russian promotion of the Syria/Hezbollah/Iran axis that was active in Iraq and is now more so in Syria. It is Russian obstruction at the U.N. of most American initiatives. It is another round of strangulation of the former Soviet republics. It is satisfaction that a frustrated United States has been reduced to appeasement instead of taking serious steps to thwart Iranian nuclearization, as Putin eggs Iran on. It is more pressure on Eastern Europeans to look to the East, not to the West. It is humiliation of the European Union over Ukraine. It is more internal oppression of a brutal sort. And it is a gratuitous delight in exposing the Obama administration as sanctimonious and weak, while the U.S. lectures Russia on human rights, as if its tepid moral remonstrations de facto translate into shamed abidance. In sum, what the Obama administration is for, Putin is mostly against.
All that said, there is a value for us in Putin. I don’t mean the strange Pat Buchanan–style admiration for Putin’s creepy reactionary social agenda and his tirades about Western social decadence. Rather, I refer to Putin’s confidence in his unabashedly thuggish means, the brutal fashion in which a modern state so unapologetically embraces the premodern mind to go after its critics, be they journalists or academics, or stifles free debate without worry over Western censure. Putin is a mirror showing more than just what we should not be.
We in the West get into fiery debates over civil union versus gay marriage as the appropriate legal means of recognizing homosexual unions, with all the accompanying charges of insensitivity — without much notice of how the vast majority of gays are treated elsewhere in the world. In contrast, Putin, mostly to global silence, does nothing as his thugs with impunity terrorize gay activists (who mostly demonstrate for basic freedom of speech, not marriage). Miley Cyrus insults our sensibilities and becomes fabulously rich; the Pussy Rioters go to jail.
We in California divert life-saving water to save a baitfish; Putin’s $50 billion Olympics may prove to be an ecological disaster. We worry about global warming; Putin takes a subtropical resort and with enough crooked cash and smoky carbon fuel fabricates sufficient unnatural snow for the Olympics — without calling up Al Gore to see how many Amazon trees he needs to buy to win a carbon-offset exemption. We worry about the victims of WMDs in Syria; Putin worries whether the mass murderer Assad has enough sarin gas to do what he thinks necessary to preserve power. Putin breaks missile agreements; we consult legal dictionaries to ascertain whether he has. We try to convince Putin that our anti-ballistic-missile plan for Eastern Europe is to protect only against Iran. He knows it is. He also knows that we worry whether he knows it is intended only for the Iranian threat. And so he says it isn’t. And, presto, it isn’t.
Americans often talk grandly in melodramatic fashion of “speaking truth to power” — mostly on silly issues about which liberals talk tough to moderates, usually in the faculty lounge or at a Senate hearing, often before sharing cocktails afterward. Putin speaks power to truth — an unpredictable, unapologetic brute force of nature.