Politics & Policy

How to Defeat Putin

We should help rebuild a free Ukraine that will undermine totalitarianism in Russia.

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine is forcing many to grapple with the question of how Putin can be stopped. There are three options: military, economic, and political.

Plausible military actions could include reversing the administration’s capitulation in Syria, taking out the Iranian nuclear program, or knocking out the Monroe Doctrine–breaking regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela. While not stopping aggression against Ukraine directly, such moves would at least impose a cost on it and in any case serve to limit Russia’s global reach. But all actions of this sort also come at the cost of reinforcing Putin’s power at home, as Russians will inevitably rally round the flag when faced with a foreign opponent. So, while some such actions may be necessary to reestablish deterrence, they are at best a tactic for containment, offering no prospect of ultimate victory.

The economic strategy is more promising. The Putin regime’s income comes from oil and gas exports. If we could crash the price of these commodities, we could bankrupt the regime. This was, in fact, a significant component of the successful Reagan administration strategy that brought down the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Every year Russia exports 2.7 billion barrels of oil, while the U.S. imports 4 billion. If we could knock the price of oil down by $25 per barrel, we would take $67 billion per year out of the bank accounts of the Kremlin kleptocrats and put $100 billion per year in the pockets of the American public.

In addition to income, a great deal of the political leverage that the Putin regime has over Ukraine and Europe comes from its control over their natural-gas supplies. Making gas globally plentiful would take this weapon out of Putin’s hands. Our strategy, therefore, should be to flood the world with fuel. The federal government should end its policies of economic warfare against the United States and allow our nation to develop all its energy resources to the fullest, both for domestic use and for export. The blockade against American natural-gas exports needs to be lifted, and the war on coal needs to be ended, so that, instead of being wasted to replace perfectly good coal-generated electricity, our natural-gas exports can be expanded even further.

The use of methanol fuel (which can be readily made from natural gas) in motorized vehicles should be legalized, thereby allowing natural gas to supplement petroleum as a source of liquid transportation fuel, both here and abroad. The Keystone Pipeline should be completed without further delay, and other projects to help all our friends get their fuel to market should be facilitated. Government attempts to ban fracking should be aborted. The government should lift the burdensome regulations that have made the construction of nuclear power plants excessively expensive, thereby freeing up even more natural gas for direct use or for methanol manufacture. Finally, the government should reverse its policy of denying Ex-Im and World Bank credit for the construction of coal-fired power plants abroad. Wherever coal can economically compete with natural gas, it should be allowed to do so, thereby making more natural gas available everywhere it is really needed. This is especially important for Ukraine, which has vast coal reserves.

All of these are good moves and would be the right things to do for our economy regardless of any need to combat Putin. They also have the advantage of being in the interest of the vast majority of people on the planet, non-oligarch Russians included, as high energy prices serve as a massive regressive tax on the world economy. By making ourselves the champions of cheap energy, we will be the champions of humanity, with practically the whole world on our side of the barricades, and only the Putinite, Islamist, and a few other assorted OPEC kleptocrats on the other.

Yet, that said, such a strategy would take years to effect. What can be done to deal a strong blow against Putin now? This brings us to the most powerful strategy of all, which is political.

Putin has a very serious political weakness, and it is this: His government stinks. It is a regime based on theft and extortion, reinforced by lies and murder. Putin himself made his original fortune in the early 1990s, when he stole the funds that had been entrusted to him to buy food in Europe to relieve the starvation in Leningrad that occurred during the economic collapse following the fall of the Soviet Union. In what was called the second siege of Leningrad, thousands died, but Putin and his partners in crime got rich. Then Putin killed even more Russians when he had the FSB explode bombs in apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 to give himself the pretext to seize dictatorial powers. Those who exposed these crimes, such as former FSB operative Alexander Litvinenko, he had murdered. But those are just some of the most notorious examples of the regime’s corruption.

The reality is that the regime is corruption. It is not a government that exists to protect the lives and property of its citizens. It is a protection racket that exists to prey on and extort wealth from those under its power. This is true at every level, from Putin and others at the top making themselves fantastically rich by expropriating state assets, corporations, and the property of wealthy individuals at will, down to small-town police who demand and get payoffs from local businesses.

Now it is quite true that these abuses are not original with the Putin regime. Russian government is corrupt not because Vladimir Putin has absolute power. Russian government has been corrupt and always will be as long as any political figure there has absolute power.

