A Tin-Plated Dictator? Yes, but a Smart One We Can Do Business With
Vladimir Putin has been running Russia this entire millennium, whether as President or Prime Minister. He worked in the Soviet, then Russian, security services. Then he joined up with, and eventually succeeded, Boris Yeltsin.
He leads not only the world’s largest nation. But the planet’s largest producer of oil, and of natural gas. And the nation with the most nuclear weapons. Overall, Russia’s military forces rank second, only to the U.S. In addition, Orthodoxy, the third major branch of Christianity, has surged under Putin. The Russian Orthodox Church has over 100 million members, 38,000 churches and almost 1000 monasteries. Causing Stalin, no doubt, to spin in the Lake of Fire.
But Putin’s Russia also has problems. It’s gone downhill, from hybrid regime to “authoritarian democracy.” Russia has also had several wars. In Georgia, and in its occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. Islamic terrorism also bedevils the country. And Russia was hit particularly hard by Covid-19. Making existing demographic decline even worse.
Western views of Putin
Western leaders have generally seen Putin negatively. John McCain used to call him a “thug and murderer.” Hillary Clinton dismissed him as a “bully.” Condoleeza Rice disparaged him as “not wholly rational.” Some in the media even called him “another Hitler.” Barack Obama, less hysterically, saw the Russian leader as a “[Chicago] ward boss with nukes and a Security Council veto.”
Taking Stock of Russia’s Position
Before we do so, let’s take a look at the geopolitical situation from Putin’s, and Russia’s, perspective. Particularly valuable here is the chapter on Russia in Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. “You might think that no one is intent on invading Russia, but that is not how the Russians see it, and with good reason” (p. 13). Starting in the 17th century, Europeans have invaded Russia every hundred years or so. Poles, Swedes, French, then Germans. The last twice, in both world wars. So Ukraine joining NATO, or even flirting with the idea, sets off alarm bells in Moscow.
Furthermore, the first Russian state, over a millennium ago, began in Kiev. Only under Mongol attacks did it relocate to Moscow. As for Crimea, it “was part of Russia for two centuries, before being granted to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954 by President Khrushchev” (p. 24). And 60% of that territory is ethnically Russian. Perhaps most importantly, Russia’s only warm water port is Sevastopol. On the Crimean Peninsula.
But does Putin, now, want to take the rest of Ukraine by force? I agree with Marshall on this topic. Russia “does not need the headache that would bring. It is far less painful, and cheaper, to encourage unrest in the eastern borders of Ukraine and remind Kiev who controls energy supplies….” (p. 27). Why? In order to keep Ukraine out of NATO. This data does not excuse Russian meddling in its neighbors’ politics. Much less annexing Ukraine. But it does belie the claims of Putin being “irrational” or “Hitlerian.” And it makes American intervention even less logical.
Putin’s Grand Strategy?
Ukraine is important strategically. But it is the even higher level, of grand strategy, which Putin is contemplating. Last October the Russian President gave the keynote address at the Valdai Forum. This is Russia’s equivalent of Davos. This eye-opening lecture is extremely important to understanding him and the country he leads.
The speech was parsed by influential Russian academic Sergei Karaganov (who may also, as an advisor to Putin, have helped draft it). The starting point is that the West, and its (classical) liberal ideology, is spent. That dominated the globe for 500 years, and did defeat both fascism and communism. But it has transmogrified into decadent progressive liberalism. One that, as Putin points out, is obsessed with race, denies the biological facts of male and female, and refuses to teach the likes of Shakespeare. Proponents even “eliminate entire pages from their own history.” Which is “even worse than the agitprop department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” in its totalitarianism.
The ”Fourth Way”
What is needed is a “Fourth Political Theory” to replace fascism, communism and woke liberalism. This Putin calls “reasonable” or “optimistic conservatism.” He also says Russia is uniquely qualified to deliver it to the world. Why? Because of history. Russia has already gone down that road with the Bolsheviks. And survived. But only by throwing off their intolerant, illogical yoke. In fact, said Putin, “our society has developed what they now refer to as ‘herd immunity’ to extremism.”
There would need to be a spiritual aspect to this traditional conservatism. A Russian Orthodox one, primarily. One school of analysis says that Putin merely uses Orthodox Christianity to advance his, and his country’s power. But another acknowledges that there is something to Russia’s religious revival. And that Russia, under Putin, is “attempting to rebuild a nation with a soul.” Even that he may be a true Christian believer himself.
The author of this piece notes several upshots of this “Fourth Way.” If it catches on, we might see “a new Cold War, but with reversed roles.” The West pushing progressivism and even communism. Russia, conservativism. (Indeed, many American conservatives already see Putin as a stronger leader than Joe Biden.) Both political and religious. Orthodox Christianity rejects “wokeism” much more than Catholicism or Protestantism. Also, Western fears of a Russian-Chinese alliance are overblown. “The Kremlin openly criticizes Communist ideology as outdated and totalitarian, showing that Moscow will never be subordinate to Beijing.”
Why American Democrats Hate Putin
Putin calls, then, for nationalism over against globalism. A community of diverse nation-states, each bound to its own culture, tradition and religion. For “only sovereign states can effectively respond to the challenges of the times and demands of the citizens.” But a world where no culture attempts to impose its views on others. He says that the US and Europe have a right to go down the Bolshevik road, if they wish. “But we would like to ask them to keep out of our business as well. We have a different viewpoint. … We believe we must rely on our own spiritual values, our own historical tradition and the culture of our multiethnic nation.” No wonder the Democrats hate Putin more than they ever did the USSR. He stands athwart their “monstrous” agenda and shouts “no thanks.”
Putin as … Captain Kirk?!
Read Putin’s speech yourself. It’s hard to see the man who spoke those words as a “irrational.” In fact, he comes off as highly intelligent. Indeed, profound. And — dare I say it? A man we can do business with. Especially considering that it’s China, not Russia, seeking to supplant the US as the global hegemon. To steal lines from a Klingon commander describing the original Star Trek Captain, Kirk: Putin may be a “swaggering, overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood.” But he’s not soft. And he’s not stupid.
Timothy Furnish holds a Ph.D. in Islamic, World and African history from Ohio State University and a M.A. in Theology from Concordia Seminary. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and, later, civilian consultant to U.S. Special Operations Command. He’s the author of books on the Middle East and Middle-earth, a history professor and sometime media opiner (as, for example, on Fox News Channel’s War Stories: Fighting ISIS).