Russia’s problem is constitutional. There is no division of powers. The judges, the police, and the legislature all work for the same people, and there is essentially no trial by jury. As a result, anyone can be arrested and accused of anything, and conviction is guaranteed. (The actual conviction rate in Russia today is over 99 percent. When leading regime opponent Alexei Navalny went on trial in Moscow last summer on phony charges, he was judged by a magistrate who has never found anyone innocent.) Russia has no laws that effectively constrain the strong or protect the weak. This means that no one’s life, liberty, or property is secure, as anyone can be imprisoned and expropriated at any time by those in control of the state.

Regardless of its lack of originality in this respect, Putin’s regime does, in fact, stink. How do we make use of that defect to defeat him?

The answer is that we don’t. The Ukrainians must — by rising to the occasion and, for the first time since the imposition of the Mongol yoke 750 years ago, creating a decent government in that part of the world.

Fixing Ukraine economically will take time, but given the will, a political fix could be effected immediately and turn the tables on Putin. What the Ukrainians need to do is take the ideological offensive and, acting as real democratic revolutionaries, proclaim a bill of rights modeled on the American one.

To understand the power of this, let us consider just one of our rights: trial by jury. Americans can live free from fear of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment because they know that any prosecutor who wants to throw them in jail can’t do it unless he can get twelve ordinary citizens, not in his employ, to all agree that a crime was in fact committed and that the defendant was indeed guilty. Russians and Ukrainians, by contrast, have never enjoyed any such protection and have been, within living memory, arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and executed, by the millions, for completely imaginary crimes. In Russia, or Ukraine, any cop, at any level, can threaten to accuse you of anything, and unless you pay him off, you face certain conviction.  As a result, no one is safe, and all must live in fear, hoping to escape the notice of those who hold such power over them.

So the right to trial by jury helps everyone. It means freedom from fear for everyone, regardless of one’s ethnic or linguistic background. If the new Ukrainian government had proclaimed that, along with the other protections in a new bill of rights, as their first act, they would have made clear to all Ukrainians, regardless of ethnic or religious background, that the triumph of the Maidan demonstrators over the Yanukovych regime meant their liberation. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian Rada did not do this but instead chose to play directly into Putin’s hand and fueled Kremlin attempts to alarm Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population by repealing the law recognizing Russian as a second official language. While this crazy move was subsequently vetoed by the new acting president, substantial damage was done, contributing to the loss of Crimea to Russian control, with potentially worse to follow.

There is still time to correct this, but perhaps not much. Putin’s adviser Alexander Dugin has broadcast the regime’s clear intent to foment, in the eastern half of Ukraine, civil war that would lead to Russian military intervention to “protect” Russia’s ethnic cousins. By boldly setting forth a bill of rights and taking other measures to guarantee separation of powers, limited government, and local democracy, Kiev could put this plan to rest, clarify where it stands before the entire world, and put Putin on the defensive as Russians, in Russia, begin to question why they should not enjoy similar rights too.

Furthermore, it is only by securing individual rights that Ukraine can obtain prosperity as well. Where the rights to person and property are secure, investment and enterprise will follow.

Provided that it takes this course, the new Ukrainian government should have our full-hearted support. That means not acting like skinflints and offering them an IMF loan package in exchange for austerity measures, which would guarantee gas-price riots followed by ethnic riots and then Russian occupation. Rather — provided, again, that the Ukrainian government takes the path of democratic revolution rather than the suicidal course of ethnic nationalism — we should treat Ukraine as a vital ally needing help and generously revive and rebuild it with all the economic and political aid of a full-bore Marshall Plan.

If it costs $15 billion, it will be worth it. If its costs $50 billion, it will be worth it. If it costs $100 billion, it will be worth it. We currently spend over $500 billion per year on our military budget. A new Cold War with a resurgent Eurasianist superpower would cost us trillions, with concomitant accelerated cancerous growth of the national-security state at home, millions of lives lost in endless brushfire wars abroad, and a revived threat of thermonuclear war hanging overhead for decades to come. In contrast, a successful free Ukraine means the liberation of Russia and the welcoming of that potentially great nation with all of its talent, inventiveness, and force into the family of the free.

The future history of the world may well be determined by decisions made in Kiev and Washington over the next few weeks. Will those in charge rise to the occasion? Based on past performance, the prospects are not promising. But, as Samuel Johnson observed, nothing so concentrates the mind as the prospect that one will be hanged in the morning. So perhaps the Ukrainian leadership will wake up. As for us, Churchill’s words offer the greatest grounds for hope. “The Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing,” he said, “after they have exhausted all the alternatives.”

The alternatives have been exhausted, so it’s time to do the right thing. Let’s do what it takes to beat Putin.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, has just been published by Encounter Books.


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